By ANGYE MORRISON
As a homegrown Statesboro chef, Jordan Gunter knows that finding local items to cook with is of utmost importance.
Gunter was born and raised in the Boro, and attended Georgia Southern University. He started out studying music, then changed to marketing. He’s been working in kitchens since he was 17, but never had a clue he’d wind up a chef.
He started at Emma’s at the Holiday Inn, working as a server, then moving into catering. Gunter says he worked there for about four years, and then he moved on to work in beer and wine at Eagle Creek Brewing Company in Statesboro, where he did tours and sales.
He later moved on to work at Gee Da’s, where he became the sous chef under head chef Sebastian Alzatate. After Alzatate left, Gunter became executive chef. During all of this, he worked in hospitality at AmericasMart in Atlanta each summer. It was that experience that led him to fall in love with the idea of being a chef.
Gunter says he worked for an amazing manager in Atlanta, who took the entire hospitality staff out to some of Atlanta’s finer restaurants. It was his first time dining in such places.
“It was my first experience in a really nice restaurant. I really kind of fell in love with it,” he said.
Gunter, who is now the head chef at Sugar Magnolia’s in Statesboro, has been moving toward being a chef for most of his life, but just didn’t know it. He says he’s been cooking since he was 8 and making Kraft mac and cheese with his mother, a great cook and baker herself. He began collecting cookbooks in college.
“I think my favorite is Julia Child’s ‘The Art of French Cooking,’” he said. “I’ve gone through the whole book. A lot of the recipes at Sugar Magnolia’s are variations of some of her recipes.”
He also loves cookbook author Edna Lewis.
“She was a great pioneer in soul food. She was one of the first African-American women to be published in cookbooks,” he said.
Gunter says he enjoys playing with new ingredients.
“We’ve got some great partnerships at Sugar Magnolia’s with what I would say are the best distributors you can get here,” he said.
At Sugar Magnolia’s, Gunter says they get their meats whole from local distributors, and they do the cuts themselves for steaks and other dishes. Gunter has also worked to establish good relationships with local farmers.
“To me, I don’t have the classic culinary training, but I do try hard. I think if you source your food locally, and you take your time and get to know your farmers, you can really do some cool stuff with what we have around here,” he said.
Gunter feels that much of the food scene in Statesboro is “corporate food,” which he says is basically reheated from bags. And that’s what sets Sugar Magnolia’s apart.
“What we try to do is, we are a from-scratch kitchen. We do everything from scratch; from sauces to hand cutting all of our meats. We have basically a very small operation,” he said.
When asked what his specialty is, Gunter says that he believes everything at Sugar Magnolia’s is special.
“I think we have a strong French influence that is pervasive through a lot of our dishes. We borrow from a lot of traditions. A lot of stuff is very Southern. I would say it’s kind of like an American-French fusion. It’s contemporary American cuisine,” he said.
Sugar Magnolia’s closed down a couple of years ago, and was purchased and revamped by current owners Caroline and Gene Joyner. They worked to expand the reach of the restaurant, while keeping what the community had come to know and love about the place.
Sharena Williams had worked under the original owner and stayed on as head baker. She makes all the pastries, cakes and pies. The Joyners brought Gunter on as head chef, and the operation has expanded to five menus covering breakfast, lunch and dinner, brunch on the weekends, and a full menu of signature cocktails, beers and wines. They are currently working on a bakery distribution center, as the restaurant has outgrown its kitchen.
“Their focus when they brought me on is obviously, we want it to be profitable, which is really hard for a mom and pop in a small town. But we also want to focus on local ingredients and the freshness of those ingredients, and keeping it from scratch,” Gunter said.
One of the things he’s particularly proud of is the house-made sauces. Gunter makes a demi glace that is made with 70 pounds of veal bones and about 30 pounds of beef bones. He makes it every couple of months.
“It takes a few days, but I think it’s pretty special. It’s definitely something no one else is doing,” he said.
Being a chef has taught Gunter a lot.
“It’s taught me a great deal of patience, with food, but also with people. It’s definitely taught me there’s a certain level of seriousness to it, but at the same time, you have to let some things go. You have to be able to really prioritize your time. Interpersonal relationships are so important, you know, with your distributors, farmers and staff,” he said.
Gunter says the staff at Sugar Magnolia is like a family.
“I get to manage the food aspect, which is what I have the most fun with. But also, I get to try and help (the restaurant) grow and help (the owners) succeed with their goals. And that’s fun to watch, “ he said.
Gunter stresses that supporting locally-owned business is crucial.
“I feel like Statesboro, we have these small restaurants that open up, then close. It felt like Statesboro was a food desert. So it’s really important that people realize that it’s so important to go out and support these local businesses, these mom and pop shops, these downtown businesses. We are providing a special service to the community, that without it, it kind of cheapens the community here. You’re really supporting your friends and neighbors, instead of a corporation,” he said.
He adds that Sugar Magnolia’s has been blessed.
“We have been so blessed to have so much local love. There are people who come to eat at Sugar multiple times a week. That’s so special, and I take it as a great compliment,” he said.
Gunter is thankful also to be doing what he loves in a place that he loves.
“I feel like I kind of fell into this. It’s not something that I ever thought I’d be doing, but it’s something that I can’t see myself not doing now,” he said.