For our money – and taste buds, 10 South Rooftop Bar & Grill in Vicksburg, Mississippi provides the best spot for watching a sunset overlooking the Mississippi River of any place we’ve visited – from Minnesota to New Orleans. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. This award-worthy rooftop restaurant has a backstory almost as big as it’s sweeping Mississippi River views.
A New Story for a 100-Year-Old Building
Around three years ago, my longtime friend, Chef Jay Parmegiani shared with me his plans to open a second restaurant. It was slated to serve fabulous views and amazing food—one-of-a-kind in the state of Mississippi. And, oh yeah… it was to be built on the tenth floor of a one hundred year old building in downtown Vicksburg, Mississippi.
Restaurants are in His Blood.
If there’s one thing Jay knows, it’s restaurants.
Restaurants aren’t just in Jay’s blood; they might be in his respiratory system as well.
When his parents divorced at a young age, Jay moved to Houston, TX with his mother, but at the ripe age of twelve, he moved back to Vicksburg to live with his father. Before he turned 13, he was cooking for guests at his father’s restaurant.
Jay continued down that culinary path with a stint at BRAVO! Italian Restaurant & Bar in Jackson on his way to culinary school before ultimately opening his first restaurant, ROCA Restaurant & Bar in Vicksburg. In short, he’s spent his whole life working in a kitchen somewhere. But no lifetime in a restaurant could have prepared him for the challenge of this venture called 10 South.
Visiting the Rooftop
I visited the Rooftop at 10 South several different times during construction, each visit building more anticipation for me. Jay would say honestly, “It’s opening in six to eight weeks. We’ll be ready to go.”
Months would go by with nothing more than a few scattered calls and texts, and I’d see signs of progress through the lens of social media. Jay would proudly post the progress. But behind the scenes, the process was less than glamorous.
The truth is that building a tenth floor onto a significant historical building is a tricky ordeal. Enormous cranes were required to raise the immense steel beams to the top of the building. The cranes blocked a major thoroughfare in the bustling downtown for weeks, yet miraculously, no accidents or injuries were recorded.
I started to poke fun at Jay, without having any idea of the stressful truth of the situation. “Next week, you gonna be open,” I’d ask laughingly. “Six to eight weeks” was always his honest reply.
A second visit months into the project revealed how painfully slow things were progressing. The visit was also painful due to the nine flights of stairs required to climb to get to the top; because adding a floor means extending the elevator shaft – and that project was also more complicated than first anticipated – and unfinished at the time of my visit.
In the dusk of a chilly Mississippi winter evening, my wife and kids joined me on the trek to see the place where the new restaurant was intended to live, on the new top floor of the historic First National Bank building perched along the steep bluff in downtown Vicksburg.
The site was a mess of construction tools, and there was no real railing on the edge of the building. It was a frightening floor – that wasn’t really a floor yet. We walked on joists that creaked and felt like they gave under each step – beams that were simply the top of the roof of the floor below.
I’m not scared of heights, but I’m VERY comforted by the railings and guide wires that keep things where they need to be. This was a riveting encounter: sweeping river views with no boundaries and a proud chef excitedly telling us where things were going to go – from the fairly small kitchen to the upstairs office, the bar area, the garage door openings that would be able to open and close with the weather – they were all explained in great detail.
From that moment on, our family was vested and followed the project. My kids would frequently ask me, “Did Chef Jay ever open his restaurant?”
“Not yet,” I’d reply.
“Not yet,” I’d reply. For Two More Years.
As the construction project entered its second year, rumors began to swirl in small town Vicksburg. “He’s going bankrupt” and other sinister whisperings circulated the community and beyond.
Honestly believing all along that the opening was a mere six to eight weeks away and not anticipating the architectural, construction or compliance struggles that would ensue throughout the process, Jay had hired the staff, trained them, developed the menu, tested the menu, tweaked the menu and tested it again. He had spent marketing dollars to build a following for a restaurant that wasn’t yet.
And now, he was waiting on plumbers, the installation of kitchen equipment or electrical. A wall had to be moved because someone measured wrong and even in its final days of construction there were issues with the arrangement of the kitchen.
There was enough waiting for three restaurants to be built from the ground up. And there was no reprieve. Antsy is how a pregnant woman acts at 39 weeks. Pardon my analogy, but Jay was like that same woman – at 60 weeks.
“…I was completely broke…”
Two years deep in what was supposed to be more like a six-month project, Jay described his emotion to me: “I was a wreck emotionally, physically and spiritually… Oh, and financially too. Emotionally, the waiting, and realizing it wasn’t really going to be six to eight weeks was awful. Knowing it would take more than that, but yet hope remained it could be completed soon. I was completely broke and had spent TON out of pocket.”
Jay and his wife, Kara, have four boys, and in that context, he shared the fear of having spent every penny of the savings he’d tucked away plus some. At the end of his “investment” he feared he would have nothing to show for it – nothing to serve a guest or any way to recoup his investment. The rumors were closer to the truth than any of us realized.
Jay said, “There was a time Kara called and said ‘the water is cut off at the house.’ That s*** is real, it creates unreal stress on your relationships. It wasn’t just that once. There was the gas company, the electric company, and others …”
Jay’s whole world was as close to collapse as he could ever imagine. “I didn’t have a backup plan. I went all in to get the restaurant open. If I failed, I’d be a sous chef at the Ameristar Casino kissing some chef’s balls every day,” he said.
Failure wasn’t an option, yet as he recounted the story, he said it seemed almost unavoidable at times.
It felt like everything that could get delayed was delayed – not because of human error – but because the building was old. For example, even the steel beams that would frame the restaurant were a small disaster. When they finally arrived (six to eight weeks behind schedule), contractors discovered that they weren’t the right length. The “wonders” of working on an old building meant the building had shifted and the rooftop wasn’t square. So, the beams had to be raised – not bundled as planned – one at a time and adjusted to the correct length one at a time on the top of the building.
His wife Kara recalls, “The hardest thing about it was the wait! Never knowing when it would be open. They kept saying three months then two more months… People would constantly ask when would be open, and I would tell them six to eight weeks because that is what I was always told!”
Jay was in the middle of the financial do or die – go big or go home moment of his life. If he survived, he believed the restaurant would be a huge hit. If he failed, he’d lose both restaurants, possibly his home and surely his reputation.
There’s something in that Parmegiani blood that brings them to the kitchen – and people like us to their tables. But tradition and history don’t make a restaurant happen – money does. And Jay had run out of money.
The Opening – May 2015
Jay recalls that he told his partner Tim Cantwell, who was the developer of the building, that “we have to open on Wednesday.” He said he remembers feeling like there was no other option.
Now, it was up to his chef, Kevin Roberts and the long-ago trained staff to deliver on all the promises they’d been making for the past three years on Facebook and in the media. So, while the rooftop posed unforeseen operational challenges that no traditional restaurant should face, it was time.
And just like that, 10 South opened on the new top (mostly open air) floor of the absolutely stunningly restored First National Bank building in downtown Vicksburg.
And it was a huge hit.
Sadly, I missed the Friends & Family soft opening. And I missed the official opening. I was eager for my schedule to allow me to experience the new life in our Southern restaurant scene as it was taking its first few breaths. I remember cheering from afar that this baby, however breech the birth had been, whatever complications had ensued, was finally, safely delivered. And all were doing well.
October 9th, 2015 – Four Months After Opening
On this blustery fall evening, I finally had my first real meal at 10 South.
It was the most anticipated meal I’ve had to date, besting – in my mind – my first (quite religious) dining experience at the James Beard House in New York City. It was also more exciting, in my mind, than any of our own events.
I felt like I’d been a small part, as I’d cheered from the sidelines for over two years, of the blood, sweat and tears of this place being built and finished. I had arranged for us to stay at the beautifully renovated luxury apartments below 10 South and had an entirely empty schedule and empty stomach to match.
The restaurant had been open for five months, but it was my first time to eat the food and feel the vibe. I was more than ecstatic… I was like a crazy uncle showing up at the hospital to see the newborn.
We arrived in time to start watching the sun fall from the sky. Chef Kevin Roberts greeted us with his trademark Cheshire cat grin wearing an Atlanta Braves cap slapped backwards on his head.
“What’d ya think?” he beamed as we stepped off the elevator into what was already a bustling crowd of folks.
The servers, busboys and bartenders were all hustling around taking care of guests, and there was a definite hum about the place. It was that hum that means happy customers and happy owners. Kevin walked us around showing us the finished product.
Finally. It was open, and finally, we were going to eat. With glee we took our seats on the western side of the restaurant at a table with an umbrella in the open air with view of the Mississippi River and the sunset. We could see the bar; we could see and hear the two Blues musicians jamming in the corner, soulfully adding layers of musical texture to the view, tastes and smells of the rooftop. I tried to stay seated, but I kept leaving to take photos of plates of food streaming out of the kitchen and various sights and sounds all so much more exciting because it was on the roof.
Kevin sent a flurry of plates and bites that kept us entertained. The food was fabulous. Every single bite from the pretzels and honey mustard concoction that come to each table upon arrival to the appetizers to that long awaited ribeye steak were perfect. Each flavor seemingly enhanced by the sunset and the view. It was a truly momentous occasion celebrating what seemed like a decade of labor.
We feasted like king and queen. Later, I even joined the gentlemen singing the blues and played guitar and sang a tune with them. It was truly one of my favorite nights of food and celebration ever, and it was so much sweeter, having known the effort to build it.
And the Reviews Are In.
In the months after opening, with the biggest hurdle crossed, Jay and his business partner Tim continued to tweak the restaurant, adding fans and shade for more seating and ultimately sealing it in for the winter while maintaining the views.
And the reviews were in. Rave reviews.
Travelers from across the area stopped to see and eat at 10 South. Local celebrities made a point to visit including “Mrs. Kaye” from Duck Dynasty fame. 10 South won accolades from the press and high marks from many of those who give them in the food realm. Folks started coming to Vicksburg just to eat at 10 South, creating even more of draw to the gem that is Vicksburg.
The opening push was enough to survive the initial financial pressure, and as such, Jay was able to continue to juggle – catching up on his bills while walking the treacherous financial tightrope.
The Next Season for Chef Jay Parmegiani
Life has a way of issuing us some challenging seasons and for Jay, this one left him with a new crop of gray hairs and just enough cash to squeak through to the next adventure.
Jay continues to operate both restaurants, and Vicksburg is happy to have him.
I asked Jay if he’d do it all over again. “Hell no. Never. &#!? NO. . F%$ no! Not in a million years…”
After a pause, he said, “I mean, if the plans were all laid out, and I didn’t have to actually design everything on the fly, maybe.”
I laughed, restaurants aren’t just in his blood; it’s definitely moved to his respiratory system.
Editors Note: Jay recently spent the better part of 2017 moving his first restaurant, ROCA Restaurant & Bar, to a building across the street from the First National Bank building in downtown Vicksburg. The process included a significant construction project in another old building that definitely took longer than “six to eight weeks.”
Visit Parmegiani’s 10 South Rooftop Bar & Grill for lunch or dinner Tuesday through Sunday and ROCA Restaurant Tuesday through Saturday for lunch or dinner.