Story and photos by Jennifer Kornegay
“I like playing with my food; I love trying new things and putting a new spin on classic dishes,” says JP Pendergrass, chef and owner of Gadsden’s JP & Son Café. With a rambunctious combo of bouncy zydeco tunes and the clinking forks of a full dining room in the background, he’s explaining the inspiration behind his eatery’s menu, which features a mix of New Orleans’ mainstays and his personal twists on the city’s culinary traditions.
And he’s not riffing on his own. As the restaurant’s name implies, his son Corrigan is beside him in the kitchen. “We play off each other with ideas, and we’re having fun,” Pendergrass says. “I hope we can build a real legacy here.”
Legacy may be a strong word for a spot still in its infancy; it celebrates six months of being open in April. But the crowds filling the small space, including repeat diners, are an equally strong and positive indication that Pendergrass is not wrong to think about the Café’s future. They’re lured by the Ragin’ Cajun Reuben, house-brined and smoked pastrami that’s sliced, mounded with Creole-mustard-based slaw and stuffed between toasted rye; wings rubbed with a blend of Cajun spices, smoked then fried and served with a sweet barbecue sauce for dipping; the Conecuh-beef mix patty of the Who Dat burger that’s smothered in Creole cream sauce and dusted with crushed Zydeco chips; and Pendergrass’ salad version of a signature Big Easy sandwich.
“The muffuletta salad is just all the great layers of the sandwich minus the bread,” he says. A drizzle of house-made pepper bacon vinaigrette complements the salt and tart of the salad’s chopped olive mix, taking things to a tangy new level of tastiness.
In a recent visit to the eatery, every plate in sight was cleaned of its generous portions, and yet, JP & Son does a brisk dessert business too. Pendergrass’ Rum Runner Banana Pudding, his mashup of an Alabama favorite with a NOLA standard, claimed best-seller status almost as soon as it hit the menu. “I wanted to deviate from regular Alabama banana pudding, so I infuse the pudding with rum and raisins, and I then make my own pecan shortbread cookies to replace the ‘nilla wafers,” Pendergrass says. “The result is kind of a cross of banana pudding and bread pudding.”
So far, every offering has found some fans, but the most popular dish is the gumbo; the restaurant goes through 50 gallons a week. “Mine is a blend of Cajun and Creole gumbo styles — it’s started with a roux but has okra too and tomatoes — so it’s my take on gumbo.” Working with both Cajun and Creole flavors feels natural to JP, who grew up right outside New Orleans. “It’s my roots; I just love to eat this kind of food and cook this type of food,” he says.
JP & Son may be Pendergrass’ first foray into restaurant ownership, but he’s been in the culinary world for decades. Or longer, if you count his childhood kitchen adventures. “I’ve always known I wanted to be in food,” he says. “I played ‘chef’ as a kid. I’d write out a menu and have my family order from it, then I’d make what they ordered.” And while some kids were out riding bikes or making mud pies on Saturdays, Pendergrass was trying out kinds of cheesecake. “I loved to make cheesecake and experiment with varieties, so that’s what I’d do on the weekends.”
He decided against the culinary school path and instead learned on the job, moving to California and working in some of the Golden State’s finest restaurants, including San Francisco’s House of Prime Rib. He and his then-teenage son moved back South and to Gadsden in 2012, where he began working for a new barbecue joint in town, Local Joe’s, helping it start its catering business.
After a short stint at a now-shuttered fine dining spot downtown, he returned to Local Joe’s and oversaw all its catering work. The owner was well aware of Pendergrass’ skills and encouraged him to put them to use working for himself. “He said I should I open my own place, and then this building (JP & Son’s location), which had been a Local Joe’s location, came open, and I knew it was time,” Pendergrass says. “I asked my son if he’d join me, and he said yes, so coming up with the name was easy.”
Everything else has been a bit more work, but so far, things are going “really great,” says Pendergrass. “The community is supporting us.” And not just in the cafe. Pendergrass is taking advantage of his catering knowledge, providing his Cajun-Creole dishes for a variety of events and occasions. He offers private chef dinners too and has plans to do more in 2023.
“We’ll be adding more specials at dinner, and we’ll be staying open later on Friday and Saturday nights,” he says. “We have to, to accommodate demand. I think people are enjoying what we’re doing here.”
JP & Son Café
Hours: 11 a.m.-2 p.m. and 4 p.m.-7 p.m.