Cindy Kirk isn’t an ordinary lady. The restauranteur (owner of Stella) didn’t have
the most typical college experience, so she improvised along the way. HottyToddy.com’s Steve Vassallo met with Kirk to tell her story.
Steve Vassallo: Cindy, before discussing your Southern Methodist University (SMU) days (excluding Mustang football), please share with us a little about your childhood.
Cindy Kirk: I’m an only child and the black sheep of the family, being the only one born and raised outside the great state of Mississippi. I’m from Memphis, but I attended high school in Russellville, Arkansas.
Vassallo: Turning to your family, how did you and Chef Johnny meet?
Kirk: In a restaurant of course! In 2002, Johnny was the Executive Chef of McEwen’s in Memphis, and I was part of a group eating in their private dining room. Johnny and I met when he came down to meet everyone and check on our dinner. A couple of years later, we opened Stella in Memphis and then married in 2010.
Vassallo: You also fell in love with a farm in southern Mississippi that still motivates you today and your passion for animals. Tell us more about that.
Kirk: My family has had that place my entire life. I grew up out there riding horses, playing Tarzan with my cousins, swinging on vines over Gorges and Davis Lake. It’s about an hour from Oxford right in the middle of nowhere off the Natchez Trace and bordered by the Tom Bigbee National Forrest. It’s a beautiful and special place that holds many happy memories for me.
Vassallo: How does the farm interact with Stella?
Kirk: When Johnny first saw the farm, he said it was perfect land for raising pigs as there is a good ratio of pasture to woods with tons of nut and fruit trees. So now its a working farm that provides the restaurant with all of the pork, lamb and soon chicken. It’s great as it allows us to completely control the quality of the meat we serve our guests.
Vassallo: Most of us (including yours truly) looked forward to attending college football games at our undergraduate school of choice. However, in your case, it was taken away.
Kirk: I went to SMU in Dallas. My freshman year was the year SMU got the death penalty. We had no football program at all. They couldn’t even dress out and practice! It’s easy to be a Rebel fan because I have no real conflicting allegiance to any other program.
Vassallo: With football forbidden, you reverted to one of your childhood passions – modeling. And being in Dallas, it was the perfect fit (no pun intended).
Kirk: I don’t know if I would call it a passion, but modeling did allow me to travel and work on my own at a young age. I felt very grown up and independent. I worked at the Dallas Apparel Mart for several years through the Kim Dawson Agency.
Vassallo: Stella was quite successful in Memphis for many years. What led to bringing the five-star restaurant here to Oxford?
Kirk: We loved being part of Downtown Memphis’ renaissance but like many Ole Miss alumni, Johnny always wanted to move back to Oxford. We didn’t really plan to reopen the restaurant, but after living here three years, the old 208 space became available and we decided it was a good fit for us. It’s such a special location with a great history and having a restaurant is a perfect outlet to showcase the quality of the meat he is producing at Third Plate Pastures.
Vassallo: Johnny always chooses quality over quantity. Tell us about a few of his delicious dishes that we can order for our entrée.
Kirk: I would say that all the menu items are great and special in some way. We have a great burger, The Farm Burger, that is unique as it is made of 100 percent pork from TPP. The Scallop dish is beautifully presented, full of complex flavors and healthier than one would expect of typical restaurant food. The crab meat Johnny uses is of such high quality and so sweet, you can eat it like candy. He doesn’t use fillers in the crab cake, and people really appreciate that. Johnny is a great chef and has collected many awards and accolades over the years, but a compliment from a particular diner meant more to me than any of them. One of the owners of Antoine’s, the famous New Orleans restaurant called me over to the table to tell me our buttermilk fried oysters were “as good as Arnaud’s” which of course is renowned for their oysters.
Vassallo: Wow! Hasn’t Stella recently changed its hours of serving?
Kirk: We are now staying open all day on Fridays and Saturdays. Hours of operation are 4-10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, and 11 a.m.-3 p.m. on Sunday. We are closed on Mondays. Of course, we just experienced our first Double Decker Arts Festival and didn’t close until after midnight. I imagine that’s the way football season will be as well. As long as people want to come in and eat, we will serve them. That’s why they call this the hospitality industry.
Vassallo: Reflecting back on your modeling career, how did this occupation
commence at the age of 12?
Kirk: I did my first runway show for a friend of my mother’s. Then someone asked me to go to Dallas to work at the Apparel Mart. That’s where I met the folks at the Kim Dawson Agency.
Vassallo: For those unaware, how did the name for the restaurant come about?
Kirk: Stella was my great grandmother’s name. It was also the name of Johnny’s beloved black lab. We like to say it’s a family name on both sides. Restaurant patrons will see a picture of my Stella in the ladies room and a picture of Johnny’s Stella in the gents.
Vassallo: Let’s focus on your palate. What are your favorite foods and drinks?
Kirk: I’m an equal opportunity food lover. That’s my problem, I love it all! Not much of a beer girl, I live more by the saying that life is too short to drink bad wine. Not being much of a cook myself, I’m blessed to be married to a world-class chef. Left to my own devices, I will pour a glass of wine and eat cheese and crackers.
Vassallo: Between the farm and Stella, you don’t have much time to pursue
hobbies. But you’ve said traveling is at the top of your list when the opportunity presents itself. Why traveling?
Kirk: Johnny and I both love to travel. Having a restaurant and farm does curtail travel to short trips, but they are just as cherished by us as trips abroad. Time well spent is time well spent no matter the duration. The picture above was taken at The Queen’s Cup in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Vassallo: You all have been living in Oxford for the past three years. How is the
community agreeing with you?
Kirk: We love Oxford! Everything about it really. There is such a high quality of life here. I hope as Oxford grows – and it surely will continue to grow – we can retain the charm and grace that makes this place so special.
Steve Vassallo is a HottyToddy.com contributor. Steve writes on Ole Miss athletics, Oxford business, politics and other subjects. He is an Ole Miss grad and former radio announcer for the basketball team. Currently, Steve is a highly successful leader in the real estate business who lives in Oxford with his wife Rosie. You can contact Steve at firstname.lastname@example.org or call him at 985-852-7745.