BUSINESS

Ravine: A gastronomic destination worthy of a road trip

A dinner dish at Ravine. Photo taken from Ravine's website.
A dinner dish at Ravine. Photo taken from Ravine’s website.

Michelle Bruce
Oxford Stories
mdbruce@go.olemiss.edu

You may already be wondering, What does ‘gastronomic’ mean? The word refers to gastronomy, or the practice or art of choosing, cooking and eating good food. These days, it may be difficult to find a restaurant of exceptional gastronomy. However, you may find that Ravine meets and exceeds all expectations.

Joel Graever Miller, 44, is the chef and owner of Ravine, a restaurant and inn located in Oxford in a charming valley surrounded by oak and pine trees. He has owned Ravine since its opening 14 years ago.

“The only way I was ever going to be an owner was if I owned the property as well,” Miller said. “The reason that Ravine is where it is, is because I found a place where I could buy land and the building. So I own all of it.”

Miller has had a taste for cooking from a young age. He studied business with a focus on management information systems in college, then realized he had a passion for food.

“They were teaching a computer language that was about 25 years outdated, so I kind of lost interest and focus on that degree,” Miller said. “At the same time, I was working in a restaurant, and there’s an adrenaline rush that goes with working in a restaurant that’s hard to replicate in other jobs.”

After quitting school to focus on restaurants, Miller was faced with a decision.

“I got about three more years in and realized I was good at it,” Miller said. “And my family said, ‘If you’re going to stick with it, you need to go to culinary school and do it correctly.’ So that was how it started, completely (by) accident.”

Miller attended Johnson & Wales University in Charleston, South Carolina and received an associate’s degree in culinary arts.

This is a photo of a table setting at Ravine. Photo by Michelle Bruce.
A table setting at Ravine. Photo by Michelle Bruce.

From 2000-2001, he worked in a restaurant at the Ritz-Carlton in New Orleans.

While most restaurants may not require their employees to have some level of experience, Miller prefers that they do.

“I’m much more discerning than you would say the average employer probably is,” Miller said. “I’m willing to give most people a chance, especially in the kitchen. . . . The front house servers, bartenders—I expect them to have some experience, although I’ve trained people without experience.”

While his staff is trained, Miller is knowledgeable about every aspect of his job and is able to step in if necessary.

“I’ve worked in a lot of places where owners don’t know how to cook, or they don’t know anything about wine, or they don’t know how to run their own point-of-sale system,” Miller said. “I know how to do all of it, so that makes me able to deal with all those things with my staff.”

This is a photo of Joel Miller (left) and his staff in the kitchen. Photo by Michelle Bruce.
Joel Miller (left) and his staff in the kitchen. Photo by Michelle Bruce.

Miller said he does “anything and everything” in the restaurant, whether that’s cooking, completing paperwork, or overseeing the Airbnb rental located next door. In addition to these tasks, Miller also prepares for the wine dinner Ravine has on one Wednesday of each month. This includes food prep, getting the wine ready, printing menus, and more.

Miller said if a worker doesn’t show up, he’ll do their job that night. He may not be the only person doing that job, but he’s always willing to help his staff. He said this is an important lesson he has learned in the restaurant business: “Be patient. Try to trust others to help you.”

Miller said his staff is held to high expectations, and that even if his employees are undergoing a transition process, they continue to maintain the same high standards.

“I think most of Oxford wasn’t used to this level of service when we opened and the expectations that we have. And I think . . . the service is better now, as a whole, in Oxford than it used to be.”

The way the staff operates is incredibly important to Miller. He says it’s one of the things that makes Ravine special.

“I have staff that care about their job and believe in personal responsibility and a correct way to do things,” Miller said. “That absolutely makes (Ravine) unique. And it goes for all of my staff, dishwashers to hosts—everybody.”

Additional qualities that make Ravine unique include the art covering its walls and Miller’s advocacy for the use of fresh, locally sourced food.

“Investing locally is good for customers, it’s good for the environment (because it travels less), it’s good for health, it’s good for the local economy,” Miller said. “That philosophy is something I’ve always focused on. (When) I lived in California, the locavore movement was very much a central focus, and that’s what I tried to bring here.”

This is a photo of the lake at Valley House Farm. Photo provided by Charles Cantrell.
The lake at Valley House Farm. Photo provided by Charles Cantrell.

One of the local purveyors that Ravine coordinates with is Valley House Farm in Oxford.

Charles Cantrell, 48, has owned Valley House Farm for seven years. Products the farm provides include lamb, eggs, and fresh fruits and vegetables. They have been supplying Ravine with eggs for almost as long as the farm has been open, as well as the occasional purchase of blueberries.

Cantrell said the farm has to “follow good manufacturing practices” to ensure that their eggs don’t contain salmonella. This includes inspections by the United States Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

“USDA APHIS does inspect (the eggs) if you’re selling (them) to restaurants,” Cantrell said. “We get inspected by APHIS every year, and they ensure the health of the flock that we have. They also test for things like salmonella to make sure that we are selling something that’s safe to the restaurants.”

This inspection isn’t a requirement for Valley House Farm because of their small size, but Cantrell says they prefer to do it anyway to ensure the safety of their products. He also noted that some restaurant owners may visit the farms they buy from to inspect the products themselves.

This is a photo of blueberries at Valley House Farm. Photo provided by Charles Cantrell.
Blueberries at Valley House Farm. Photo provided by Charles Cantrell.

“The restaurant owner can (go) to the farm and walk down the patches of blueberries or see the chickens and realize the conditions they’re being raised in,” Cantrell said. “(They can) infer from that the quality of what they are going to get.”

Cantrell also agrees with Miller that buying from local farmers is better for the environment.

“People are drawn to (locally sourced food) because it supports local farmers,” Cantrell said, “and you can also get a fresher product that way. It doesn’t travel as far, so you’re consuming fewer fossil fuels.”

As for the art on Ravine’s walls, it all belongs to Miller’s mother: “I used to have rotating artists, but it was too much to keep up with, so (my mother) said, ‘I’ll just do all of it.’” Some of her art is even for sale—just look for the pieces with name tags underneath.

This is a photo of the artwork at Ravine. Photo by Michelle Bruce.
Artwork at Ravine. Photo by Michelle Bruce.

According to Miller, staffing and attracting business are some of the biggest problems he faces as a business owner.

“Making sure the staff is trained properly and hiring people (can be difficult),” Miller said. “Also attracting business because most people in this town, whether it’s a student looking for a job or an adult looking for a place to eat, just default to the Square just because they don’t have an imagination.”

Miller further explained that driving a little longer for food was the norm when he lived in California.

“Going on a 30 minute drive one direction for a restaurant was common because restaurants were destinations,” Miller said, “whereas here in Oxford, they’re not always destinations. They’re just a place to fill up (your) stomach.”

Miller wants potential customers to understand that food isn’t just a means of survival, and that restaurants should be destinations, not just pit stops.

“I think Ravine isn’t ever heard about enough or talked about enough,” Miller said. “When people talk about places to eat—again, most default to the Square.”

Self-promotion is another difficulty that Miller faces.

“If I could find that way to promote myself better to get more people to come out here, absolutely,” Miller said. “I’m also content to have my little spot out here as well. I’d just get people to appreciate this place for what it is.”

This is a photo of the main interior of Ravine. Photo by Michelle Bruce.
The main interior of Ravine. Photo by Michelle Bruce.

Ravine is located at 53 County Road in Oxford. They’re open Thursdays from 6-9 p.m., Friday through Saturday from 6-10 p.m., and Sunday from 10:30 a.m.-2 p.m. and 6-9 p.m.

You can contact them at (662) 234-4555 or find out more information at http://www.oxfordravine.com. Reservations are recommended.

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