Chef Tom Gray is charming Jacksonville natives and visitors with fresh Florida ingredients.
Amidst the sea of chains in Jacksonville, Florida, one independent stands out—literally. Chef/owner Tom Gray built Moxie Kitchen + Cocktails as a brand new restaurant within a busy town center already experiencing chain restaurant domination by the likes of The Cheesecake Factory, P.F. Chang’s, The Capital Grille, Seasons 52, and more.
“We are such a proponent of our community and region, and we realized there was nothing representing Jacksonville in St. Johns Town Center,” says Chef Gray, who grew up in Jacksonville. He moved back in 1999 after cooking in New York, Napa Valley, and San Diego. Case in point: Chef Gray earned his stars and stripes helping to open a Wolfgang Puck outpost in San Diego, cooking at Asylum in Beverly Hills, helming the kitchen at the CIA Greystone’s main restaurant in Napa, and serving as executive chef of Dean & Deluca in California.
Prior to opening Moxie in November 2013, Chef Gray headed the kitchen at Bistro AIX, a French-Mediterranean restaurant where he was founding partner and executive chef for 13 years and where he earned two James Beard award nominations. Chef Gray sold his interest in Bistro AIX in 2012 as planning and development of Moxie Kitchen + Cocktails took shape.
Buying the land, financing, and building Moxie Kitchen took a long three years, but it was worth it. The modern-American restaurant showcases flavors from coast to coast, with a special emphasis on Florida seafood, citrus, and other native foods.
“Stylistically, we wanted to create fun dining. There are no white tablecloths, just bare wood tables and a wide-open kitchen,” says Chef Gray of the 180-seat restaurant and its 80 additional patio seats. “We looked to take down as many barriers to good hospitality as we could, and create something warm and inviting.” The restaurant was also constructed with some attention to building a sustainable design using LED lighting where possible as well as concrete, steel, and reclaimed wood from a family friend in Maine.
Spanning two floors, a staircase connects the casual downstairs space, which is outfitted with large leather booths and banquettes, and the high-energy upstairs dining room, which features expansive windows, red furniture, communal tables, and a bar. Chef Gray came up with the name based on the slang word for “gusto” (widely used in the South) and the trademark soda from Maine, where his father grew up. But the real moxie is in the menu, where Chef Gray focuses on locally sourced ingredients.
Jacksonville’s climate is different from other parts of the Sunshine State, and the region’s sandy soil and high humidity during the summer months can actually make it a challenging growing area. However, late summer and fall are characterized by cooler, drier weather, which support increased harvests from tender, curly kale to carrots, collard greens, radishes, and peppery scarlet turnips. In addition to these local delicacies, Chef Gray also sources beautiful greens like bibb lettuce, arugula, crunchy romaine, and tender red oak from a hydroponic grower not far away.
In the winter, he brings in the best of Florida citrus, primarily from Orlando, including acidic and sweet cara cara oranges, navel oranges, blood oranges, pomelos, lemons, and limes. He pairs the lot with different grain mixtures like sorghum, farro, and quinoa blends.
He also serves citrus alongside local seafood like Atlantic triggerfish, which has a clean, fresh, white-flesh taste and a texture like bass or red snapper when it’s simply seared in a hot pan. During local flounder digs, Chef Gray snatches up some beautiful catches, and he is also known to favor pink snapper, served with an apple-Yukon potato purée and roasted and smoked mushrooms. Over the last 14 years, starting with Bistro Aix, he’s fostered close relationships with local fishermen and suppliers.
“Our big storms and hurricanes are the only thing that might interrupt our fish season, but otherwise we have a pretty steady supply year-round,” says the chef.
In the spring, Chef Gray looks for delicate herbs and greens as well as cauliflower and thinner broccoli, almost like broccolini—crops that flourish when the nights are still cold. Come summer, he’ll grab as many ears of corn as he can, plus all kinds of field peas and beans, from black-eyed peas to fordhook lima beans, butter beans, and other shelling types.
For the restaurant’s proteins, Cognito Farm in Starke, Florida, has become a strong partner, supplying pork and beef raised in the most sustainable, time-honored farming methods possible. Moxie’s barbecue-glazed Cognito Farm pork with tasso ham and cornbread stuffing, chimichurri, and charred spring onions has become a crowd favorite.
Chef Gray also gets beef from Seminole Pride, one of the only beef growers in the region to exclusively breed and raise its beef in state. Others might start their cattle in Florida, but send them off to finishing lots elsewhere, he explains. The Seminole Pride products are used for Moxie’s popular Dr Pepper–glazed short ribs.
“The biggest difference between us and other restaurants in Jacksonville is that we deliver local cuisine,” says Chef Gray, who also buys pasture-raised pork, chickens, and eggs from another farm just 60 miles away. All told, he works with about 15 local suppliers.
From that, he crafts a locally infused menu with the likes of crispy, buttermilk-battered chicken livers (in lieu of wings), served with hot sauce, celery shavings, and a homemade blue cheese dip. He’s also served crispy pig ears and seared octopus. But he’ll balance the extremes with a recognizable wedge salad featuring smoked blue cheese, fried onions, and crisp bacon. And then there’s the grilled chicken sandwich with chow-chow, napa cabbage, and Sriracha mayonnaise, served on a brioche bun, which his regular customers call “life-changing.”
“We try to balance the fun, unusual, and outside-the-box menu items that you don’t see every day by putting them next to something our customers understand,” Chef Gray explains, adding it helps diners gain confidence and encourages them to try new things.
One tool of the trade for showcasing local meat, fish, and vegetables has become Chef Gray’s trusty live-fire grill. A self-contained unit with a wheel that raises the cooking platform up and down, this show-stopper can add extra flavor to all types of food—even charred tomato sauce—using a blend of mesquite charcoal and oak logs for strong heat and smoke. Another favorite tool is the plancha grill, which Chef Gray primarily uses to quickly sear fresh fish.
As evident by the name, cocktails are a strong component of Moxie Kitchen, as well. Developed by Chef Gray and the restaurant’s seasoned bar manager, Johnny Schaefer, the drink menu includes classic cocktails like Moscow Mules and Mai Tais, plus inventive concoctions like The Vegas, with Old Tom Gin, Domaine de Canton, Bauchant, Fernet Branca, lemon, demerara syrup, and orange bitters; The Marshall, with Del Maguey Crema de Mezcal, Aperol, and yellow chartreuse; and the floral Madewell, with Aylesbury Duck Vodka, honey liqueur, and Koval chrysanthemum. A short snacks menu of kettle corn, pickled eggs, vegetables, and other “carnival” favorites are available to complement the drinks.
Gray’s wife, Sarah, the restaurant’s marketing director and events manager, has been working to boost private events, which may be held in a downstairs area that can be closed off, or the restaurant’s entire second floor can be rented. In the latter case, the cook staff relies on the larger prep kitchen in back of the space to prepare the event menu.
The restaurant’s location in St. Johns Town Center, a 1.2-million-square-foot shopping center that consistently remains 99 percent leased with sales per square reported in the $650 to $700 range, has directly impacted the early success of Moxie. Serving dinner nightly, plus lunch six days a week and brunch on Sunday, the restaurant sees a packed house on most occasions. The central location, between the beach and downtown, attracts young locals, office workers, families, beachgoers, and tourists of all types.