Madison County's Top Chefs


In recent years, Madison has become a magnet for chefs who bring Southern flavor to the table with a twist of refinement. Chefs Scott Koestler, Derek Emerson, and David Raines are among the most notable of Madison’s culinary superstars. 

Collectively, the three have established eight top restaurants in the metro area. Their backgrounds are diverse, ranging from self-taught to Michelin-star certified, but all three are seasoned chefs and award winners. In fact, the trio’s perspectives on restaurant ownership and approaches to the career are more alike than meets the eye.

Owner and chef of aptly-named steakhouse Koestler Prime, Scott Koestler stands out from the rest of the bunch as a self-taught chef. He learned his trade mostly from cookbooks and trial and error. “It’s definitely more of a flying-by-the-seat-of-your-pants experience,” he says, “but giving it enough time and enough hours in the kitchen, anyone can accomplish that.” 

Koestler has been cooking for around 30 years and running a restaurant for 22 of them, but his establishment in the Renaissance is a new endeavor: Koestler Prime moved in just two months after Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse moved out in May of 2018.

California-born, Mississippi-influenced Derek Emerson may have gotten his start in the food industry working for Subway at age 18, but over the following decade, he honed his trade in culinary school and worked in restaurants across the South. Then, just after turning 30, he and his wife, Jennifer, seized the opportunity to open a restaurant of their own in Jackson in 2001. It was Walker’s Drive-In, which the Emersons still own today along with their three other establishments: Local 463, Parlor Market, and CAET Seafood and Oysterette. 

Perhaps David Raines is the most travelled of the trio: from his former work in international trade to his experience in kitchens from Italy to Japan, Raines has trotted the globe; he even cooked for Michelin-starred Noma in Denmark. His career later took him to New Orleans, where he worked in Emeril Lagasse’s casual eatery NOLA.In the coming weeks he will opening of Raines Lakeside Grill in Madison County (exact location and concept to be announced). In addition, David is in final negotiations to be a part of the ambitious downtown development Mayor Mary Hawkins Butler is championing for the city of Madison.

Now, he brings his culinary experience to central Mississippi, taking premium Wagyu beef from his family’s ranch to the chopping block at The Flora Butcher and serving up lunch at Dave’s Triple B in Jackson. “People always ask me why I’m in Flora when they know my background,” he says, “but just because I know all these things doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy being at home in a nice town – everybody knows everybody, it’s super friendly. It’s like Mayberry, you know?”

Restaurant ownership is a career brimming with trials and triumphs, demanding hours, fluctuating income, and even legal battles. Most notably, the three have had to recover in the wake of recent precautionary closures, which have affected the entire restaurant industry. “When you’re thrown curveballs,” says Koestler, “you don’t really have a whole lot of choice, other than to learn how to deal with the current situation.”

Certainly, restaurant ownership and operation can be stressful, and when cooking is at the core of the job, it can be even harder to separate work from home. That’s likely why the consensus across all three chefs is that, more often than not, cooking stays out of their personal kitchens. “There’s not a lot of time at home,” explains Koestler. Chef Raines can relate. He usually clocks in at 15 to 17 hours a day, six days a week.

For Koestler, Emerson, and Raines, all of whom are fathers, family time is often a precious commodity. “While there is some cooking,” Koestler says, “you find your down time or time at home is a lot more resting and spending time with your family.”

“I think I’ve hired a babysitter once in my life,” says Raines. “We just spend all our time together when I’m not at work.”

Even on the job, Emerson and Koestler prefer to have their families at their side. Emerson’s wife, Jennifer, is his partner in two senses of the word. She’s the logistical mind behind their four establishments, frequently working, too, in the restaurants themselves. Meanwhile, Scott’s wife, Julie, and their children can often be found helping keep Koestler Prime running smoothly, typically working six days a week along with the chef.

Each of the chefs show an appreciation for all of the moving pieces that make up their businesses. “Without all of our key players that are at the restaurant,” as Emerson puts it, “I couldn’t do what I do, so it’s kind of as a group that we work together to be the best we can.” The three each credit their success to chefs, sous-chefs, farmers, family members, and the communities that provide the space for their restaurants to thrive. 

Of course, one of the most important propelling forces behind their restaurants is the customer. For Emerson, satisfied customers are more gratifying than any award – and he’s won a few. “Engagements to birthdays to special occasions to medical school graduations. Being able to be a part of that, a part of people’s lives, is always important to me,” he says.

Perhaps out of this appreciation, the chefs are dedicated to a high-quality approach to every aspect of their businesses – from product to preparation to plate. “I just want everything I do to be really legitimate,” as Raines says adamantly. “I used to do international trade, and I thought it was extremely shady, and I don’t like it, so I try to do everything very straightforward; you know, I don’t try to price-gouge. I don’t try to be sneaky and use an ingredient that’s not what it says it is.”

This priority of integrity is applied to the restaurants’ refrigerators, too. Much of the product at Raines’ establishments comes from his family’s ranch. Emerson cites local produce farmers as inspirations for his menu offerings. Koestler boasts procuring “prime beef, and a lot of fresh seafood, and a lot of really quality ingredients” for his dishes.

“I think that that is obviously my goal, at the end of the day, is to do something as best as you can, and hopefully it’s done very well,” says Chef Koestler. 

“You look back over several years,” he continues, “and – I don’t know – it’s kind of comforting to look where you are now. You know, that you’ve managed to not only have a business, but also raise a family. You know, I guess success is being able to juggle both, and where you are in life right now with the people around you.”

Restaurant ownership can certainly be a juggling act, especially when family life and a dedication to doing things right are added to the mix. It’s a good thing, then, that Koestler, Emerson, and Raines all agree that they’re lucky to be doing what they love.

Whether they’re sticking to the classics or bringing cutting-edge innovation to the kitchen, Chefs Koestler, Emerson, and Raines are making waves in Madison’s culinary scene. With their passion, talent, and persistence, the chefs are sure to remain metro area mainstays.