Chef Pierre Pryer’s Legacy: Iron Horse Grill
Chef Pierre Pryer Sr.’s first cooking encounter with Tex-Mex cuisine came when he crossed the border from dishwasher to line cook at the Iron Horse Grill.
A Jackson native and class of ’81 Murrah High grad, Pryer’s command of the kitchen is part of his lineage. His dad, King Solomon Pryer Sr., had worked in different restaurants, including the Country Club of Jackson. “I was inspired from that,” says the son, who had fast food and other cooking jobs before landing the dishwasher slot at the Iron Horse Grill in January 1987. He was 24 years old. “I’d never seen enchiladas, never eaten Mexican before. It was this whole new concept of food for me, and I was intrigued by it,” Pryer says. “It wasn’t stuffy, it was fun!”
Determined to learn it, he studied the line cooks and peppered the chef with questions. “Before long, one day a guy didn’t come in and someone said, ‘Pierre, get on the line and go make enchiladas.’ I got on the line and cooked, and I never went back to washing dishes again. And, the rest is history,” Pryer says. When the chef quit six months later, the owner thought Pryer could step up. With books and TV research and recipe testing, “It pretty much worked out,” Pryer says with an easy smile.
He was at the helm 12 years, except for a couple of brief stints away: in 1995 when the restaurant was sold and again in 1998. Pryer was headed back to the Iron Horse Grill in the fall of 1999. And then the unthinkable happened.
“I was coming down with my wife to have drinks, and it was on fire,” he says of that Halloween night. He sat outside, watching it burn to ruins, and his job go up in the smoke. “It was a part of me. .. It was like losing some of my heart, because I put a lot of work in this place.” Pryer got hired at the Country Club of Jackson and stayed there eight years, honing his skills and learning more.
The Phoenix Rises
Fifteen years later, he received a call to come back to a redeveloped Iron Horse Grill. “Too many wounds,” he says of his decision to decline the offer. But he came for dinner after a few months and, “It wasn’t what I thought it should be.” The new owner called again and seconds later, a friend rang with the same plea, telling Pryer, “It’s your legacy.” “I decided I was going to come on home,” Pryer says. That was February 2014.
Bayou Pasta adds a bit of Cajun flair to the Tex-Mex mix at The Iron Horse Grill
Still Having Fun in the Scratch Kitchen
The cooking’s still fun. Pryer’s face lights up when he zooms through the ingredients that make the Tex-Mex dishes zing with flavor — all the peppers, jalapeño, garlic, fresh corn, queso and much more in the scratch kitchen. Chicken enchiladas, Chef Pierre’s Habanero Pasta and his Navajo Chicken — Iron Horse Grill originals — still reign as favorites. “Chicken enchiladas and a nice margarita, yeah, you’re in the game. It’s good!” Pryer says.
The chips and salsa remain a stellar staple. Pryer’s Bayou Pasta, with crabmeat, shrimp, Cajun sausage and sun-dried tomatoes in a crawfish cream sauce, is an alluring addition. The iconic brick building, pulsing with a downtown vibe, is its own draw.
A cool mural sets the stage for live music Thursday through Saturday nights as well as a jazz brunch on Sundays, and seating on two levels can pack in 300. A miniature train winds through the rooms on an elevated track upfront, and the Mississippi Music Experience museum upstairs celebrates the state’s rich roots with life-size figures of musicians handcrafted by Anne Robin Luckett — Elvis Presley, B.B. King and more.
Pryer introduces another point of pride — a framed restaurant napkin signed by Dallas Cowboy Troy Aikman after the 1996 Super Bowl win, hanging over the bar. “I was able to cook for him, get an autograph from him and shake his hand. It was one of the biggest highlights of my career!” he grins. “Big music buff, big Cowboys fan, and I’m a pretty good cook,” Pryer says, chuckling. At 55, he still has the passion that drove him when he started here as a kid.
“I get up every morning, tired or not, with a fresh idea. I’m going to come in, make some good food and put a smile on a guest’s face and they’re going to love it. “This is what I was born to do.”