Over the past seven years, Cotton Blues has become the premier destination for dining in Hattiesburg Mississippi. The restaurant’s commitment to celebrating the Southern Kitchen has resulted in elaborate dishes like their Praline Blackened Catfish and their Fried Green Tomatoes topped with tomato jam and pork belly. But the praise does not stop with appetizers and entrees. Thanks to a perfectly executed Lemon Icebox Pie and a top secret Cheesecake, patrons celebrate Cotton Blues desserts as some of the best in the south. The desserts are so popular, Pastry Chef Shaun Davis and his creations are somewhat of a local celebrity in the Hub City.
Coincidently, the menu at Cotton Blues is not the only thing that’s Mississippi Made. Both of Cotton Blues’ top chefs are also homegrown in Lamar County Mississippi, the same county where Cotton Blues now reigns the king of southern cuisine.
INSPIRED BY PUBLIC TELEVISION
Purvis, Mississippi, is a small town of about 2,300 people. It’s the county seat of Lamar County, but it has a fraction of the population of neighboring Hattiesburg, which is about 20 minutes away.
Purvis is also the hometown of Pastry Chef Davis. As a child growing up in a town with just two stop lights, Chef Davis says he didn’t have a whole lot of choices when it came to entertainment on the TV.
“I mean we had three channels when I was growing up, it was PBS, divorce court, and whatever else was on if it was a cloudless day,” says Davis.
Davis gravitated to cooking shows on PBS, especially, anything featuring Julia Child’s love for the culinary arts. For the young Davis, Child’s passion was infectious enough to motivate him to dive into the kitchen as a young teenager.
The aspiring chef would test his baking skills on his family and friends.
“I cooked in my church a lot,” says Davis. “I was on a Wednesday night supper team; we’d cook for like 120-150 people.”
THE LEAP OF FAITH
After graduating from high school, Davis decided to chase his dream. He applied to Le Cordon Bleu culinary school in Las Vegas and was accepted.
“Mom and I packed up my car, we drove out, and I was all alone in Vegas at age 18,” Davis says laughingly. “My mom is probably the most supportive person in my life.”
The leap of faith Davis took started to sink in on the first Sunday he was there. All the school offices were closed, and he didn’t know a soul.
“I’m just chilling at the hotel, by myself, and I’m just like, I’m really doing this. I’m 18 and from Mississippi and just chilling in Vegas.”
Davis was the youngest of his classmates, which ranged from age 18 – 65. He quickly learned that culinary school is not all fun and games. Le Cordon Bleu doesn’t just teach recipes; they show you how things work. They break down of the science of baking.
“Why you would use baking soda instead of baking powder?” says Davis. “What makes things rise, different mixing methods, the eight different types of flour.”
Davis finished at Le Cordon Bleu in two years. He wasn’t ready to come home to Purvis, but there was a problem. He was just 20 years old.
“I wasn’t old enough to work at any of the casinos, or anywhere you could actually make money.”
A KINDA CRUMBY START
Davis came home, with the intention of heading back to Las Vegas in a year. He first worked at a French Bakery in Hattiesburg named C’est la vie under the tutelage of Janusz Lukowski. Lukowski taught him about business and “money-saving hacks” when it comes to baking. Davis is thankful for the skills he learned, and he says he misses his old boss who passed unexpectedly in 2018.
But over time, the demands of having breakfast pastries ready at C’est la vie each day started to wear on Davis.
“I was sick and tired of waking up at five in the morning to go bake croissants,” says Davis. “They were awesome croissants, but I was just tired of being up that early.”
The young chef had hit a wall, and he was ready to quit and go back to college for something else.
“It had really made me not want to be a pastry chef if this is how it was going to be,” says Davis.
DISCOVERING THE PERFECT MIX
In early 2012, Davis says he met the Owner of Cotton Blues, Chris Ortego, through each other’s parents. In a weird twist of fate, Ortego’s dad had fallen off a ladder and went to the hospital. Davis’s mom was his nurse.
Having gotten Ortego’s phone number through his mom, Davis decided to give him a call.
At the time, Cotton Blues wasn’t even open yet, but the concept of the Southern restaurant was already on Ortego’s mind, and he knew he wanted Davis to be his pastry chef.
“How many times can you find a Le Cordon Bleu-trained chef with ties to Hattiesburg, Mississippi?” says Ortego.
For Davis, it was a much-needed change, but it wasn’t a walk in the park. Davis says the restaurant business is a lot more difficult than people realize.
“For example, a piece of Lemon Icebox Pie. You have to think through, making the crust, cooling the crust, grinding the crust, whether or not it freezes well,” says Davis. “You have to look at the quality of your lemons, how much lemon zests you’re going to get off those lemons. The yields, the costs, so you’ll know how much to charge on the menu and not lose money. Your labor, it’s a whole business, it’s not just the food.”
Fortunately, Davis says he enjoys the business side of the restaurant. Plus, he still loves to bake, even when he’s not making Cotton Blues desserts. Some of his favorite creations are bunt cakes, cookies, and his grandmother’s peanut butter fudge.
THE GROCERY EXPANSION
Davis doesn’t just oversee Cotton Blues desserts. He’s grown into one of Ortego’s closest confidants, and he is critical to the production of the Cotton Blues line of Cheesecakes that are available in local grocery stores in five states.
Of all of Cotton Blues desserts, the chef says he’s most proud of the Sea-Salted Caramel Swirl Cheesecake.
“It’s our best seller, aside from the original cheesecake, in both the grocery stores and the restaurant.”
GLAD TO BE HOME
The child that grew up just 20 minutes from Cotton Blues is now at peace with being back home. He says he loves the small town feel and all the attention over his desserts certainly doesn’t hurt.
“The amount of time that I don’t know people’s names and they know mine is still shocking to me,” says Davis. “It’s a good feeling. I like to get my ego stroked,” he says jokingly.
A few years ago, Davis received the best compliment of his life. He was catering a party in the Cotton Room at the restaurant and on the menu was Lemon Ice Box Pie.
“Dessert came out, and about three minutes later, I saw a man walking out of the Cotton Room onto the patio. He went out into the corner, and I went to go check on him,” says Davis. “He was crying because the Lemon Ice Box Pie reminded him of his grandmother that he had just lost a year prior.”
For Davis, moments like these make all the hard work worth it.
“The thought that I can emotionally connect with someone through a slice of dessert is the highest honor I can have,” says Davis.