Southern Host Entertains with Flair & Pizzazz
Story by Lyda Kay Ferree, The Southern Lifestyles Lady. Photography courtesy of Rebekah Hall.
Everything changed for young Jim Norton one Christmas Eve at his aunt’s house. She served homemade sausage balls, stuffed mushrooms and more, all on “fancy trays.” An obsession with entertaining was born.
Jim was raised in Sonoma County, California. He spent a lot of time with his grandmother, a quintessential southern cook. Fried chicken and mashed potatoes were the norm. They spent summers camping and catching fish. Jim’s grandfather cleaned the fish while his grandmother made hushpuppies and fried them. It was an idyllic childhood filled with love and laughter. Jim recalls that most meals were eaten at home and prepared by a mother who served a wide variety of cuisine.
At the age of 20, Jim decided to chase his dream of becoming a country music star. He packed up his ’86 Camaro, a boom box, a 99-cent blowup mattress, and headed to Nashville to “make it big.” He ended up in a “crummy, one-bedroom apartment,” and it wasn’t long before he realized the country music industry wanted him to be someone he wasn’t. He decided to take a new direction.
Soon thereafter, he met Robert, his partner of nearly 18 years. Together they settled into their dream home in Jackson, Tennessee and started a wholesale art business that has evolved into both interior design and furniture retail. Jim enjoyed remodeling their home, his favorite room being the two-story foyer with a double-curved staircase and domed ceiling. The room’s focal point is the baby grand piano, where friends gather after dinner. Often you may drive by and see Jim in the foyer alone singing at the top of his lungs, which lasts “until Robert shouts out for me to be quiet.”
For the past ten years, Jim’s love of cooking at home has evolved into something uniquely Jim. It’s simple food made with fewer ingredients and an elevated appearance. He, like many, lives in a small town with no specialty grocery stores, so his focus is on using basic ingredients and making them better. He has a gift of knowing which flavors will blend well to sing on a plate. He’s always searching for what he calls “the perfect spoon.” To those he serves he’s relatable. He didn’t attend culinary school, but he has some restaurant experience. He’s just someone with a passion for both food and entertaining and a serious knack for pulling it all together. Says Jim, “If I can do it, anyone can do it with a little practice and patience.”
Jim believes entertaining has three integral components: the food, the presentation and the host. The food may be created with practice by following recipes, by tasting and by trying new things. The presentation is all about making people feel special. He says you don’t need the finest crystal. “Just use what you have and show that you paid extra attention. Your guests will know you spent the time because you care.” Finally, the host is everything. “Have fun. Enjoy what you’re doing. There’s nothing better than seeing people gathered around your table enjoying a meal you prepared for them.”
When Jim and Robert aren’t entertaining in their gracious southern-style home, they are busy helping others. Each year they chair the West Tennessee Healthcare Foundation’s Charity Gala for 700 that benefits the Kirkland Cancer Center and the Ayers Children’s Medical Center in Jackson, TN. The Patron’s Party for 250 is held at their estate the evening prior to the Gala. Jim and Robert meticulously coordinate every detail for both events.
He’s come a long way. He entertains bigger than ever, he cooks better than ever, and he loves to live life on a grand scale. But somewhere deep inside Jim Norton is still that little boy who loved watching his grandmother fry fish every summer in a 100-degree trailer and who found his way to this wonderful life one Christmas Eve when he discovered just how grand “fancy” could be.
VIP: What is your hometown and why did you move to Jackson, Tennessee?
Jim Norton: My hometown was Cloverdale, California, which is what most people know as Sonoma County in the heart of wine country. After a brief stint in Nashville chasing the music scene I lived in Selmer. I frequently visited Jackson to shop, eat or see a movie. When Robert and I came to Jackson we drove by our present house and knew this was our house. We pulled up to the gate, which was locked. I didn’t care because I went around the columns and looked in the side windows. “We’ve got to make this happen,” I told Robert. I had always wanted a domed ceiling and columns. We were fortunate to purchase the house. That was the beginning of our relationship with West Tennessee Healthcare Foundation because the Foundation owned the home. After purchasing the house, we kept in contact with the Foundation, and we were invited to serve on the Gala committee. At a planning meeting someone mentioned the guests who travel to Jackson for the Gala. I thought why don’t we have a party on the Friday evening prior to the Saturday night gala for the special guests. That was the birth of the Patron’s Party in 2006. We have hosted the Patron’s Party every year since then. Shortly thereafter the Foundation asked me to chair the Gala. This will be my fourth year to chair the Gala, and we still host the Patron’s Party at our home too.
VIP: You are so generous to open your lovely home for community fundraisers. What do you most enjoy about the art of entertaining?
JN: The thing I enjoy most about entertaining is I feel as if I’m doing for other people. I’m a big gift giver. I love to give gifts because I enjoy seeing the reaction from the recipient. Having someone sit around the dinner table is very much the same. I get to select the menu, put it together and wrap it up in a pretty little package. It’s mostly all about the fellowship and the laughter around the table that comes with having friends and family to dinner.
VIP: Did you cook when you were a young boy or enjoy watching a relative cook? Who was the greatest influence on you in the art of cooking and entertaining?
JN: I cooked as a young boy. I was always enamored with cooking. Every summer my sister and I went camping with our grandparents in a travel trailer to Clear Lake in northern California where we spent a month with them. We caught catfish and blue gill if we got bored when Grandpa took us crawdading. We returned to the trailer and no matter the temperature, Grandma prepared food inside that hot little box. She fried the fish caught that day and served mashed potatoes or hushpuppies with the fish. I was more interested in the cooking than skinning and cleaning the fish. I can’t tell you the number of times my grandfather told me that I should go to culinary school to be a chef. I was only 10 or 12 years old. But back then men didn’t do that or so I thought. My aunt also influenced me. She is a big foodie and when I was growing up she served a huge spread on Christmas Eve. I have another aunt who owned a catering business, made wedding cakes and also made her own liqueurs.
VIP: What type of entertaining do you most enjoy? Formal or casual and why?
JN: I enjoy casual formal because I love for people to come to our house and feel comfortable. Our guests ask about the attire for the evening. I want guys to come in jeans and a button-up shirt and ladies in skirts or sometimes they wear jeans and heels. It’s casual, but when we sit down at the table I like the formality of a seated dinner. I don’t want guests getting their own food. I serve every course to each guest because I don’t want conversations to be interrupted. I love the formality of silverware, wine glasses and the candlelight. We always play music during dinner. Sometimes I grab a dinner guest and we two-step around the dining room table. It’s all about having a good time! When things are too formal, guests don’t feel comfortable.
VIP: Do you hire a caterer for the large parties you host, or do you prepare some or all of the dishes?
JN: For the Patron’s Party last year we had 275 guests. When a party is that big, we will choose the menu, but we have a caterer because I’m too focused on other things. The purchase of our home brought me back to what I really, really enjoy, which is entertaining, cooking and having friends and family in our home.
VIP: Describe a menu you might create for a small dinner party in November.
JN: I would probably serve cocktails and appetizers in the bar. Generally I will make two appetizers for a four-course meal. We move to the dining room and get seated. My first course might be pan seared scallops on a bed of sweet corn puree, roasted cauliflower bisque with golden raisins and white truffle oil, and the main course would be a pepper-crusted filet mignon with a red wine reduction served with mashed potatoes (I call it creamayo.) with sour cream, mayo and chives. Roasted balsamic Brussel sprouts with bacon would be my side dish and for dessert a cream cheese pumpkin mousse with homemade liqueur. I came up with a liqueur with vodka, Crown and brown sugar among other ingredients. I call it a Robert James Sweet Tennessee Liqueur. Guests ask where they may buy this liqueur.
VIP: What are your favorite Thanksgiving dishes to prepare?
JN: My favorite Thanksgiving dish is traditional stuffing. Cornbread and biscuit dressing. There is nothing better. There is nothing like a southern Thanksgiving!
VIP: If you could have only one cooking utensil in your kitchen, what would it be and why?
JN: A good knife. I don’t’ know what you’d do without it. You would be in big trouble. A good skillet is equally important.
VIP: What type of cuisine do you like to prepare?
JN: I call it elevated southern, meaning for example fried green tomatoes topped with an avocado and remoulade sauce, sour cream salsa and lemon juice drizzled over the top of the tomato. You get that bit of fried green tomato with the sauce and the creaminess of the avocado. It’s just so good! It’s still southern, but it has a southern spin. I don’t make my own wine, but don’t put it past me!
VIP: Do you have a favorite cookbook? You remind me of P. Allen Smith on HGTV, whom I had the pleasure of interviewing and having a private tour of Moss Mountain, one of his two homes in Arkansas. What a fabulous kitchen he has!
JN: Robert’s mother is like a Paula Deen figure. She loves to cook. She has thousands of cookbooks. There is nothing of hers that I’ve had that’s not really, really good.
VIP: You would like to host a talk show on The Food Network. What personality traits do you think a good food show host should have?
JN: Reliability is the major personality trait. People watch you and they need to feel as if they know you. A host should not take himself too seriously because things go wrong in the kitchen.
VIP: Who is one of your favorite hosts on The Food Network and why?
JN: I’m an Ina Garten fan because she comes across as very approachable. She seems truly nice and she is not afraid to tell people what they actually need. Also, she does not use a lot of bizarre ingredients. I have no interest in a dish that takes 20 ingredients, 6 steps and 14 hours to make! Besides, the majority of Americans live in a city like Jackson where we don’t have access to a lot of unusual ingredients.
VIP: What is the possibility of you hosting your own food show? I know this would be a dream come true for you.
JN: I’m still in the kitchen doing my own little videos. A producer has shown interest. Now we are in the process of talking to a few networks, throwing it out there to see what kind of response we get. It depends on who you know or who takes a liking to you. I’m not the best cook in the world, and I’m definitely not the worst. I’m not the best or worst in front of the camera. It takes someone seeing something special in you to believe in you and say ‘I think we should give this guy a shot.’ I hope I’m lucky enough to be one of those folks!
You may find Jim on social media on Facebook and Instagram @thenortonrecipe.
Decadent White Chocolate Cheesecake with Raspberry Creme
2 sleeves cinnamon graham crackers
7 tbsp butter (unsalted)
1/3 cup candied pecans
3 8oz blocks of cream cheese
11oz of premium white chocolate chips
1/3 cup sugar
1/2 cup heavy cream
2 tsp vanilla
Sour Cream Top Layer:
16oz sour cream
1/3 cup sugar
1 tsp vanilla
1 cup frozen raspberries
1 cup heavy cream
2 tbsp sugar
Preheat oven to 350°. Coat the inside (bottom and sides) of a 9” springform pan lightly with butter.
To make the crust:
Finely crush graham crackers into crumbs by hand in a Ziploc bag or in a food processor. Also, finely crush your candied pecans as well. Place the finely ground crackers and nuts in a mixing bowl. Add melted butter and mix ingredients well. Pour mixture into your springform pan and firmly pack into the bottom and about 2 inches up the sides. I have found a rubber spatula works well to pack and finish the sides of your crust. Bake for six minutes to set. Remove to cool slightly while making your filling. Lower oven temperature to 300°.
To make your filling:
In a microwave safe bowl, heat chocolate chips for 30 seconds. Remove, stir and add heavy cream to the chocolate. Return to microwave for an additional 30 seconds. At this point, most of the chips should be super soft or melted… Stir until smooth consistency. Set aside.
In a large mixing bowl, add your cream cheese, sugar, and vanilla. Beat with electric mixer until fluffy and smooth. Add your eggs one at a time, beating well between each egg. Pour your white chocolate mixture into the mixing bowl and beat until well blended. Pour your finished filling into your baked crust and smooth the top. Place on a baking sheet and bake for 55 minutes. Do not forget to place a pan of water on the lowest rack of the oven to create moisture while baking. When done, the center of the cheesecake will still be quite “wiggly.” Remove from the oven, set aside, and turn oven up to 400°. Now it’s time to make your sour cream topping.
To make your sour cream topping:
In a mixing bowl beat sour cream, sugar, and vanilla until well blended. Pour this mixture over your baked cheesecake covering the entire surface and return to the oven for 6 more minutes. Remove and cool. After approximately one hour, run a knife around the edge of your cheesecake to help prevent cracking. Cool an additional hour then place in your fridge.
To make the raspberry creme:
In a blender add frozen raspberries, sugar, and heavy cream. Blend on high until smooth. Do not over blend. Just blend till smooth.
Remove the side of your springform pan and slice. Place slices on individual plates and top with a large dollop of raspberry creme. Adding fresh raspberries or candied lemon makes a great garnish. Enjoy!