Most people in Hattiesburg – especially those in downtown – are familiar with Carmen Hardy Ford and her culinary prowess at Gratefull Soul, the restaurant on Main Street she owns with her husband, Grant.
But if not for a change in pace during college, Carmen may have returned to her hometown of Philadelphia – with a much different career path.
“I was actually going to go and do casino hosting (after college),” she said. “Philadelphia has the Choctaw Indian casinos, and that’s what I was going to do – go back and manage the casino.”
But while attending the University of Southern Mississippi, a teacher in Carmen’s restaurant class convinced her to pursue the culinary industry. Thankfully for Pine Belt-area foodies, that’s exactly what she did.
“He told me basically that I was really good at this, and this is what I should do,” Carmen said. “So I took his advice and stuck with it.
“My grandmother was a really good cook, so I grew up helping her cook and watching her cook over the years. But I didn’t have my first restaurant job until 2003 – I was at O’Charley’s. I was a salad girl.”
While at Southern Miss, Carmen met Grant and later graduated in 2005 with a degree in hospitality management. From 2004 to 2014, she served as the executive chef for the Hattiesburg Convention Commission, where she was in charge of food service at all the commission’s facilities, including the Hattiesburg Zoo and Lake Terrace Convention Center.
“It was a great learning experience,” Carmen said. “I learned a lot, and met a lot of awesome people that I still keep in touch with today.”
In 2014, Carmen left the commission to start Gratefull Soul with Grant when the couple came across a good opportunity in downtown.
“It was just time for a new start, and the restaurant just kind of fell in our lap,” Carmen said. “We were friends with the guys who owned the building at that time, and they offered it to me and Grant.
“We had our families’ support behind us, so we were able to do it and jump on it. I’m really good at cooking vegetables and things like that, and we knew there was a need for a plate lunch spot – there weren’t many options in Hattiesburg at the time. Now, there are more that have followed suit, but at the time there was a real big need for it.”
As its name implies, the restaurant specializes in “soul food” with meat-and-two-sides or meat-and-three-sides options. Depending on the day of the week, lunch-goers can find anything from fried catfish, pork chops, tamale casserole, sweet potatoes and herb chicken to lima beans and pear salad.
And there’s certainly no shortage of desserts, with items like peach cobbler, sweet potato rolls with pecans, and white wine cake rounding out the menu.
The Gratefull Soul staff also offers select catering, although Carmen calls the Monday through Friday lunch the “bread and butter” of the restaurant.
“(My favorite part of the restaurant) is the people, for sure,” Carmen said. “It’s a joy to feed everybody and have them love the food.
“I wish that I could feed more. It’s a good feeling to know that everybody thinks you’re doing a good job.”
A good job indeed, as Gratefull Soul was recently named “Best Comfort Food” in Best of the Pine Belt voting, beating out Hattiesburg stalwarts Keg and Barrel, The Midtowner, The Front Porch and Cotton Blues.
“I was super surprised (to find out that we’d won),” Carmen said. I love that people find comfort in our food. I really love to cook; I just didn’t ever know I could make a living doing it.
“But we’ll be right where we are; we don’t plan on going anywhere. We’ll be there until we can’t be there anymore. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”