Tastemaker: Kelli Lemon of Mama J’s Kitchen, Richmond

by: Amy Ciarametaro

If you’re in Richmond’s Historic Jackson Ward during September #VaSpiritsMonth, make sure to stop by Mama J’s Kitchen and ask Kelli Lemon (like the fruit!) for the Tennyson Martini! Or, if you’re feeling adventurous, try your hand at prepping this simple cocktail at home.

September #VaSpiritsMonth Special Cocktail at Mama J’s Kitchen:
The Tennyson Martini, featuring KO Distilling Battle Standard Navy Strength Gin
2 oz. KO Distilling Battle Standard Navy Strength Gin
1/2 oz. Dry Vermouth
Splash of Tonic Water
Cucumber slices

Stir or shake the gin, vermouth and tonic in a mixing glass with ice. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Make a slit in cucumber and run around the rim and drop it in.

About the Tennyson Martini: The Tennyson is named after Frank Tennyson, one of Mama J’s regulars who passed away unexpectedly this year. Frank sat at their bar at least four or five times a week and was considered family.

Kelli Lemon never has idle hands! When she’s not busy managing Mama J’s Restaurant, she’s working as an on-air personality for Radio One Richmond. Oh, and she also hosts her own show, Coffee with Strangers, which features original and inspiring stories about Richmond residents. Kelli approaches her work at Mama J’s in the same manner she does the multiple shows she produces, with a focus on fellowship and hospitality in the River City.


This October will mark Kelli’s seventh year at Mama J’s. Speaking of Mama J’s, if you haven’t been, put them on your radar. Trillist.com recently named the restaurant one of the 50 Places to Eat Before You Die. There’s beauty in simplicity with only eight entrees on the menu, including fried chicken, baked chicken, catfish, trout, crab cakes, pork chops, spare ribs and beef tips. It’s southern soul food at its best. “We are extremely small with only ten tables,” says Kelli. “You cannot expect to have a private or intimate dinner at Mama J’s. The tables are so close that often times we see people that don’t know each other interacting.” Their motto is ”Welcome Home,“ and like Kelli says, “If you’ve been here once or 1,000 times… we treat everyone like family. Hugs, laughs, tears, every emotion that comes with being surrounded by family in a relaxed atmosphere!

If you aren’t already sold on Mama J’s for their ”dining at grandma’s house for Sunday night dinner” charm, then perhaps their signature drinks menu will pique your interests. Each drink is served in a mason jar and has a fun family name like Mama’s Pink Lemonade, Papa’s Punch, Uncle Rowland’s Limeade, and Auntie’s Chocolate Cake.

KO Gin Bottle shot

H. L. Mencken once said that the martini is “the only American invention as perfect as the sonnet.” The Tennyson is a sonnet indeed; featuring KO Distilling’s Battle Standard 142 Gin Navy Strength. It’s funny… every time I see a bartender try this gin, their eyes light up (translation: It’s goooood)! KO Distilling’s Battle Standard 142 Gin is New Western in style, where the juniper berries don’t overpower the more delicate botanicals, such as orange peel, cinnamon, coriander, cardamom and more.

One of the many reasons Kelli is a fan of #VaSpirits is because Mama J’s puts an emphasis on their community. Or as Kelli explains, “I’m a big fan of promoting local businesses. It’s a no-brainer to support products that are made right here in our own back yard.” And for this Kelli, we thank you.

*Rapid Fire with Kelli Lemon of Mama J’s*

#VaSpirits: Where were you born?

Kelli: Born in Hampton, Virginia, raised in Yorktown, Virginia, but moved to Hanover County my junior year of high school. I fell in love with RVA and knew that I would LIVE in the city. I’ve lived in my house over in Northside for 15 years.

#VaSpirits: Tell us some fun tidbits about your daily routine(s).

Kelli: I normally drink coffee when I get to the restaurant. I cannot get my day started without it. Then I go through all my social media accounts and grab another cup before I begin “work”. And because I’m such a fan of RVA, you can find me at a happy hour nightly. I love Pearl, Loft Seventeen, Bottoms Up, Hardywood, Sullivan’s, Fat Dragon, Lift, Sam Miller’s, I could go on and on.

#VaSpirits: Why do you support Virginia producers?

Kelli: Because it’s made here. You know the person behind the product. You know their story. It’s personable. We are also boosting our economy, providing jobs for our neighbors.

#VaSpirits: What was it that first inspired you to get into the F&B business?

Kelli: I started bartending house parties during my undergrad years at UVA. I was very intrigued with the hospitality industry and eventually wanted to own my own bar. I figured learning the ins and outs of the business would help me decide if I wanted to pursue this dream.

#VaSpirits: When you’re not drinking #VaSpirits, what do you enjoy drinking and why?

Kelli: Craft beers and Crown Royal. I love a good sour beer, and Crown Royal is one of the only things I can drink and function.

#VaSpirits: Lastly, tell us quirky tidbits about you that we wouldn’t be able to Google (until now)!

Kelli: I’m extremely nosy (e.g., Coffee with Strangers). I love greasy cheese pizza. I don’t watch scary movies. I hate bridges. And I would eat crabs for the rest of my life if that was my only option.

For more information on Mama J’s Kitchen, visit their website or follow them on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter

Photo credit: Jay Paul