Posted on Sun, Oct. 10, 2004
"She has a great smile, and you can tell she’s singing from the heart "
Staff Writer

Chef is known for culinary skills, beautiful gospel voice and special relationship with her customers

It all started with a song.

Last summer, Columbus resident Mary Dana Knight went to lunch at Cafe 222 on Seventh Street. Dining with a friend who was celebrating her birthday, Knight requested that the cook sing for her friend. Annette Jones obliged and brought down the house with her own rendition of "Happy Birthday." And she’s been singing for customers ever since.

Now the main chef at the restaurant, Jones is neither a stranger to cooking nor to singing.

Her earliest memories of singing: Around age six, standing atop an old wooden soft drink crate to reach a microphone at church.

And of cooking: Watching her great-grandmother and grandmother make concoctions come to life in their country kitchens.

"I don’t measure anything. I know when it’s enough. They didn’t measure anything either. They just knew," said Jones. "I can look at it and tell. I don’t have to taste it."

Jones has worked at the downtown restaurant since December. The cafe is owned and operated by downtown residents Garry and Mamie Pound, who also own and operate the Rothschild-Pound House Inn.

Every day brings a new special at the Southern-fare restaurant, and the same could be said of Jones’ musical choices. She doesn’t always come out of the kitchen and sing for customers, but when she does, the homey dining room fills up with her booming voice, her range not limited to alto or soprano. Conversations cease. Patrons sometimes wipe away tears. There’s always applause, and sometimes a tip for the singer.

A recent weekday found Columbus resident Lee Hartline and her two adult children, Dr. Randy Hartline and Frieda Powell, enjoying a late lunch. Just the day before, Lee Hartline had buried her husband and the children’s father, Griff Hartline. When the family walked into the cafe, Jones — who had made Lee Hartline’s acquaintance before — hugged the widow and prayed with her quietly at a table.

Hartline and her children ordered their meal, as the wait staff nudged Jones to sing "Amazing Grace" for the family.

The 49-year-old cook, wearing a polo shirt under an apron with cherries on it, prayed to herself a half-minute before she started. The first few words of the song, like all that followed, were deep and rich and melodious. She sang only the first verse of the famous Christian hymn, but stretched it enough to offer its full effect. Her eyes were closed until she got to the words "… was blind but now I see." When she opened them, she saw her co-workers and her manager and the Hartline family crying quietly. "Thank you, Jesus," Jones whispered. She then gave Lee Hartline another long hug.

"Do you think I’ll ever quit crying?" Hartline asked.

Columbus attorney Mark Shelnutt is a regular at Cafe 222. With his office downtown, Shelnutt said he eats at the restaurant between two and four times a week. He’s heard Jones sing plenty of times.

"She has a great smile, and you can tell she’s singing from the heart," he said. As for her food, he loves the cornbread, the fresh vegetables and the cobbler.

"They load everything up," Shelnutt said.

The singer/cook speaks modestly of her gifts.

"My purpose in life is to reach out to other people. I forget about myself," Jones said. She also makes time to sing on the weekends with a gospel group called Evangelist Johnson and the Spiritual Echoes. Her church is St. Paul CME in Crawford, Ala. "I love others, and there’s nothing in this world I wouldn’t do to help a person. God gave me the ability to know when they have a need. The words of a song can touch so deep."

Sometimes she approaches customers, if she senses they are sad.

"I just know stuff. I know it’s God. I know something is going on with them and I’ll say, ‘Can I sing you a song?’ "

Jones’ co-workers and boss lavish her with praise and admiration. Cafe 222 waitresses Kayla McNabb, Robin McConnell and Kay Edmonds hug her frequently like they would a family member.

"She’s very talented and such an asset to the restaurant," said Cafe 222 manager Michelle Reeves, whose favorite dish of Jones’ is blackberry cobbler. Jones also makes a mean cornbread. It’s slightly sweet, and customers come in just for that, Jones said. Shelnutt the lawyer said he often saves his cornbread for dessert.

Then there’s the fried chicken. Fried green tomatoes. Hamburger steak. In other words, if you’re dieting or averse to Southern cooking, you’d better not darken the doors. And you have to be open to the possibility of the cook breaking out in song mid-meal.

"Her cooking tastes like childhood. That’s what I call it," Mary Dana Knight said. "There’s nothing low-carb about it."

"I don’t know which one I like better," Jones said, comparing the arts of cooking and singing. "I just like to tell people about God and how good he is."

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