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Chef Jason Hughes setting bold course at Happy Hollow Country Club

March 23, 2015 2 comments

Omaha’s culinary scene is still more pedestrian than foodies would like, but there’s no doubt the city offers an ever expanding and interesting mix of restaurants.  Many of Omaha’s best eating out options are chef-owned or chef-driven places that range from fine dining to relaxed operations.  Many of the chefs making names for themselves here are heavy into and helping lead the farm to table movement.  Good eats are a major part of Omaha’s popular cultural districts, including the Old Market, Midtown, Dundee, and Benson.  Some star chefs do their best work at well-reviewed venues in those very same hubs.  Now, don’t get me wrong, the Burbs have their share of worthy chefs and spots, too.  Some great food can also be had at Omaha hotels and country clubs.  In this Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/) article I wrote you can read about the bold course that Happy Hollow Country Club executive chef Jason Hughes is setting there.  I can’t say I’ve tried his food yet, but I look forward to it.  Hughes is a lot like his peers on the culinary scene today in that he has years of academic training and practical experience and he strives to make the freshest, most flavorful, and creative dishes he can, all of it infused with love and, as as nod to his roots, a Southern twist.

 

 

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Chef Jason Hughes setting bold course at Happy Hollow Country Club

©by Leo Adam Biga

©Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Originally appeared in Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/)

 

Since assuming the executive chef position at Happy Hollow Country Club in 2013 Jason Hughes has emerged as one of the city’s new culinary stars, introducing a strong farm-to-table regimen there.

Not only has his cuisine earned raves from club members but last year he won Omaha’s Pinot, Pigs & Poets chef competition for his dish, “Heads or Tails.” The prize-winning meal featured braised pork cheek and pig tail croquette, house-cured bacon and oregonzola bread pudding, charred brussels sprout leaves with dried fruits and macron almonds, pickled watermelon rind and tart cherry mustard natural jus.

His entry represented the same locally-vended approach he takes at the club.

“I use a lot of local products,” he says. “I try to find out where things are raised. It helps to know where your food came from. I think it makes it taste better when there’s a story behind it or you’re helping out a small farmer and making a difference in their lives by supporting what they do.”

He’s developed relationships with local purveyors, sourcing everything from organic produce to poultry, pork beef, cheese and other dairy items from them. He takes advantage, too, of a chef’s garden on a dedicated patch of land next to the club’s golf course.

He didn’t always do food this way.

The Nashville, Tenn. native got his earliest cooking chops watching his mother prepare Southern comfort meals for his large family (he’s one of eight siblings). By 15 he was already working in the only industry he’s ever known. He rose up the kitchen ranks to become a trainer for Outback Steakhouse, opening several franchise sites in the mid-1990s.

He attended Western Kentucky University, where he met his wife Brandi (the couple have two boys), and they moved to Colorado, where his training went to the next level. He graduated cum laude from the prestigious culinary program at Johnson & Wales University. Then he learned under a series of top Colo. chefs, including Scott Coulter

“He kind of opened my eyes that food can be a lot different than just your standard corporation steakhouse or restaurant. That you can have an identity and be creative and do whatever you want to do with food. That there’s no boundaries.”

Hughes has occupied the private country club niche since the mid-2000s. He credits executive chef John York at the five-star Belle Mead Country Club in his hometown Nashville as his main influence.

“He kind of brought me to the level I’m at today. He made it a point to tell me there’s no reason I cant be doing what he’s doing and he gave me the private club chef head hunter that brought me to Omaha.”

Getting the Happy Hollow job required Hughes impress a search committee in the interview process and a Food Network-style blind cook-off that saw him prepare a gourmet meal for several folks on a tight deadline. He worked his magic with the ingredients provided, including cedar smoked pork tenderloin. He made a five onion bisque with smoked walleye and pike and grilled corn. He also did a beat carpaccio salad with cherries and smoked blue cheese.

His dazzling fare and Southern charm won over the committee and he’s been winning over members ever since.

“Jason’s impact has been astonishing. He’s elevated our culinary program and the culture of our club,” says general manager Jim Williamsen, who admires his passion. “This is just not what he does for a living, it’s clearly what he loves to do. He is a special talent.”

Hughes enjoys being in a niche where his abilities are appreciated.

“What I like about country clubs is you don’t have to be roped into one kind of cuisine. We have over 1,200 members here and there’s such a diversity of tastes and dislikes that we do different kinds of cuisines instead of just focused in on one,” says Hughes.

He recently returned from France and Spain with new recipes inspired by those national cuisines.

The “blase” stigma that once attended country club cuisine is no more.
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His prize-winning “Heads or Tails” dish in Omaha’s Pinot, Pigs & Poets chef competition

Braised pork cheek and pig tail croquette
House cured bacon and oregonzola bread pudding
Charred brussel sprout leaves with dried fruits and marcona almonds pickled watermelon rind
Tart cherry mustard natural jus

 

“There’s some people putting it out there in country clubs that could compete with anybody in any city,” he says,

He likes being in competitions to showcase his wares and “just to show that country clubs can cook, too.” He not only enjoys competing with fellow Omaha chefs like Clayton Chapman and Paul Kulik, but engaging them as peers. He finds the chef “camaraderie” here unique.

“Everybody’s really down-to-earth and wants everybody to do well. It’s not like they’re afraid to show you something or tell you about a product they’re getting. Everybody seems really friendly and wide open here compared to any other cities I’ve been. It’s just a cool scene as far as the chefs go in Omaha. It’s really neat”

Hughes also loves having a budget that allows him to hire the best staff – “I have a great team here” – and to fly in fresh seafood, for example, nearly every day from Maine, Florida, Hawaii.

His team extends to wife Brandi, without whose support and sacrifice, he says, “I would not be where I am today.” They love the outdoors and have their sons help in the garden. A year-plus in Omaha and Hughes is sure he’s found the right fit for him and his family with the vibrant culinary-culture scene, the warm people and the great schools.

“This place grows on you, for sure. It’s a great city.”

 

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