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 the Completely KIDS-sponsored 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. 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 the age of 15 he was already working in the only industry he’s ever known. Hughes 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 Colorado chefs, including
“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 are no boundaries.”
Hughes has occupied the private country club arena 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 can’t be doing what he’s doing, and he gave me the private club chef headhunter that brought me to Omaha.”
Getting the Happy Hollow job required Hughes to 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,” says Happy Hollow general manager Jim Williamsen, who admires Hughes’ passion. “He’s elevated our culinary program and the culture of our club. 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,” he says, “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.”
He recently returned from France and Spain with new recipes inspired by those national cuisines.
The “blase” stigma once attached to country club cuisine is no more.
“There’s some people putting it out there in country clubs that could compete with anybody in any city,” he says.
Hughes 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,” Hughes adds. “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, and 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. After a year-plus in Omaha, 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,” he says. “It’s a great city.”