The Executive Chef at the Omaha, Neb., club has won over diners with a strong farm-to-table regimen and prize-winning recipes.
Since assuming the Executive Chef position at the Happy Hollow Club in Omaha, Neb. in 2013, Jason Hughes has emerged as one of the city’s new culinary stars, a recent profile in Omaha Magazine reported.
Chef Hughes has introduced a strong farm-to-table regimen at the club that has earned raves from club members, Omaha Magazine reported, and also won a “Pinot, Pigs & Poets” chef competition in 2014, sponsored by the city’s Completely KIDS youth organization, for his “Heads or Tails” dish that 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.
That prize-winning entry represented the same locally vended approach that Chef Hughes emphasizes for all of his culinary efforts throughout the club, Omaha Magazine reported.
“I use a lot of local products,” he said. “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”
Chef Hughes has developed relationships with local purveyors, Omaha Magazine reported, 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.
Chef Hughes didn’t always cook this way, Omaha Magazine reported. A native of Nashville, Tenn., he 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, and quickly rose up through the kitchen ranks to become a trainer for Outback Steakhouse, opening several franchise sites in the mid-1990s.
Chef Hughes then attended Western Kentucky University, Omaha Magazine reported, where he met his wife, Brandi (the couple has two boys). They moved to Colorado, where his training went to the next level and he graduated cum laude from the prestigious culinary program at Johnson & Wales University. He then learned under a series of top Colorado chefs, including Scott Coulter, whose career has included work at the Shining Mountain Golf Club in Woodland Park, Colo.
“[Coulter] kind of opened my eyes that food can be a lot different than just your standard corporation steakhouse or restaurant,” Hughes told Omaha Magazine. “[He showed me] that you can have an identity and be creative and do whatever you want to do with food, [and] that there are no boundaries.”
Chef Hughes has worked in the private country club arena since the mid-2000s, Omaha Magazine reported, and credits Executive Chef John York at the five-star Belle Meade Country Club in his hometown of Nashville as his main influence.
“[Chef York] kind of brought me to the level I’m at today,” Hughes said. “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 [contact information for the] private club chef headhunter who brought me to Omaha.”
Getting the Happy Hollow job required Hughes to impress a search committee in an interview process that included a Food Network-style blind cookoff that saw him prepare a gourmet meal for several people on a tight deadline, Omaha Magazine reported. 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, and also did a beet carpaccio salad with cherries and smoked blue cheese.
His dazzling fare and Southern charm won over the Happy Hollow committee, Omaha Magazine reported, and he’s been winning over members ever since.
“Jason’s impact has been astonishing,” said Happy Hollow’s General Manager, Jim Williamsen, who express special admiration for 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.”
Chef Hughes now enjoys being in a niche where his abilities are appreciated, Omaha Magazine reported
“What I like about country clubs,” he said, “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, Omaha Magazine reported—and the fact that he plans to introduce them at Happy Hollow is more proof that 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,” Hughes said.
Hughes likes being in competitions to showcase his wares, Omaha Magazine reported, 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 also engaging them as peers. He finds the chef “camaraderie” in Omaha unique.
“Everybody’s really down-to-earth and wants everybody to do well,” he said. “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, Omaha Magazine reported
His team extends to wife, Brandi, without whose support and sacrifice, he said, “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 scene, the warm people, and the great schools, Omaha Magazine reported
“This place grows on you, for sure,” he says. “It’s a great city.”