What do we do when one of our favorite Georgia chefs moves to Virginia? Visit him, of course.
We recently met up with Chef Jason Brumfiel inside Jefferson’s Restaurant & Bar at Omni Homestead Resort, where he now helms the kitchen.
By Hope S. Philbrick
Spend any time with Chef Jason Brumfiel and one thing is clear: This guy has a passion for food and dining. He can talk for hours about ingredients and the nuances of service that differentiate top-notch from also-rans. He gets a glimmer in his eye when talking about favorite ingredients like Georgia shrimp, a fatherly tone in his voice when explaining why little things like picking cigarette butts up off the parking lot is every staffer’s job, and nearly jumps when describing his ideas for new recipes. His enthusiasm and skill are just two reasons why he’s fun to be around and why he’s who you want preparing your next meal.
We first met Brumfiel as a competitor at the Cast Iron Chef professional cooking competition in Quitman, Ga., in 2013, where he won his heat against Chef Daven Wardynski. (Wardynski is now regional executive chef for Omni Hotels and thus one of Brumfiel’s new bosses. Follow chefs’ careers for any length of time and you’ll discover it’s a small world!)
Brumfiel learned about food from a young age. When he was growing up in Cambridge City, Ind., he recalls spending his free time in his father’s family restaurant. Though he fondly remembers his grandmother’s love of cooking, he credits his father for his work ethic and understanding of the restaurant and food industry.
Brumfiel attended Chowan College in North Carolina to play football and worked in the school café to earn money plus learn about catering and volume cooking. Local football hero, businessman and ex-NFL player Bob Van Pelt encouraged Brumfiel to learn the restaurant industry. He took the advice and went to work in kitchens in New Orleans, La., and Jamestown, N.C., and studied at Guilford Tech Culinary School. He then traveled to the United Kingdom to work at the Rascasse in Leeds, the Farsyde Restaurant in Ilkley, and Mantra Restaurant in Burley-in-Wharfedale. In 2004, he returned to the U.S. and worked at the celebrated Cloister Hotel on Sea Island, Ga., as chef in the River Bar, then chef de cuisine for the in-room dining experiences. At The King and Prince on St. Simons Island, Ga., he was executive chef and the creative force behind the launch of the resort’s restaurant, Echo. But he recently traded the marsh of the Georgia coast for the mountains of western Virginia.
Brumfiel gave us a behind-the-scenes tour of his new workplace, the kitchens at Omni Homestead Resort in Hot Springs, Va. It’s spacious and impressive, from the recently renovated kitchen overlooking the dining room to the basement maze of historic kitchens and equipment—that’s not only still operating, but turning out impressive fare. As we walked, he answered a few questions:
This place has a great vibe.
Thanks, yes, I agree. I’m not the historian—they do have a concierge who gives tours. But I find this place fascinating. We’re home of the oldest ski resort in Virginia, the first tee box and first golf course built in America. All 22 U.S. Presidents who have come here have portraits in the Lobby Bar. [And much more, there’s more than two centuries of history here!]
When you were brought in as the new chef, what was your objective?
What I was told in interviews was that the concern is the volume, which is massive. At Jefferson’s we can have 280 people come through the bar in three hours! Jefferson’s restaurant can easily have 300 to 400 a night. The quality has to be high, but the volume is at a massive scale. It can be intimidating. But where I was before, there are a lot of similarities here.
My task is to be consistent. What the Omni needed was for me to come in here and set a standard so that we don’t vary. So in the last few weeks we created a training manual with photos and exact descriptions. We’re working on service time. I guess consistency is the secret to all business, isn’t it?
Reading the menu, I didn’t expect to find so many dishes that are ubiquitous in Georgia—like shrimp & grits, fried green tomatoes, she crab soup, and blue crab cakes. Did you bring the Georgia coastal cuisine with you?
I think that’s another reason why maybe they called me. I think from looking at the Echo menu that I felt I put my life into—that featured local Georgia ingredients and what I felt comfortable and inspired to be cooking—was that I got here and a lot of the dishes are not that far off from what I’d been heading down that road. I was also playing around with pub style food, as are a lot of people around the world; things like deviled eggs, meatballs and meatloaf with a twist. And this menu had lamb gnocchi, which is basically lamb stew with nice handmade gnocchi.
What are the most popular dishes at Jefferson’s Restaurant & Bar?
It’s really fried green tomatoes, lamb gnocchi, and the fried ‘honey stung’ Brussels sprouts—we turn a lot of Brussels sprouts haters into fans here. People are shocked to learn these Brussels sprouts are deep fried.
Is the menu the same as when you arrived?
Right. My focus isn’t to make this something else. First goal is consistency.
Sunday Brunch was the first step forward after the training manuals. The shrimp & grits here may not be my style but it’s nice. I do want to do a different twist and evolve it, but it’s proven. For Sunday Brunch now we’re doing a new charcuterie display, a seafood display, salads, soup, and I’m making some desserts to keep a Southern feel to it, so I do a bread pudding, banana pudding and cobbler in addition to the nice pastries they already do.
Will you make other changes in the future?
I personally don’t see us as being a steak restaurant, but right now it kind of is. I want to see less steak; we’ve got seven or eight different cuts now. I’d like to see more small plates, which would help bring in locals. I really want to see us do less of a ‘starter, main and dessert’ atmosphere and instead do more moderate, fun quirky type dishes that are also safe havens from higher price points.
We’ve been talking about some other ideas. Maybe a hunting or fishing program, open up the butcher shop for locals like it used to be.
What Virginia products have you discovered and now love?
The ham is phenomenal. I saw one and said, “That’s prosciutto” and was told, “No, it’ s from three miles down the road.” I thought it was imported! I’ve always loved Virginia peanuts. There’s a lot of local lamb and trout. The biggest surprise has been mushrooms; they grow here in the garden, there’s a ton of them. I’ve been told about the beef and plan to visit beef farms and hog farms in a few weeks. I’m serious about oysters. I honestly can’t wait, I’ve been here since the end of September and it’s been an absolute whirlwind with the holidays.
It’s still important to me to do local grown, but I’ve got my connections to Georgia. I’m featuring some amazing products from Georgia including mayhaw jelly, cheese from Sweet Grass Dairy, Savannah honeycomb—I feel comfortable with these products that are amazing.
I like the idea of your introducing Georgia foods to new audience. Your menu can be the best of both Georgia and Virginia.
I’ll keep rotating things around. I’ve been a chef for 25 years. All in all, it’s going to be interesting!
The Omni Homestead Resort
7696 Sam Snead Highway
Hot Springs, Virginia 24445
– Portrait courtesy Chef Jason Brumfiel; kitchen & food photos © HSP Media LLC