Left: Jonathan Hancock, Executive Chef at Richland Country Club, Nashville, Tennessee, USA | Recipe: Ginger Bouillabaisse and Royal Reds
Jonathan Hancock is a young and gifted chef who realized his passion during college, pursuing a law degree! He is blessed with six children, which keeps him on his toes. ~ Diana DeLucia
GK: Tell us where you were raised.
I grew up in Dickson County, Tennessee, which is a rural area. Most of my family lives there. My dad’s side of the family has lived on Tidwell Road, which was my grandmother’s maiden name, most of their lives. Everything is about agriculture out there, and it’s kind of cool visiting. They still own the home where my grandmother and her 13 brothers and sisters grew up.
When I was middle school-aged, we moved to Franklin, a city just south of Nashville, and that’s where I kind of started becoming a person, you know, in elementary school, you’re just playing. I went to Franklin High School, which is not far from the Richland Country Club.
I was raised by my mom, Kelly Walker, who is a single mother of four and a very strong-willed woman who taught me a lot of values about how to treat people, how you behave, and work ethic. She started her own business selling insurance and benefits. She instilled a drive in me, my sister, and two brothers.
After high school, I went to Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU) as a political science major. I thought I wanted to be an attorney and studied sociology as well. I spent about two years following that path, with the mindset of the result being that I wanted to make a ton of money.
GK: How did you go from law to cooking?
The schoolwork was boring. I did not enjoy it, and then something clicked; I need to find what I love to do. That’s what my mom taught us.
I grew up with a family of phenomenal cooks, my mother cooked every night, my grandmother was always in the kitchen, cooking or canning, and it seemed like my father grilled or was on the smoker every day in the summertime in Texas. Every family get together was surrounded by food, and everyone chips in to help. It has always been my family’s way of expressing love for each other.
I quit MTSU, and I applied to Le Cordon Bleu in Orlando. I think I was 20, about 14 years ago. I moved down there when I found out I was having my first son, and I knew I needed to focus on getting my act together. It was good because it took me away from the core group that I was always with growing up. Until you step outside of that, it’s almost like you’re still in high school.
The instructors we had in Orlando were from a talent pool from all over the country, and many were very inspiring. I learned a lot of foundational material that I didn’t know. I started to enjoy cooking. While studying, I worked at a couple of chain restaurants such as Cracker Barrel, and it wasn’t enjoyable. I was going to school full time, and then I tried to make money on the weekends. Once my son was born, I had to fly back to Tennessee to spend time with him and then fly back to Orlando for school. Cracker Barrel started scheduling me for 60 hours a week, I was still at school, and I wanted to see my son more often. I realized nothing was inspiring about what they were doing. I ended up taking a position at The Cheesecake Factory, which is one of the busiest in the country. That’s where I started learning more line skills and how to deal with getting your ass kicked every day. I watched some of the guys in the kitchen and noticed how seamlessly they moved during the crazy services. I wanted to do that; it was like a dance.
I got a lot out of that job, and then when school was done, I moved back to Nashville in 2007. I had a job lined up at The Wild Boar, one of the high-end restaurants downtown at that time. I was about to start the job and got a call from the chef. He said he couldn’t pay me, and they had filed for bankruptcy.
GK: How did you land at Richland Country Club?
I had a family friend who was a member of Richland, and he asked me, “Have you thought about going to a country club?” I told him, “I have never thought about it.” He said, “You know, you ought to call Chef Dean; he is a great guy.” I called, and he asked me to come in for an interview. I remember seeing the kitchen for the first time; it was massive, and looking around, I noticed everyone had their own knives. Everybody knew what they were doing, which was very different than some of the chains. These people have great knife skills. I remember watching Chef Dean pull apart all these lobsters, and I knew this might be a cool place to learn and grow. I have been here for 11 years now, and I started as the banquet sous, and then spent a short time as the interim pastry chef, and was given the executive sous chef role.
GK: How long have you been the executive chef?
It was official in September 2018, which was cool and intimidating at the same time. I’d already been doing all these other positions, but your scope gets wider with every step up that you take. I had never cared about the pool dining before, I hadn’t even thought about what they were serving pool-side. My focus was more a la carte dining upstairs, and that was it. It’s been an incredible journey in the last few years learning to focus on all these other areas of the club.
We have two restaurants and a pool grill, and we’re running it all out of one kitchen. We have our Waxo Grill, our adults-only grill and provides an upmarket, but casual dining experience, great for a quick lunch, relaxed dinner, or drink by the fireplace while watching the game. It is named after Dudley “Waxo” Green, a long-time member of Richland and a sports reporter for the Nashville golf scene for six decades. We have the Nicklaus Room, named after Richland’s Golf Course designer, Jack Nicklaus; this dining room provides a great family atmosphere and excellent views of the course.
The Pool Grille, offers wide varieties of food options that are sure to satisfy both kids and adults. Together with our full-service pool-side bar, indoor and outdoor seating, and a teen area, the Pool Grille will exceed your expectations of what a day at the pool should be!
GK: You have to be flexible working at a private golf or country club, how are you finding that?
It’s so much fun, we’ve got a strong crew back here that get excited about whatever they can fry and dip in a sauce, that’s cool. There’s a place for that. Then at the same time there are guys that want to learn how to break down fish, and I know that I can groom them to take the next step in their career. It’s a dynamic team, and I am fortunate to have them behind me.
GK: Tell us about the renovation; you must have been here for that process?
It took about a year and we closed for five months, only operating out of the far side of the club. We modified horse trailers outside with a kitchen, but all we could do were buffets. We were all so pleased when this half of the clubhouse was finished. The second half was completed in April of 2019, and you can see for yourself just how spectacular it is.
The members here use the club heavily. For many of them, this is where to go, even on Mondays, which we are closed. Once we opened after the completed renovations, club usage went through the roof. We went from 180 covers on a Friday night to 350! The team all came together, and we started adjusting how we do prep, how we set ourselves up to be ready when it’s busy. It’s been going well, and I feel like we’ve got a good rhythm with everything. I feel like it is a sign of the job that we’re doing. We are doing more than ever before, and the members are coming out and are raving about the food and service.
GK: How do you feel about working with the General Manager, Martel Meyer? He has a solid reputation for turning around a club’s food and beverage operation.
For one, he was incredibly supportive of anything new we wanted to do. He was all about, try it, if it doesn’t work, then it doesn’t work, but keep trying. He was the one that pushed for us to delineate this dining room from that dining room. Martel said, “Let’s give them two different dining experiences, instead of everything mashed up into this one menu where it’s all over the place, let’s create focus, so if they want to eat fine dining, they go to one room, and if they want casual fare, they go to the other.
Martel told us that what everybody needs to understand when they walk through these doors that this is the hospitality industry, first and foremost, whether you’re from the front of the house or the back of the house, it’s all hospitality.
GK: What are some of the member trends?
We’re noticing more vegans and people with keto diets, and we try to give them something substantial that feels and tastes good, but also fits what they’re looking for. We have enjoyed creating more vegan food, but I try to avoid tofu or anything like that as I feel that’s too elementary.
GK: Where do you source your produce?
We work with many local farmers; being in Tennessee, we have access to everything. Most of our beef we source from Bear Creek Farm. Bear Creek Farm, is a sustainable grass-fed, grain-finished cattle and hog farm, raises all-natural Angus beef and Heritage hogs in a responsible and humane way. They rely on outstanding genetics and Certified Humane practices to produce healthy, tasty beef, and pork without the use of hormones or antibiotics. I’ve known Bill and Leanne for 13 years now, and I can always count on them to have a superior product.
We also source from a small, diverse, sustainable family farm named Wedge Oak Farm. They gently and humanely raise food for our local region. All of their products are USDA inspected for safety, quality, and freshness. They grow the prized Mangalitsa charcuterie hogs and carry a specialty sausage line made right here in Tennessee. All of their animals are raised on the farm and processed as close to home as possible.
One of our most significant sources for vegetables is Nashville Grown, founded by Alan Powell, where he’s essentially the middleman for a lot of the smaller farmers within a hundred miles of Tennessee.
GK: Where do you see yourself in five years? What are your plans to continue to develop the culinary scene at Richland?
I would like to open another dining experience option at the club, something prix fixe that gives us another outlet for pushing our boundaries and creativity for the members, and ourselves. I would also like to continue pushing to becoming at least 90% local on all products entering the kitchen. There is so much fantastic agriculture in Tennessee, and it should always be a focus. Another goal is the continuous updating of banquet design and menus, to continue staying ahead of the trends that set us apart from other clubs. If you don’t stay ahead, then you are falling behind. For the next five years, I plan on pushing as much growth as I can within our club and our kitchen. I would love to see my current sous chefs stepping into roles as Executives other high-end clubs.
The clubhouse at dusk. Image courtesy Richland Country Club