J ason McConnell is a world traveler whose taste in food is inspired by the far-flung flavors he's found in exotic locales in Morocco, Hong Kong and Thailand, and in restaurants and kitchens all over the Southeast. But McConnell isn't just a traveling dilettante gourmand. After working at the City Grocery in Oxford, Mississippi, McConnell attended the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, before landing at F. Scott's in Nashville, where he served under local legend Chef Margot McCormack, getting his food called out by national publications like the New York Times.
“I never had any ambition to be in the restaurant business, but it just somehow slowly happened,” says McConnell. “I was planning to attend law school after getting my undergrad at Ole Miss...I was always into food, but more country cooking that I learned from my grandparents….My family traveled constantly for my dad's work, and I had the opportunity to try foods from all over the South. I was immediately drawn to foods of the Gulf Coast--oysters, gumbo, po-boys, crabs. You name it; I love it. My grandparents were great cooks and so is my mother, so I have to give them the credit for piquing my interest.”
In McConnell's restaurants, exotic dishes get paired with local ingredients, and are often prepared with French techniques, creating hybrid offerings that look to transform common cooking into cuisine. Even though North Africa or Southeast Asia might make an appearance on one of McConnell's menus, more than half of the offerings at Red Pony, Cork & Cow and 55 South can trace their roots right back to a cast iron skillet on your grandma's stove. And even the Japanese-inspired, East Nashville ramen pub location, Two Ten Jack, where McConnell is an investor, includes potato fries and hush puppies on its menu, as well as a house salad that borrows the bacon and egg from your mom's favorite Cobb salad.
“I love simple, honest food,” says McConnell. “Anyone who's a cook is on a never-ending journey to define their style. My thoughts on food are constantly changing. When I started, it was French cuisine that was cool or the pinnacle. I don't really have much interest in foie gras anymore. There are so many cool ethnic foods out there that are so much more interesting.” Of course, borrowing flavors from other cultures and updating Southern classics is bound to raise eyebrows when the all-the-rage question of “authenticity” rears its head. “Authenticity is open to individual interpretation, so it means so many different things,” says the chef. “If I eat Mexican food outside of Mexico, is it authentic? Some people will say, 'Hell no.' But, if I'm eating a tongue taco with fresh tortillas in Franklin, why is that not authentic?” When McConnell opened Red Pony in 2006, he filled a niche in downtown Franklin's dining scene, creating a space that was upscale, but unpretentious and local-centric. The Pony's comforting menu is matched by the space's exposed brick, warm interior design palette and low lighting, resulting in a fine dining restaurant that feels more like a neighborhood hang. Nearly a decade later, the spot is still a go-to favorite south of Nashville.
McConnell opened 55 South in 2010. The place takes its name from the roadway that connects Memphis to New Orleans, threading together the diverse textures and flavors of Deep South culture and cooking along the way. The restaurant's menu is inspired by the culinary geography of its namesake highway, aiming to take diners on a Southern cuisine odyssey in yet another eatery in downtown Franklin. The space looks like a Louisiana oyster house and the briny bivalves are one of the restaurant's main attractions, which also include boiled shrimp tossed in remoulade sauce and served over pickled fried green tomatoes, and an Elvis-inspired dessert featuring brownies, bananas and peanut butter mousse.
McConnell opened Cork & Cow, located across the street from Red Pony, in late 2012. The gastronome's take on a classic steak and seafood joint, the restaurant has become as well known for its bar as it is for surf and turf; Wine Spectator gave the spot an “Award of Excellence” and their craft cocktails are as thoughtfully prepared as their dry-aged New York strip.
Each of these spots features menus that are built on local ingredients from producers that McConnell has worked with for years.
“I use Farmer James Gardner of Gardner Grove Family Farms. You can find him at the Nolensville Farmers Market,” says McConnell. “I go to Taproot Farms for local beef in Franklin. They sell direct to the public at their farm. These are awesome people and that makes buying from them even more special. Local food tastes better, it's fresher, it's more economical, it stimulates the local economy, and you meet more great people.” And it's ultimately people--even more than food--that motivates this highly-motivated chef and entrepreneur.
“It's about people, plain and simple,” says McConnell. “ I love food, but getting to interact with so many types of people is fantastic. I think the only other profession that has that much direct contact would be a cabbie.” What's the taxi fare from Nashville to Franklin? I'm starving.