Former OCI Chef Braden Hitt

Chef Hitt during a recent OCI visit

You’ve been away from OCI for how long now?

Since the end of 2009, in December.

What are you doing now and describe how you got to this point.

After I left OCI, I kicked around town for a while.  I worked part time at VQ ( Veritable Quandry).  I was coming up with menus for a buddy, Neil Clooney, the chef owner at Smithfields Restaurant down south.  He was going to open Smithfields and asked me to help.  So in January of 2011 I moved down to Ashland and we got the restaurant set up and came up with a concept for it.  We committed early on to local sustainable produce and meats, even doing our own charcuterie.  We started with four course menus on weekends to showcase what we’d be doing, and then the day after Valentine’s Day we started the full menu.  I worked through summer and the Shakespeare Festival.  (Basically Ashland is a college town and in the summer the Shakespeare Festival opens up and brings in huge influx of people from everywhere so the population of Ashland booms with people with expendable incomes). In October, I moved to Elements in Medford and became the Executive Chef there.  Throughout the fall I revamped the menu (it had been same for five years) and wanted to bring local and sustainable mindset to the restaurant.

Chef Hitt at Farm to Fork

Farm to Fork. Photo by Toki Cavener - www.tokisphotos.com

I had helped (OCI Grad) Matthew Domingo with Farm to Fork in 2011.  I did the first dinner of the season on Fry Family Farm, for which Rogue Valley Brambles provided the protein.  And through the farmers market and experiences like Farm to Fork, I met a lot of farmers.  I knew that I wanted to incorporate those relationships and local foods into Elements.  Now we utilize mostly local farmers (Emerson’s Meat Purveyors) and a lot from Umpqua Valley and Carlton Farms and Port Orford for fish.  For produce, it’s whatever is best at the local farmers market.  We have a special sheet every week and feature what we get at the market on Tuesdays.   We use Rogue Valley Creamery, Pholia Farms (artisan cheese….I’m talking to them about making a manchego specifically for us), and Mama Terra (goat cheese).  We had the best November in six years and set a record for best sales in November and December.  We closed for two weeks in January, then in February came back and did “West Coast Flavors” on the local news, in which we featured four recipes, one every Thursday, for a month. Usually February is when we slow down for a bit, but since then we’ve set sales records each month.  They’ve been open six years, and these are the best summer months they’ve ever had.  The owner, Chris Dennett, also owns Beerworks and is really involved in redeveloping Medford. The main reason I moved to southern Oregon, though, was to open my own restaurant.  Medford needs a breakfast place, and I wanted to open a place and call it “Over Easy.”  Elements has kept me so busy, but I have been able to think about the vision for my place and build a community of like-minded cooks, farmers, and artisans.  It’s suburbia down there and there a lot of corporate restaurants and really not a lot of large incomes.  But there is a market for what we’re doing.  People are thinking more about what they put in their bodies and it is viable to use local product.  We do get stuff from Spain at Elements because it’s a tapas restaurant, but having local product available and making customers aware is important.  It’s easy to buy from FSA and Sysco, but I heard this quote from someone recently who was talking about supporting and eating local and sustainable sourced product:  “Why would you want to buy your seafood, meat and produce from the same place you buy your mop heads, especially when there’s great product close to you to utilize?”  Makes sense to me, and I think it does to most people when you put it that way.

Farmer Market Demo

Chef Hitt Demo at Farmer's Market

How do you raise awareness?

Programs like Farm to Fork, even Thrive, they raise awareness of the importance to raise awareness of local food.  And like-minded chefs who say “look at what we can get within ten miles of where we live.  This strawberry was picked today.”  Some people are gonna get it, some aren’t.   Medford is kinda meat and potatoes.  I thought tapas in Medford would tank, but there’s a market for it, as we keep proving every month.  We kinda cornered the market on it.

Is there a ‘typical customer’ at the places you’ve worked down there? 

I’d say middle class, anywhere from 25 to 60 years old who have traveled and experienced better cuisine than just strip mall food.  We don’t do any commercials or run any promotions. We’re active on Facebook but we think it makes you look desperate and like you’re hurting for business.  We don’t want to project that this is a failing restaurant, and we’re not desperate.  In the way of tapas, you can get a lot of great food for not a lot of money.  We have some larger dishes but most things are smaller plates, communal eating.  We have a great bar business.  We have one of the better wine lists, Spanish influenced, but we try to feature Oregon wines too.  The cocktails are adventurous too, good mixed cocktails.

Describe the food scene in southern Oregon.  How has it changed since you got down there?

Ashland has a bigger, more vibrant food scene and you can be more eclectic with your food there but I think Medford is on the cusp of doing some really exciting things and we’re attracting chefs that have been around the block and are excited to be a part of a new scene.  We have solidified the scene as doing stuff that’s not our typical suburban strip mall fare.

You mentioned something about opening your own place…?

I’m in negotiations now.  There’s a company setting up their corporate headquarters here and and they are helping revitalize downtown Medford.  It looks like we’ll have a new restaurant in this space, but if not there are a few other options.  Everything at Over Easy will be done in house — homemade sausages and charcuterie, scones and breads — and will be local and sustainable.  I still want that old man sitting at my breakfast bar to have sausage and eggs and toast but the person next to him to be able to order duck confit eggs benedict with poached duck egg and duck egg hollandaise.  My goal is not to exclude anyone from coming in, but provide the opportunity to expand their horizon.  I think it’s what Medford needs – someone who will say “try this” and challenge what people think about their breakfast.

Do you take photos of your food?

Yes and I upload them to my own Facebook page.  I’m not currently using Instagram.

Chef Hitt food photos

Oregon albacore tuna stuffed Nolte Farm Tomatoes

What advice do you have for people that think they want to become a professional cook?  Or own a restaurant some day? 

Shut up, put your head down, and work.  Take as much as you can learn at every different restaurant you work at.  You’ll have your own style and way of thinking about food.  You may not like all your chefs, but you will learn something from each of them, even if it’s how you don’t want to do something.

As a chef, what makes you satisfied?

Whiskey and Pabst! (laughs).  As far as the work, you mean?  At the end of the day, when we’ve been completely worked over, believing that people at their tables are saying “that’s the best meal I’ve ever had” is satisfying.  But any chef is only as good as his or her kitchen staff.  To know we’re producing the best food we can…and have people coming back each night…the industry is an ego driven monster and you have to get past that and understand that if you let your ego surpass that you need to make money to keep the doors open.  You have to provide a service to get people back to spend money again in your restaurant…that’s the ultimate goal.

You taught third term of the culinary program at OCI for almost two years.   What was the hardest thing about that job?  Or the most challenging? 

Coming out of the restaurant business and learning how to communicate that in an effective way to the students and showing the hustle and bustle was hardest thing for me.  It’s a high stress job and your instinct is to speak firmly, but at school some have not worked in the industry so learning how to communicate in a way that was best for the student…there was a learning curve for me. It was very rewarding though.  To have students come back and even now message me and say “you made a difference in my life” or “you made me think differently about food” is really amazing.  A student just emailed me and said basically she was down and out at school one day and I walked up and said “I’m proud of you and you’re doing a good job and keep trying.”  She emailed me and said “nobody had ever told me that before and that made my school experience.”

Are there any lessons you took away from your time working at OCI that you still consider valuable?

How I deal with people in stressful situations, it taught me to have patience and understanding – not everybody is on the same level and you have to have a mindset, set a standard for what you want, but understand there are different ways of doing that and communication styles, and for those people to make what you envision is incredible and everyone is an individual and not you.

Are you open to taking OCI externs?

Yes, more so than any other school in Oregon.  Daniel Navarro was an extern and we hired him.  He is a really hard worker.  Josh told me about him and said we should try him out.  This is his first professional kitchen job, he’s only like 24, but he’s solid.  Puts his head down and does his job every night.  That’s what a chef is always looking for.  And Mike Hite is a graduate who I hired a few years ago and he’s now our sous chef.  He has been an all-star since day one.

Chefs Braden Hitt and Josh Blythe

Re-united, and it feels so good.