Have a drink or meal at Blue Hound Kitchen & Cocktails at CityScape in downtown Phoenix, and you’re going to leave supremely satisfied. That’s because executive chef Stephen Jones, a 33-year-old Phoenix resident who also helped give the bar and restaurant its cozy feel, whips up an amazing selection of Southern-inspired dishes made with local ingredients that are meant to be shared. Jones helped open the Hotel Palomar restaurant a little more than ago, and it has quickly become one of CityScape’s hottest destinations for both travelers and locals. The former college football player came to Phoenix from Chicago, and he hopes to bring that big-city vibe to the Valley’s dining scene, as well, with plans to open a new restaurant within two years. Get to know Jones better here, and keep reading to hear five of his favorite parts about Valley life.
What brought you to Arizona?
I moved here for my fiancee. I had never been here. I was born in New Jersey, raised in California, and moved to Chicago. I’m kind of a weird transplant.
You’ve said there is a Southern influence in your menu. Where does that come from?
That comes from travel. My grandmother always fed us food from the South growing up, because she’s from St. Louis. What we do, the basis of (American) cooking, started in the South. I don’t care what anyone else said, it started in the South.
What is your first memory of being interested in being a chef?
My great uncle is a certified master chef, and my mom, dad and all my aunts are really good cooks. I’ve always been interested in food — my interests have always been related to playing football or to the culinary arts.
What makes a good chef, and what makes you a good chef?
Focus and discipline. You can’t have one without the other. All the great chefs I’ve ever worked for or have met, they’re the most focused people I’ve ever met. I have a crazy cookbook collection of more than 500 books. I read a lot, I eat a lot, I travel a lot, and I dream about food. About half of this menu came to me in dreams. One time, I woke up in the middle of the night and came up with the short rib dish. Everything about me is about food.
Why did you want to open Blue Hound Kitchen?
I was approached by them when I was head chef at The Boulders (in Scottsdale), a couple months before they opened. It’s different, and I wanted to be back in Phoenix. I got tired of being up north. It was way too far, and I love the urban feel of Phoenix. Once I talked to the powers that be, I fell in love with the concept and have been here ever since.
What is your inspiration behind the atmosphere of the restaurant, and what do you hope people take away from eating here?
I want them to leave with a spark. It’s overwhelming to walk in the door and see a lot of steel and an industrial feel. It’s different than anything in downtown Phoenix, and it’s fun and communal. We want people to know dining is bigger than the food. It’s you with friends and family having a good time and enjoying yourselves. That’s what we want, a warm welcome, and for people to come in here and have a blast.
How did you come up with the name?
The name had to do with the early settlers of Arizona. Everyone knows a dog is man’s best friend, and the blue hound coon was always by the settlers’ sides. They’re loyal.
You have a dog yourself, right?
Yes, a lab/pit bull mix named Jake. He’s awesome.
What do you like about dogs, and what kind of spirit do you hope translates to people’s dining experience here?
Their personality. They’re so fun and crazy and free spirits.
How would you characterize the relationship among Phoenix chefs?
We love each other, but we’re competitive. We get along really, really well. I haven’t met too many chefs out here who weren’t supportive.
How do you think the Phoenix dining scene compares to the rest of the country, and what are we lacking?
We’re lacking sustenance, more restaurants and more people going out to eat. We’re a ways out compared to a lot of cities, but in 5 years, you will be talking about Phoenix among New York, L.A. and Chicago. There are some people doing some real cooking down here, and we just need more people. We’re very young in the culinary world, so we just need some time to grow. We need the public to open up and expand their palate.
What do we need to get people to do that?
There are so many people who will say they don’t want to try something, but you have to give things a chance and understand and trust the restaurant knows what they’re doing. Get in there, expand, eat out, and support your local farmers.
Why is using sustainable, local and organic ingredients important to you?
Our menu is 65 percent sustainable, local and organic. It’s about supporting our local farmers and dairy and giving back to the community, not just by purchasing things, but also because it helps provide jobs.
What are your goals, and how long do you see yourself staying in Arizona?
My goal is to open another place very soon, within 2 years, in Arizona. All I will say is that it will be in Phoenix. As far as staying in Arizona, time will tell.
Did you ever marry your fiancee you moved here for?
No, and we’re not together now.
Do you regret coming out here?
No, I am really happy.
How would you characterize yourself in the kitchen?
My cooks will tell me I have a “California cool.” I was yelled at in my career growing up, but I’ve grown to realize that’s not how you get the best reaction from your cooks. I’m pretty chill. I love to coach in the moment. I lead by example. There is nothing that any cooks in the kitchen can’t help me do side-by-side.
What is your most memorable experience related to food?
I’ve cooked for Barack Obama. That was great — he’s a great guy, and we talked sports the entire time. His aide used to play basketball for Duke, and I’m a huge Duke basketball fan.
How do you react when people send food back?
People aren’t going to like everything. I would like to say I’m perfect, but dishes get sent back for various reasons. It might be too salty for their tastes, or they just don’t like it, and I’m OK with that. I always listen, because maybe I could be better.
What parts of the culinary world do you want to master?
So much more. There’s so much out there, and I can’t get enough. I really like Indian cooking.
What is your least favorite food?
I hate mayonnaise, and I don’t use it. I hate fast food. For the most part, everything else is fair game.
You once said you were sick of people putting pizzas on the menu, but you have a flatbread on your menu here. Do you still hate the pizza trend?
There was a time when it was getting out of control. Every other week, someone was opening up a new pizza place, and it wasn’t good pizza.
What are your current favorite restaurant and bar in the Valley?
I’m at The Parlor a lot — I don’t get the pizza. I’m at Christopher’s a lot and at The Breadfruit. I’m going to a restaurant opening for Renegade in Scottsdale tonight. I don’t really have a favorite bar, but Seamus (McCaffrey’s) in downtown Phoenix is a place I hang out at a lot.
What is your favorite item on your menu right now?
The jerk cured salmon is great.
What do you hope people take away from their food experience here?
Every day, when I create something, I say I want to turn them into kids again and have them leave laughing.
Do you cook at home?
Oh, yeah. I love grilling stuff, fish all the time. I don’t like to turn the stove on. My favorite meal to eat is a whole roasted chicken, so I do that once in awhile. I eat a lot of veggies, though, and not a lot of meat.
A lot of the decor in the restaurant is eco-friendly. Why is that?
The building itself is LEED-certified, and a lot of the items in the building are recycled products. The Kimpton company is very green, and we care a lot about the environment.
Why would you tell people to come eat here?
It’s honest and clean. It’s simple, and the product, ranging from the spirits to the vegetables, is pure.
What advice would you have for aspiring chefs?
Don’t go to culinary school, and work in a restaurant. I regret going on an institutional level, but I cherish the relationships. It’s a factory now. Not to disrespect any institution out there, but they need to change the game and don’t need to be charging these kids upwards of $100,000 for being accelerated in their programs. They come to me and don’t know how to make caesar dressing. It’s frustrating. Get in a kitchen, roll your sleeves up, and do whatever you can to learn. Absorb it all — you can learn something from everyone in the restaurant, from the dishwasher to the prep cook and the restaurant manager. You’re going to learn more working on a weekend in a restaurant for free than you will 6 months going to culinary school.
Is there any benefit to going to culinary school?
You learn the history and the respect, which is absolutely important, but you don’t have to learn that if you give a little, work in a restaurant, eat out, talk to people.