He’s traveled the world, and visitors to Downtown Franklin can taste it in his dishes. In fact, if you mapped out the inspirations behind Jason McConnell’s menus, you’d be pinning a lot of places – Morocco, Hong Kong and Thailand, to name a few.
Everywhere he goes, the chef takes a piece of the culture’s palette when he leaves.
“I go somewhere, get recharged and bring something back,” he says. His tan hasn’t yet faded from a recent trip to Tahiti. “It keeps me motivated.”
Jason is the owner and gastronome behind three of Franklin’s most popular restaurants: Red Pony, Cork & Cow and 55 South. One’s a fine-dining establishment, another a independently owned steakhouse and the third a tribute to the best of the South. In 2011, he added an event venue – the McConnell House – in the old, old, old jail on Bridge Street (until recently, all three were still standing; fortunately, the two historic buildings remain).
Despite the continental influences, he can’t deviate too far from his roots. Jason says 50 percent of his dishes are Southern inspired, with a French preparation. From the bayou to the Tennessee backwoods, he’s pulled recipes and techniques from all over the Southeast.
The result is a blend of familiar and exotic in his trilogy. And because each of the eateries has such a distinct flavor, he’s able to present something unique to Franklin – and a diversity of tastebuds – without pigeon-holing himself in the process.
“I don’t want to cook the same thing every day, but that’s why I don’t own a franchise,” he says. “I get to cook whatever we feel like doing.
“We try to put a finger on what people want, but offer a revolving menu.”
“I think we leave a lasting impression on people,” Jason says.
When he opened Red Pony is 2006, the goal was to create an atmosphere he felt was lacking in Downtown Franklin: an unpretentiously upscale and intensely local restaurant. Nestled in the hub of Main Street, Red Pony quickly earned status as a favorite.
The 100-year-old building that houses the restaurant encourages the laid-back atmosphere, with dated details like the horse-hair mortar that binds the old brick. Low lighting and warm finishes are conscious touches Jason and his crew – all Tennessee natives, he says – planned in keeping with the ambiance.
“I wanted to provide a representation of where we are: a small town without your typical small-town offerings,” he says. “It’s a neighborhood spot, but we put a lot of care into it every single day.”
It was such a success that Jason and his staff – right-hand man Crosby Keltner manages the Red Pony – opened Cork & Cow across the street, in 2013. The white-tablecloth restaurant, which slings craft cocktails and prepares McConnell interpretations of classic steakhouse sides, offers a fabulous dry-aged New York Strip, as well as shrimp and scallop gnocchi and Lobster fra Diavolo.
The eatery carries an impressive selection of wines, too: it recently won the Wine Spectator‘s “Award of Excellence” which recognizes restaurants whose wine lists offer interesting selections, are appropriate to their cuisine and appeal to a wide range of wine lovers.
In between preparing menus and whipping up culinary masterpieces, Jason found the time to open McConnell House on Bridge Street – the ca. 1905 jailhouse that he’s converted into a three-story event venue, just two blocks from Main Street.
He says he didn’t set out to build a restaurant empire. Jason grew up around the horse training industry, but he spent many nights in the kitchen cooking for family.
At one time, he planned to use his political science degree from the University of Mississippi to pursue law, but a job on the line at City Grocery in Oxford confirmed his calling.
Next stop was the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, one of the most prestigious cooking schools in the nation. He landed at F. Scott’s in Nashville after graduation, training under Chef Margot McCormack and enjoying recognition for his work in the likes of the New York Times. It was only a matter of time until he seized the reins.
Who knows what’s next. He says he has plans to expand beyond Franklin, but credits the support he’s found here as the key ingredient to an entrepreneur’s success.
“Franklin supports us, and that’s what makes it work,” Jason says. “It’s a pretty tight-knit community.”