He has cooked for the Dalai Lama, lectured on backwoods Oklahoma cuisine, ran the banquets program at the legendary Hotel Del Coronado in San Diego, and prepared fried squirrel at the Smithsonian Institution during National Food History Weekend in Washington, D.C.
To say that Jason Flores has a diverse background would be an understatement. It may explain why this chef who describes his culinary point of view as "redneck-chic" was a natural fit when Loews Ventana Canyon Resort recently introduced him as its new executive chef.
Though Flores graduated from a tony culinary school nearly 20 years ago, his food journey began as a kid in rural Oklahoma learning how to hunt, farm, and forage from his grandparents.
"Everything we ate was out of the garden, off the farm, and from the waters," said Flores. "I think I was a teenager when I ate store-bought meat for the first time."
He recalls being compensated for his dedicated work on the farm, but not with spare change, candy, or other kid-centric currency. "My grandmother would pay with me with pickled beets; it was my payment as well as my treat."
Flores eventually applied to culinary school after logging some time at Oklahoma State University. When he received word of his acceptance into the Scottsdale Culinary Institute, he sold nearly everything that he owned, and with the bus fare his parents floated him, he took the 36-hour trip from that Oklahoma farm to one of the biggest metropolitan areas in the country.
"I was dropped off in front of Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe with two bags and sixty bucks," said Flores. "I had sold my car, I had sold my original Atari 2600 with a bunch of games — I guess you would call that a passion for cooking," he joked.
His first gig out of school was at Tucson’s JW Marriott Starr Pass Resort & Spa. It is where he met Ken Harvey, his first boss, who is his boss today after Harvey’s recent promotion from executive chef to food and beverage director at Loews Ventana Canyon.
Flores called it "coming full circle."
"Ken and I grew up about four hours apart from one another, and while we did not know each other as kids, we kind of have that ‘local boy’ thing going on and really hit it off, said Flores. "I am a fiery guy with a strong passion for who I am and what I want, and I think Ken is the exact same way."
With that first position under his belt, Flores went on to work at various properties including the Arizona Biltmore Resort & Spa, DoubleTree Downtown Tulsa, Hotel Del Coronado, Hilton Sedona Resort at Bell Rock, and others. He owned an event and catering business, earned his pitmaster certification from Smithfield, took first place in the National Pork Council’s Taste of Elegance Pork Competition, and was presented with the coveted Gold Key for exhibiting an exceptional "Spirit to Serve" by Marriott International.
In previous positions, Flores’ goal was to be "the dumbest one in the room" and to not go anywhere that was, as he called it, easy.
"I always wanted to be in a place where I did not know if I was going to make it, or if I even deserved to be there at all," said Flores. "I’m just a country boy and I knew the work that was required, and the lessons that I needed to learn, if I was going to be an executive chef one day."
One of the most memorable moments on this journey was just four years ago when he was among six executive chefs invited to participate in National Food History Weekend at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History. He was on a panel that discussed "the blurring of culinary lines in the United States based on the way that we travel."
Which brings me back to that fried squirrel.
"As part of the weekend’s program, they wanted me to showcase food from my home, which is outdoor, backwoods Oklahoma-style cuisine," said Flores, "and it was on their big stage that I prepared fried squirrel with a pan of gravy and white cheddar biscuits."
While I was curious to know if it tasted like chicken, I resisted the pedestrian inquiry and simply moved on.
Flores noted that Oklahoma did not become a state until 1907 and much of it remains wild and wide open even today. “Wild and wide open defines backwoods cuisine back home," he said. "I grew up near the foothills of the Ozarks, with tons of lakes, rivers, mountains, and trees, and hunting and fishing are how people survived. Having foods like deer steaks in the freezer was and is a pretty normal thing."
So how does Flores expect to connect his unique background and passion to his new position as executive chef at Loews Ventana Canyon?
"Southwest cuisine is something that I fell in love with when I first came to Arizona in 2004," said Flores. "The flavor profiles just go with the way that I like to cook. And I think the open spaces of the desert give me the opportunity to do what I have done my whole life, and that is drawing inspiration from the land in the air I breathe and things I can see."
Now that he has taken full ownership of the resort’s culinary programming, Flores expects to complement the already world-class program with some signature touches, including a line of fermented hot sauces, some creole-inspired items like shrimp and crab boils, and bringing more west coast-style barbecue to the resort’s "Blues, Brews, and BBQ" brunch, perhaps with tri-tip steaks and seaweed smoke.
And finally, now securely situated at the pinnacle of his culinary career, he just may be able to buy back that old Atari 2600.
Loews Ventana Canyon Resort is located at 7000 N. Resort Dr. For more information, visit loewshotels.com.
Matt Russell has been a food and beverage writer/broadcaster covering stories in Arizona and beyond since 2009. He's been the food and beverage writer for Inside Tucson Business for the past decade and is a regular contributor to Tucson Foodie...