In the kitchen with Todd Hudson: Wildflower Cafe owner learned via a self-designed culinary bootcamp

MASON, Ohio - When Todd Hudson puts food on a plate, he wants to tell you something. Hudson, the chef and owner of The Wildflower Cafe in Mason, is passionate about serving organic and locally grown food. He's an ardent storyteller of his food, and the farmers who grew the food.

Hudson's roots run deep in the Tri-State. Born and raised in Fairfield, three generations of his family still live in and around the same part of town. 

"The Hudson family has been in Fairfield for a long time. My wife’s parents graduated with my parents. Our grandfathers worked on the railroads together in the 1950’s," Hudson said.

If Hudson's childhood were a painting, the artist might have been Norman Rockwell. 

"My childhood was close to flawless. I remember sitting on my grandma's back porch, shooting bows and arrows with my brothers, my Uncle Mick being there, and grandpa coming out with a cup of coffee," he recalled.

Food was the centerpiece in his family, thanks to Hudson's grandmother. Originally from Ireland, she not only cooked memorable food, but also grew her own. 

"When you put the time and effort into planting food, you really cherish it, and you cherish people eating it," Hudson said.

As a child, Hudson spent a lot of time with his grandmother. 

"Me and her were like peas and carrots," Hudson said. Childhood photographs often show his grandmother holding him while cooking. "I can remember being five or six, making biscuits with her and loving it. To this day, I like eating raw biscuit dough.”

When Hudson turned 15, he ventured into the restaurant world as a dishwasher. It was love at first sight. 

"Working in the kitchen was a lot of fun. I don’t recall ever wanting to do anything different," he said.

Hudson attended Miami University and earned an associate degree in business. Although he had thought he would go to culinary school after that, he decided instead to put himself through a self-prescribed culinary boot camp. 

"I had a buddy who was going to Cincinnati State at that time. Whatever books he had, I would buy and read them," Hudson said. He read culinary books and magazines voraciously, and went to work in his home kitchen to master the techniques.   

"I probably read La Methode 25 times," he noted. “I might as well have been in the marines when it came to reading and cooking."

Hudson went on to work at Elks Country Club in Hamilton, where he bonded with the chef there.  For a while, they even thought about opening their own restaurant in Florida, but Hurricane Charley put an end to it. 

Instead, Hudson went on to work in various restaurants closer to home, including Vincenzo's Restaurant and Glendale Pub (now Cock and Bull Public House). 

In 2007, Hudson bought the hundred-year-old building that is, today, The Wildflower Cafe. It took about 18 months to renovate and opened in August 2008.

Food and cooking philosophy

“I don’t think it’s hard to make a good dish. The same things are fundamentally repeated in every good dish – texture, color, acidity, sweetness, saltiness, and crunch.”

Hudson believes in cooking with the weather. 

"I try to pair the food with the weather. When it’s cold, I make hearty stew, duck confit, mushroom and cream," he said. "When it’s hot out, the food might have more of that Caribbean feel: fish, coconut, jerk and pineapple."

When Hudson writes his menu, he wants to be able to tell his customers where the food is from, and how it was raised.

"All of the meats come from Ohio, and with very little exception, they’re all organic. We deal with 16-17 produce farmers," Hudson said. "I want to know every ingredient from beginning to end."

According to Hudson, the menu at The Wildflower Cafe is the 57th or 58th version he's written. "I’m always trying to evolve. Our motto here is, ‘are we better this week than last week?’"

Hudson feels good that the current menu is the best one yet.

Essential ingredients & tools

  • Good sauté pan. Hudson, who works the sauté station, is a big fan of de Buyer carbon steel pans. 
  • High-powered burners.
  • •10” Henckels chef’s knife with dimples. Hudson likes the thin point of a chef’s knife. 
  • Clean dry towel. “We have a miniscule kitchen. I can do almost anything if I had a knife, sauté pan, and a clean dry towel,” Hudson noted. The kitchen at The Wildflower Café is only about 100 square feet.
  • Eggs. Hands down, this is Hudson’s favorite ingredient. “I can probably put eggs in everything make,” he said.  
  • Butter. “Everything” at the restaurant is cooked in butter, with the exception of vegan preparations.  Then Hudson uses grape seed or olive oil. “I’ll even cook in bacon grease and butter if I know you like it.
  • Wine, for acidity. Hudson often reaches for white wine when he’s cooking. It goes in a whole host of foods, including soup and pasta. “I don’t always cook the alcohol out."

Inspirations

When the restaurant first opened, Hudson encountered naysayers who thought he was out of his mind to serve organic food. His customers often complained about the higher prices, and some even confused organic for vegetarian food. 

“We were doing farm-to-table, and I thought we were very forward-thinking and progressive,” Hudson said. Even so, cooking ahead of the curve led him to the brink of bankruptcy. 

It was at this time when a customer said something he will never forget. 

“I had a customer, Dr. Hug (pronounced oog) from Switzerland. He said, ‘You have this passion.  You’re probably not making a lot of money doing this, and you may not have a lot of customers.  I’m from Switzerland, and we’re known as the country of innkeepers.  I come from that family.  What you’re doing here is really impressive. It’s an honor to be here.’”

The validation in those words not only reaffirmed Hudson, they moved him to tears. That moment became a turning point. Shortly thereafter, Hudson’s restaurant got busy. 

Hudson’s wife and daughter surround him with inspiration.

“I want my daughter to know her daddy is a good guy,” he said. 

Hudson is grateful he has his family to come home to. 

“This is a high intensity business.  It’s easy to get beat down, he added.  “All I want to do on Sundays and Mondays is to hang out with my wife and daughter.”

When Hudson thinks about his family, he doesn’t hesitate to roll up his sleeves.

“If I do what I do, and can do it well, that’ll create opportunities for them. If that means I have to work more, I’m okay with that,” he said.

Doing the right thing inspires Hudson. 

“I told my staff that we can feel good about what we’re doing. We’re supporting a change in farming methods and neighborhood economies,” he said. 

Hudson is proud that his restaurant is certified as a “humane restaurant” by the World Society for the Protection of Animals.  

“I’m proud of that even though it was never going to be written about,” he added.

Favorite meal to cook for family: Roast Chicken

Hudson cooks at home on Sundays and Mondays. 

“Having Sunday dinner is like going to church,” he said. 

Hudson serves his home dinners with salad, locally grown vegetables, and good bread. He recommends this dish with a bottle of good Napa Chardonnay.

“We toast to our company, and try to tell funny stories," Hudson said. "Food tastes better with wine and laughter.”

Ingredients

  • 1 whole chicken (from a local pasture)
  • Garlic, salt, pepper to taste
  • Lemons or oranges, to taste
  • Fresh herbs (Hudson recommends parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme: "Just like the song," he noted)
  • Butter, as needed
  • Chardonnay, as needed

Instructions

  1. Season the inside of the bird with salt, pepper and garlic.
  2. Stuff the chicken with any fresh herbs on hand.
  3. Squeeze all the juice from the lemons or oranges, and rub it all over the outside of the chicken. Stuff some of the lemons of oranges in the chicken.
  4. With a sharp paring knife, cut tiny slits in the skin all over the bird, and stuff slices of pasture butter between the skin and the meat. If you warm up some butter in your hands, you can get it to rub onto the whole exterior really nicely, which will give it a nice crunchy skin.
  5. Tie the wings and legs with a truss, so that they cook evenly.
  6. Have the bird ready to go at room temperature before roasting.  Make a bed on the roasting pan with pine needles or pine cones, and lay the chicken on top.
  7. Roast the bird at 425 °F.  If it gets too hot, pull the pan off the heat.
  8. Start with the breast down, then flip around, so that the whole bird gets nicely gilded. Pour a bit of Chardonnay on the bird so that the needles hide a little moisture and give it off during the roast. You can add more as the chicken cooks too. 
  9. Keep an eye on the chicken, and just keep letting it get brown evenly. (Hudson uses a blow torch to finish any areas that need a bit more crisping).
  10. Cook it to 155°F, or until the legs pop right off. If it gets too dark before it's done cooking, just drop the heat to 300 and "let it ride."  (Hudson always pops the legs off, to see if the chicken is done cooking all the way).
  11. Let it rest, but the longer you wait, the less crispy the skin.

(Photos by G. Yek)

Grace Yek is a faculty member at the Midwest Culinary Institute, Cincinnati State Technical and Community College. Connect with her on Twitter: @Grace_Yek.

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