In typical Columbus fashion, the weather forecast called for scattered thunderstorms – but to our relief the mid-morning sun greeted us as we pulled into The Medallion Club in Westerville, OH. We entered the Mixed Grille and immediately saw why it is such a highly regarded establishment: an expansive formal dining room with a visible and highly organized open kitchen; a trendy bar with eye-catching copper countertops and a fine selection of whiskeys; and a comfortable lounge with flat-screen TVs and leather couches.
Dressed in a smart grey chef’s jacket, Chef Dustin Brafford greeted us with a warm smile and firm handshake. He led us into the lounge that overlooked the golf course patio where an employee pressure washed the hardscaping and organized outdoor seating. It was a Friday, which meant that we entered the calm-before-the-storm as The Medallion Club was ramping up for weekend festivities. There was no time to waste – and we were eager to dive into the work of this local chef we heard so much about.
We knew that Chef Dustin effortlessly rides the line between executive chef and restaurateur – but little did we know just how expansive and globally reaching of a career this Ohio-native commanded.
How was food part of your life growing up?
Fresh ingredients has always been a way of life for my family. My mother’s father was from Campobasso, Italy. My dad’s father had a farm in Madison, OH. They were growing their own food to survive, benefiting the most they could from the harvest.
My grandfather loved jowl bacon. That was our snack in his later times of life, we’d go over there and he’d be having bacon. It always annoyed my grandmother because everything smelled like bacon. And he didn’t weed the garden. He always had the best tomato and mozzarella, which we’d eat as a salad.
When I was in second grade, we moved to Arizona, so my cuisine is also based on what I saw there. Prickly pears, tons of different peppers, lots of rosemary, lettuce — which grows like weeds out there. It’s more “tough” vegetables that can withstand the heat. It’s like a Sonoran style of cuisine is really what it is. I ended up with a really eclectic style of food. I can take grape tomato from Ohio and a prickly pear from Arizona and make a prickly pear jam with really blended flavors.
Good food was just part of my family culture, which turned into my culture, and now my profession.
What was your first big break into the professional culinary world?
I got offered a sous chef position at Door Knock golf club in Delaware, OH, which is no longer in existence. I was 21 years old, just working the pool. The owner invited me up there to be the sous chef. Once they eventually closed down, the Northstar Golf Resort opened up, so I went out there to be a sous chef for a friend of mine, and then he quit before we opened, so I kind of got thrown into the fire as an executive chef at 22 at Northstar — I had no idea what I was doing.
The club was supposed to expand a lot faster than it did. I got kinda bored, so I moved back to Arizona to work at the SanTan Brewing Company in Chandler. That’s where I met a guy who had a friend — named Najid — who needed a couple American guys to cook on a yacht in Beirut, Lebanon. I was 25 years old thinking, “This is a great idea.”
What did you know about Beirut at the time?
Nothing. I knew it was in the Mediterranean and there were a couple of big bombings in the ’80s. But I didn’t have anything tying me down in the U.S. My lease on my apartment was up, so I said, “Let’s go!” He gave me a couple hundred bucks for new clothes, sent me on a first-class ticket to Beirut, and the next thing I knew, we’re in Lebanon.
It was a culture shock, that’s for sure. Got picked up by a convoy of jeeps — it was like straight out of the movies. Five jeeps picked me up, luggage got lost, didn’t even exchange money yet. Luckily I was with a good group of guys that walked me through it, got me acclimated, got me a nice apartment, really took great care of me out there.
In the end, we never actually did work on that yacht. He’s like “Screw this, you’re gonna open up the Tex-Mex restaurant.” So we did that instead.
So you suddenly went from the promise of being a yacht chef to an American restaurateur in Beirut. What was the most surprising part about opening a restaurant in Lebanon?
I was the first American guy to go there and open a restaurant. So the hype we got was incredible. We couldn’t even get in the building for three months. It was this Tex-Mex spot, the first to do it. It was just awesome to see the response. They didn’t want your regular chains — Applebee’s, Chili’s, KFC — they wanted our Tex-Mex.
What was different about what you were bringing to the table?
It was taking their culture — the light cooking, the fresh ingredients, their product — and turning it into Tex-Mex — as opposed to what those bigger chains were doing: having their stuff come in a truck, in a bag, heated up like it would be here. We were actually making it from scratch with local ingredients. The Lebanese are clean and healthy eaters.
They don’t have Gordon Food Service, they don’t have Sysco. My fisherman’s name was Mark and I’d have to call him and tell him how many fish to catch, and some days I wouldn’t get as many fish as I needed because he didn’t catch those fish. No process to anything. No preserved food. I got olive oil straight off the vine. And there was very fertile soil there so everything grew very well. They’d call a mountain tomato what we’d call an heirloom but the thing would be all weird shaped and just incredible.
They take a lot of time in the preparation of their food. It is very serious to their culture. So it was an awesome learning experience; I couldn’t have went to anywhere better, if you ask me.
With how serious they are with their food — are there “foodies” in Beirut like we have here in the States?
A foodie here is not a foodie compared to the Lebanese. They set the standard. They were hipsters before there were hipsters here. If it wasn’t perfect, they’d send it back. It’s never, “That was an OK dinner.” It’s either “Great!” or “we’re not eating it.” It was very tough at first. The fat we have in our food here — don’t even think about putting it out to them — they’re not eating it. But by the end of it, I got it down.
Food is their culture in Lebanon. They work, they eat out, they go to nightclubs. They’ve been through so much in their country, so they just know how to live.
What was the most challenging part of opening a restaurant in Lebanon?
In comparison to here, I’ll have a food rep walk in and be like “What do you need? I’ll make you an order guide. Here are the prices.” Over in Lebanon, they don’t have a broadliner so I had to find a guy named Jameel, who had a warehouse of stuff, and I’d go down to the market to buy the vegetables, and I’d have my fisherman, and my beef was imported from Argentina — so it was just getting it all together, which was not an easy task. Especially since I didn’t grow up there.
A guy that I was working for had a few ties in the area, but I still had to branch out and meet more people.
Any particular Lebanese food you miss?
Shawarma and Tubule. And their pita bread is not what we get in the US. It’s more popped, airy, lighter. It’s not like a real thick pita that we have here in the U.S. It’s completely different.
I miss it — and that turned into part of my style of cuisine now. Using fresh ingredients, using za’atar, sumac — a bunch of stuff we don’t see traditionally here but is now starting to trend. When I got back to the States in 2013, I never saw za’atar or sumac on the menu but now you’re seeing it more often.
While in Lebanon, I also started to get into wine. Wine is huge there and it’s so good. It’s not even close, it’s just the soil itself, which is a lot crisper. They grow their own grapes in the Bekaa Valley and they have been growing forever. The French had a very big influence on Lebanon and the wine. My favorite while I was there is called Château Musar. But in the States you’d have to get it from a wine rep; I haven’t found it in stores here.
What other restaurant concepts did you open while in Beirut?
I did a by-the-slice Brooklyn style pizza place, Spanish tapas, a French restaurant, wood-fired grill spot, an international style restaurant, and a nightclub.
What brought you back to the States?
It was just the tension happening between Syria and Lebanon at around the end of 2012. There was a bombing right across the pond from where I was working. There were times where I was told, “You stay at the restaurant, we’ll come and take you home today” because they were closing roads. Things were just getting too real.
A buddy of mine was the Anheuser-Busch rep on Campus in Columbus, who was selling beer to a Lebanese businessman who ran Front Street Bar & Grill. My buddy would always text me “tell me Lebanese swear words so I can talk trash to Ali when I’m at his place later today.” At that point, Ali owned Front Street Bar & Grill and Midway On High. And I clicked with him because I understood his culture and got in good with his family. He came up with this idea of The Crest Gastropub, which I opened up that with him. He flew me back home, too, which was nice. Didn’t have to pay either way!
I also spent a couple years in Denver, Colorado around 2015. My sister was living out there. She told me that the food scene was getting big. Met a lot of people, did a lot of work for the governor, opened up a sushi-burrito spot called Komotodo — It’s like Chipotle but for sushi. Denver actually had amazing fish because it was a hub; everything flew in there to go everywhere else. Brought in fresh, not frozen.
While I was in Colorado, I became a board member for the American Culinary Federation Chefs Association. Basically we met and worked with local farmers — the youth — and tried to educate people. Tried to paint a vision for them to successfully become a chef without having to figure it out like we did. It was a great group to be involved in.
How did you find yourself at the Medallion Club back in Columbus?
I returned to Columbus to help a buddy open up Drunch in the Short North, which is a gastropub with comfort food. After helping him with that — I just decided, I’m tired of the restaurant business — I’m going to a club and getting some better benefits. I found an ad on Indeed for a golf club restaurant — saw that you needed a culinary degree to apply — but did it anyway. The general manager Michael responded to me in two minutes and it all quickly fell into place. I was going to start at The Medallion Club.
What do you think pushed you over the edge to get the job — and so fast?
I think it was the restaurant background. Not being the traditional banquet chef. I could run the operations, create cool menus, take care of our members. The general manager happens to live right next to The Market in Italian Village, he’s eaten at The Crest, and he lives right next door to Drunch. So he’s seen what I’ve done.
It sounds like who you know in the foodservice industry is always what lands you the next job.
What was your primary goal when you started at The Medallion Club?
I wanted to focus on this part of the restaurant which is the actual dining services, bringing the gastropub trend of style/food — the front of the house. I wanted to make this an awesome club people are proud of. This is the best food and best club in the area and I want them to come here to eat tonight. There’s no reason you’ll want to go anywhere else. We see the same people every Friday night.
We also do tons of banquets, which is another half of our business. Weddings, bridal showers, conferences. We’re very busy on that end here. Figuring out how much food is right for 200 people is a skill-set on its own; you can’t do too much or too little. That took a little bit of time to get used to.
There’s just a lot of different outlets here. It’s a 27-hole course with over 700 members, so it’s always busy. We’ll be cooking on the course, we’ll have the pool grill going, the restaurant will be rocking come Memorial Day Weekend. It’s not like I have to sit on the line all day. It’s a lot of planning, a lot of menu creations, and it’s always evolving. No day is ever the same.
Speaking of evolving, how did you change up the menu at The Medallion Club?
I got my cooks excited. That’s the difference. Before, it was just standard country club food: burgers, fries, nachos. But now they’re composing plates: bison burgers with roasted tomatoes, caramelized onions, house-smoked cheddar cheese. We’re taking a made-from-scratch approach.
On my first special I ran, one of the members here said “I’ve never taken a picture of my food in 25 years since I’ve been here!” So, I got people excited. I put my heart into it. The guys on the line started to put their hearts into it. We can’t fail with that. It’s a recipe for success when people are excited and passionate.
We didn’t have any golfing in March but we’re still hitting our numbers because of the dining. We brought in a new dining room manager and completely changed what was going on here. My brother, who is at The Crest as well, has been bringing in some craft beers and higher-end cocktails — people love it.
It sounds like you’re doing more operations than cooking.
It’s more operations, overseeing, having the right people in the right place to do what needs done. There’s no way that I could do everything in the kitchen. Half of this job here at The Medallion Club is dealing with members and making members happy — sitting down with a table because they want to talk about food, or they want a recipe. I’d say that’s half my job. It’s a big change from running a regular restaurant every day. Because running a restaurant every day is grueling, it’s the same thing.
Where do you see the foodservice industry going in the next couple years?
Fast-casual. It’s getting away from the stuffiness of fine dining. Being able to get high-quality food quickly, with ease, and at a reasonable price — people will come. In the kitchen, it’s all about cross-utilization of your product. Making your menu have a single page of ingredients, not six pages, so nothing gets thrown in the garbage. Zero waste. Komotodo, the sushi-burrito place I opened up in Denver, is fast-casual and very successful.
Another trend is greater care of ingredients, working with local purveyors, local farmers, local butchers. I think what’s really happening to food is it’s going back to the way it was. I don’t think it’s going to something new, but just getting back to how my grandma used to grow her vegetables.
Columbus, OH is a popular concept city for restaurants. Why is that?
We’re located in a place where we can easily get product from the east coast, product from the west coast. We have access to New York, we’re five hours from Chicago, Cleveland brings in some Polish culture, we get southern culture from Cincinnati and West Virginia. Many corporations are headquartered here, so you have a lot of educated people with money going out to eat. Ohio State University also brings in international students. We’re just a melting pot of culture.
The Wasserstrom family has over a century of history here in Columbus — including a brick-and-mortar SuperStore today. Have they played a role in your operations?
Oh yeah. When we were opening up The Crest, I’d be at Wasserstrom every day. I’ve been a customer at Wasserstrom for about 12 years now. I always get great customer service there. The people working there are extremely helpful, over-the-top, bend-over-backwards for you. They always have what I need — and if they don’t, they’ll find it, and it’ll be here.
Tell us about your work in EatUp! Columbus.
Freedom a la Cart — a local org helping survivors of sex trafficking — approached me when I was at The Crest to be a part of a cooking competition. I wasn’t really into competitions to raise money, so I thought “Why don’t we just rally some guys I know in the area and put on the most bad-ass dinner we can?” So that’s what we did and we raised $100,000 our first year. We also did EatUp! Denver when I was in Colorado and we raised another $100,000, which helped them build a new transition shelter. It’s always important to do something outside of the four walls of a kitchen.
How can the rest of us help out with Freedom a la Carte?
Go to their dinners, order their catering, volunteer your time, and donate on their website. They also have a cafe at the new library in the Short North.
Any advice you can offer to someone who aspires to become a restaurateur?
Anyone can open a restaurant… but that doesn’t mean it’s going to last. Find the funds first — because that’s hard — and then find the location. If you can get the right location, anything can work. Get a captive audience with the right marketing plan.
In terms of a quick step-by-step of opening a restaurant:
How about advice for someone wanting to become an executive chef?
Don’t do it. [Laughs] It’s a tough business, you work holidays — you just gotta love doing it. My best advice is to go outside of the United States for a while and expand your mind. Don’t stay locally. Go study somewhere.
Are you a restaurant owner, executive chef, or other foodservice professional with a story to tell? Contact us.