Chef Dru Jones: The Student Becomes the Teacher
By Kathy K. Martin
Chef Dru Jones was once a bustling restaurant chef working long nights every weekend. Now he has happily transitioned into working only weekdays as food specialist in the department of nutrition and hospitality management at the University of Mississippi.
Through the program, he serves as chef instructor of Lenoir Dining, a 40-seat quantity food laboratory that’s open to the public with a weekly changing menu led by Jones and driven by suggestions from students, and then run by the students. Different classes of his students work each of the restaurant’s positions every weekday for lunch, such as wait staff, dishwasher and front-of-house host or hostess. Jones plans the menu and the students prepare the dishes to highlight seasonal ingredients and various themes such as Cajun, German or Italian.
Jones teaches the students how to prepare food for large numbers of people while they receive on-the-job training and class credit. “Students discover how to take a recipe for 50 people and then double it for our restaurant, which helps prepare them for future careers at hospitals, nursing homes and schools, as well as restaurants, hotels and event facilities.”
For a recent Italian-themed lunch, diners began with an appetizer of house-made focaccia, a choice of house salad or Panzanella salad, and a choice of entrée such as gnocchi Bolognese, chicken Marsala or grilled eggplant Parmesan. Dessert choices were Zabaglione, which is a sweet marsala custard with strawberries, cannoli or fresh fruit with honey yogurt. Another menu featured entrée choices of petite beef tenderloin, seared salmon or veggie stuffed and roasted sweet pepper with dessert choices of chocolate mousse, red velvet cupcake or chocolate-dipped strawberries. The $12 per diner charge helps to cover the expenses.
“The lunch service runs for 12 weeks during the regular school year and often runs again for a summer term if students need the class to stay on track to graduate,” said Jones. Housed in an old sorority house on Sorority Row, Lenoir Hall provides two seating times: one at 11:30 am and the other at 12:30 pm. “We tried to offer dining for dinner, but there just weren’t as many people on campus at dinner time so lunch made more sense,” says Jones, “So we have kept the program at lunch.”
Originally from Houston, Texas, Jones attended Ole Miss beginning in 1990 and began working at Downtown Grill for about three years. The experience, he said, inspired him to attend culinary school. He went to Johnson & Wales University in Norfolk, Virginia, and graduated through its accelerated program.
After graduation in 1996, he worked for the Brennan family restaurant group at two restaurants in Houston and then was persuaded to return to Oxford to work for some of John Currence’s restaurants in 1997. He worked for the Downtown Grill once again, this time as executive chef. After 18 months, he moved to City Grocery before moving to Florida to work at two fine dining restaurants in Vero Beach. He took a brief break from chef duties and spent three years working in food sales in Mooresville, North Carolina, before becoming a catering chef at Davidson College in Davidson, North Carolina.
His parents had already retired to Oxford when he was approached again about returning to Oxford. “I was talked into coming back again and making it my third time living there,” he said. He met his wife, Melissa, in Oxford, and spent about four years at Boure restaurant and another year at Lamar Lounge and Fat Eddie’s, working long chef hours again. That’s when his wife asked him to consider the food specialist position at Ole Miss.
“My wife really persuaded me to slow down the pace and so 31 years later, I’m back at Ole Miss.” While many other college nutrition and hospitality programs across the state don’t offer a student-run program such as Lenoir Dining due to the expense of setting up an extensive food lab on campus, Jones sees it as a valuable tool and integral part of the program. “While we require an internship to graduate, here at Ole Miss the students don’t have to leave campus to have experiential learning,” he said, “and many other schools require two or three times the hours we do.”
Jones enjoys the combination of cooking and teaching as he helps students prepare for their future in the industry. “If I was still a restaurant chef here in Oxford, I’d be cooking the same dish about 500 times a night during an Alabama game weekend.”