FRUITLAND – Chef Jim Hughes has had the honor of cooking for Presidents, actors and sports heroes, has worked in restaurants from Saudi Arabia to Palm Springs and has been the recipient of numerous awards, but he achieved one of his most prized accomplishments this year when his Fruitland restaurant, Restaurant 213, was bestowed the coveted DiRoNA award.
DiRoNA, Distinguished Restaurants of America, is a non-profit organization that reviews restaurants all across North America, including Mexico, Canada and the U.S., with the aim of selecting only the best of the best. This year, only eight restaurants were chosen to receive the DiRoNA.
“It really is the Oscar of the restaurant industry,” said Chef Jim Hughes, owner and Executive Chef of Restaurant 213. “It is one of the most difficult accomplishments for a restaurant.”
In order to be considered for a DiRoNA, the restaurant must be open for at least three years. An application is submitted, at which point the DiRoNA board selects which restaurants are worthy of research and review. Food professionals and critics, sent by DiRoNA at an unknown time, are charged with performing the reviews. Everything from the parking lot to the décor and, of course, the food is meticulously examined.
From the start, having a small restaurant on the Eastern Shore of Maryland even be considered for review was a feat within itself, but with Hughes’ extensive experience and background, the application caught DiRoNA’s attention. “When they saw that, they knew we were serious,” said Hughes.
Hughes has been training and working as a chef for over 30 years and has studied cuisine all over the world, from the Middle East to Africa to New York City. Over the years, he has cooked for well-known persons such as Mohammad Ali, Jerry Lewis, Bob Hope and President Reagan, to name a few, and has served as executive chef at luxury resorts in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Palm Springs and D.C.
After years of working as executive chef in a variety of restaurants across the world, Hughes was ready to take on a new challenge.
“I was pretty much tired of working in the industry,” he said.
In 1994, he took on a new role when he was recruited to start the culinary arts program at University of Maryland Eastern Shore. Hughes spent 10 years at UMES, during which time he fell in love with the Eastern Shore. In 2004, he took on another venture, opting to open a restaurant in Fruitland. “This opportunity came about and I just jumped on it,” he said.
Much of Hughes’ French training can be seen in the food at Restaurant 213, with the incorporation of “cuisine of the sun” into his menu. Everything is made fresh and from scratch, explained Hughes, with all produce grown on site, from tomatoes to zucchini and squash.
The menu selection is global, with homage paid to his time in the south of France, but with other regions of the world tied in as well.
Hughes emphasizes quality and tradition in every aspect of his cooking, often following the motto, “You never do anything you can’t do.”
“You have to follow tradition, be creative, but learn the basics first,” said Hughes, highlighting the importance of starting with the basics in the kitchen. “We’re very fundamentally sound here. A lot of chefs today lack that, they have a good eye, but they don’t know how to get there.”
Walking into the kitchen at Restaurant 213 on the busiest of nights, one will only find two chefs at the helm, Hughes and his assistant Brian Mills, who started training under Hughes at the age of 15. While most kitchens feature eight to 10 chefs, with restaurants in New York often employing 50 to 60, Hughes sends out quality plate after plate, all created by himself and Mills.
For Hughes, being honored with the DiRoNA was validation for what he had been saying for years. Hughes had often said Restaurant 213 was the best in the mid-Atlantic region and even the best in North America.
“Then along came the DiRoNA and now you can have the credentials that allows you to say what you believe. It’s easy to say you’re the best, but until you have something that says your in the family of the best…,” he said.
Being the best has always been a priority for Hughes, who consistently strives for perfection. “I don’t want to be second, I don’t know anyone that wants to be second,” he said.
Hughes will travel to New Orleans in October to receive the award, which will stand proudly in the restaurant. Restaurateurs will also travel from near and far to have a taste of the most recent addition to the DiRoNA family. According to Hughes, DiRoNA restaurants have a strong following of customers who travel to try out the distinguished cuisine and experience.