The Hepcat Dustin Fox

Dustin Fox is The Hepcat's head chef.

You’ll see a few things upon entering The Hepcat, the old-school jazz club that opened last week in downtown Springfield. Behind the swingin’ jazz performers on the club’s stage, you’ll see an antique Steinway. Behind the bar, you’ll see the club’s co-owners, Jimmy Rollins and Dylan Fox, hamming it up with industry folk. Behind the gleaming tables, you’ll see satisfied grins from patrons enjoying the club’s standout comfort food. And behind those smiles, you’ll find Dustin Fox, the club’s head chef.

While his younger brother (Hepcat co-owner Dylan Fox) thrives behind the bar, Dustin runs the kitchen with a certain down-home passion. Although he’s only been working in kitchens for about two years, he learned his way around a stove at an early age. “I spent all of my free time in the kitchen when I was a kid,” he says. The majority of that time was spent with his brother on their grandmother’s farm in Seymour, Missouri. There, the two learned how to whip up comforting Midwestern classics for friends and family. While Dylan went into the hospitality industry almost immediately, Dustin spent the first part of his career as a truck driver.

But when Dylan announced plans for The Hepcat, Dustin knew it was time to get back to his culinary roots. He immediately left the trucking industry and went to train under chef Andy Hampshire at Farmers Gastropub. While working in the industry, Dustin realized that Springfield was missing something major: late-night dining options. “When you work in the industry, you don’t get off work until 10:30 or 11,” he says. “At that point, it’s like, ‘Well, Taco Bell again, I guess.’ I wanted to be more accommodating than that [with The Hepcat].” Now, The Hepcat serves its full menu until midnight during the week and until 1am on weekends.

Thus far, Dustin’s approach to The Hepcat’s menu has been somewhat cautious, with a limited menu featuring simple dishes like fried olives and smoked fried chicken. Now, with a successful opening under his belt, he’s excited to grow the menu. On the docket are an expanded selection of appetizers and vegetarian options including one dish he’s particularly passionate about. “I’m pretty well-known for my mac 'n' cheese,” he says. “It’s what made me realize I had a future in cooking. All you need is a good roux as the base, plenty of white Cheddar and lots of butter and cream.”

While the budding culinary ingenue is forthcoming about the method behind that beloved dish, he’s a bit more tight-lipped about the recipe for his grandmother’s cheesecake, which will debut at The Hepcat as part of a rotational dessert series called "Something Cheesecake and Something Chocolate." The only ingredient he’ll reveal? “Love and care,” he says.

Do you have a secret weapon spice/ingredient/technique? I’m really loving having a smoker in the kitchen. We’re gaining a bit of a following for our smoked fried chicken right now. It’s phenomenal.

What’s your perfect day of eating in Springfield? I’d typically start my day off at Gailey’s. I’ll get The Downtowner with eggs over medium and hash browns. I like to change it up for lunch, so I might try Rama Thai or Taj Mahal. After that, I’d probably end up downtown again – either at Golden Girl [Rum Club] or up on Commercial Street at Lindberg’s [Tavern].

How has the local food scene evolved over the past year? I think local chefs are doing a great job of changing perspectives around here. I don’t want to say the Springfield area is behind the times – and I certainly have a healthy respect for our local food – but it’s exciting to see some growth.

What’s your go-to food at home or on your day off? Gosh, it depends on the day. If I’m around my family, I’m usually grilling a tri-tip or something like that. I always want to share the food I make; I’m always trying to get together with people and enjoy the moment.

What’s your favorite comfort food? A good stew. Something that warms the bones. Stews are nice and comforting; they just make me want to curl up on the couch.

Who are Springfield chefs or bartenders you admire at the moment? Of course, Andy Hampshire [of Farmers Gastropub]. I also worked closely with Drake Tillman for a long time. Helping him with his Canvas pop up was my first breakthrough on anything commercial. I also respect Daniel Ernce and Caleb Stangroom quite a bit. They try to keep things fresh for everyone around here.

If you could tell home cooks one thing, what would it be? Never give up on anything. If something doesn’t work out exactly the way you want it to, just stay persistent and get a little creative.

What is your first food memory? Growing up, Dylan and I spent summers on our grandmother’s farm in Seymour. I remember following my grandma around in her kitchen for hours. She knew I was fascinated with food prep, and she was always trying to teach me little tricks.

What inspires your cooking? How do you approach R&D at your restaurant, and what inspires that process? This menu is an homage to the friends and family I’ve cooked for over the years. That’s who gave me my start. Of course, when I’m cooking I’m always reminded of my grandmother. Other than that, Dylan and I are working to incorporate a lot of staples from our childhood into this menu. I’m also excited to work seasonally – fall is coming up, and that’s a big one for me. I love cooking fall food. So far, we’re planning on doing at least three seasonal menus a year. This fall, I’m planning on plenty of braises – sticking with that comfort food theme, but putting my own spin on it.

What are your future plans? I definitely want to see where The Hepcat takes me. I’d love to open up another spot with my brother down the line. We’ve joked around about a bunch of ideas – a diner, something like that.

The Hepcat, 220 S. Campbell Ave., Springfield, Missouri, facebook.com/thehepcat

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