Chef Blackley brings passion for food, mentorship to Northstar’s Bourbon Pub
Northstar California Resort’s newest offering for drinks and dining brings a different take to traditional pub fare, but it’s also brought a new member of the community to the Truckee-Tahoe area.
Executive Chef Jon Blackley has been in the restaurant industry for more than two decades, and after spending many years working at locations around North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains, has joined the team at Vail Resorts and the MINA Group.
“It just seemed like the perfect opportunity because it’s a partnership between two top-notch organizations,” said Blackley, who moved to the area with his wife in August. “You have Vail, which is fantastic … and then you pair that with the MINA Group, who are world renowned for their level of service. It’s a great fit up here at Northstar.”
The MINA Group is a San Francisco-based restaurant management company led by chef and founder Michael Mina. In late November, MINA Group, in partnership with Vail Resorts, opened the Bourbon Pub, which is located at the base of the Big Springs Gondola in the Village at Northstar.
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“Lake Tahoe is a special place for us all in the Bay Area and has grown in popularity over the years, not just in the U.S. but globally as well,” said Mina. “I’ve had my eye on the region for a long time and we’ve been waiting for the right opportunity to expand to North Lake Tahoe. When the opportunity arose to partner with Vail Resorts and join their incredible portfolio, it was a no-brainer. We’ve been chatting with them for a while about what would be the right fit in Northstar, and I wanted to create a place that would be perfect after a day of being on the slopes.”
The restaurant opened with somewhat of a “greatest hits” collection of menu items from across the MINA Group’s restaurants, but has since evolved to include collaborations between Mina and Blackley on its elevated pub-inspired food.
“We’re presenting approachable flavors and concepts, but we elevate it. That’s really what our menu focus is here. We want to supply some comfortable flavor profiles for everyone, and just kind of spin it, elevate it,” said Blackley. “We want to really absorb into the Tahoe vibe.”
Among the items Blackley said he’s most excited about are the restaurant’s vegan cauliflower steak, which “makes you forget that it’s vegan as you’re eating it. It’s very hearty and filling.”
Among the new offerings now available is a mushroom rigatoni, which Blackley said has been an immediate hit with guests.
“That’s been extremely well received,” he said. “We use a combination of all different types of wild mushrooms. You name it and it’s probably in there … we also add a little bit of truffle oil to finish, Parmesan cheese and bread crumbs. That’s been wildly popular since we put it on.”
Blackley said the most popular item thus far has been the Bourbon Pub nachos, which he described as “dinner and a show” due to the presentation of beef chili, a sunny side up egg, cotija cheese, avocado, crema, and chili pepper.
The Bourbon Pub will continue to alter and evolve its menu, said Blackley, according to public response and as the seasons change.
From rock ‘n’ roll to kitchen mentor
Blackley has been employed in kitchens ever since he was a 14 year old working in the back of a pizza joint.
During those early years it wasn’t food that peaked his interest. Instead, Blackley had his sights set on a career in music, playing guitar in a rock group.
“If you asked me when I was 18 years old, I was going to be a rock star and play music and that was going to be it,” he said. “Well, the rock star thing didn’t work out.”
Blackley soon transitioned his creative energy into culinary dishes and later enrolled in culinary school.
“It’s something that I kind of fell into,” he added. “I’ve found that just like in music, you can be artistic with food, you can have expression in what you’re doing, and at the end of the day, playing music and serving people is really hospitality anyway. You’re doing it to provide an experience for someone, and I get great joy out of that.”
Coming up in the food industry he said it wasn’t always easy to find mentors, and said those above him were often guarded when it came to giving out advice and tips. Those experiences have since shaped his approach to handling a kitchen today as an executive chef.
“If someone that’s worked for me goes on to another location, and far surpasses me, I kind of win both ways, because I was able to pass on my knowledge to them,” said Blackley. “I think passing on what you have for the next up-and-comers is very important. I’m constantly letting my culinary interns or my line cooks know that I want to give you all of the tools that I have, that I’ve learned, because I want you to be better than I am, and that’s something that didn’t always happen in the beginning of my career. Things were very guarded … thankfully I believe that has shifted a little bit.”
One bit of advice Blackley said he’s consistently imparted on those working under him is that a career as a chef can open opportunities across the globe. Eventually, he decided to take his own recommendation and move from the comfortable confines that he’d built in North Carolina to the unknown of Lake Tahoe, a place he’d never been to before moving here last year.
“I’ve mentored a lot of chefs and I’ve mentored a lot of culinary students, and I’ve said, ‘This job can take you around the world.’ And that began to hit home,” said Blackley. “I’ve been doing this really well in North Carolina and I kind of wanted to get myself out there into a completely new arena.”
One aspect of working with Vail that Blackley said he’s appreciated is the company’s Commitment To Zero program, in which employees sort refuse for recycling and composting.
“It’s an ambitious program, particularly because in food and beverage, we do generate a lot of waste. But for us to have a compost and even down to recycling our gloves, it’s really quite an amazing feat,” said Blackley on the program.
“The more that I’ve been a part of Vail, the more that I really am in line with their values — the good things that they’re doing, not only for their communities and the environment, but the way they take care of their people,” Blackley said. “I couldn’t have made a better decision.”
Moving into the remainder of the season and summer months, plans are to continue to expand the Bourbon Pub to include more outdoor seating and live music performances.
“That’s something we are moving into. The full-on outdoor patio activation during the weekends for the rest of this season,” said Blackley. “I think we’re going to become the anchor of this village. We’re offering, not only these great menu items and things you may not be able to find in downtown Truckee, but the service and the experience that goes along with that. I think we’re really gaining some traction.”
Justin Scacco is a reporter for the Sierra Sun. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-550-2643.
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