Originally from Wisconsin, Chef Jason Cunningham’s parents moved to the area in 1996, with Jason following soon after to live with them and save money to go to culinary school. In March 2001, after finishing school, he started as a line cook at the Washington Duke. A month later, he was a sous chef. Eventually he rose through the ranks, learning plenty from the executive chef prior to him about hotel operations. When his mentor left in 2004, Jason approached the general manager to throw his hat in the ring for the top position. He was granted a trial run before accepting the title of executive chef six months later. Now, he runs a kitchen of 55 full-time staffers. He lives with his wife, Laura, and sons, Daniel, 8, Andrew, 7, and Connor, 4, in Apex.
What’s your favorite meal to make at home?
Really, it’s mac-and-cheese. [The kids will] take it out of the box, but I usually amp it up. I’ll make a classic cheese sauce, use penne pasta, put bacon in there, and bake it off.
How do the holidays change the kitchen dynamic at the hotel?
The holidays here are a really big deal. [Surprisingly,] October is our busiest month, hands down. Once we get into October, start the day-in, day-out, and get into a rhythm, things sort of amp up to Christmas. Our average days will be 600 to 700 diners for breakfast, lunch and dinner. And once we get into the holidays, [that number will grow to] upwards of 1,000 a day. Our record day is 1,500 people. When you have food service operation for breakfast, lunch and dinner, plus room service and banquet space, it never sleeps in here.
Is it difficult to always work holidays?
It has its challenges, but my family is tremendously supportive. We celebrate our holidays the day after. It’s still kind of hard for the kids, though, on Christmas morning … but they’re still getting toys, [so they’re not upset for too long].
Is there a dish you particularly look forward to during the holiday season?
My mom makes this cheesy potato, bacon casserole thing that I just love. It’s like scalloped potatoes, but not as pretty. It’s just so good. The side dishes, I think, are what really make [the holidays].
Where’s your favorite Durham spot to grab a quick bite to eat?
Cosmic Cantina. I’ve been going there for a long time, ordering a veggie deluxe burrito with guacamole.
And what about if you’re taking your wife on a date?
Nana’s. Usually Scott [Howell]’s pretty generous when we go; he always surprises me. Over the years, I’ve developed a very good relationship with him.
Book In Advance
“For holidays, we start reservations eight weeks in advance,” Jason says. “Typically, we have a lot of availability, but we usually see a push towards the beginning of November as people get their plans in place.” Make yours today.
Try This at Home
Roasted Heritage Farms Cheshire Pork Loin with Apples and Cider
1 4 or 5 lb. all-natural pork loin or pork rack
2 Tbsp. all-purpose flour
Kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper
1 Tbsp. fresh rosemary, chopped
4 Tbsp. olive oil
4 Tbsp. unsalted butter
2 large yellow onions, peeled and chopped
4 cloves garlic, peeled and split
4 sprigs rosemary
1 sprig fresh sage
4 sprigs fresh thyme
5 or 6 large, crisp apples (N.C. Ginger Crisp or Winesap), cored and quartered
1 12 oz. bottle Bold Rock Hard Cider
Heat the oven to 325 F. Truss the pork loin with butcher twine to make it uniform in shape.
Mix flour with liberal amounts of salt and pepper and the finely chopped rosemary. Rub this mixture all over the pork, coating it evenly.
Heat a large heavy skillet or roasting pan over high heat, add the olive oil and sear the roast all over until brown on all sides. Turn off the heat. Place onions, garlic, rosemary sprigs and half of the butter in the bottom of the pan, place the pork on top, cover with foil and place in the oven.
Cover and cook the roast for approx. 40 minutes. Add the apples, hard cider, remaining butter and herb sprigs to the pan. Baste the pork and apples with the pan juices, and then re-cover and cook 30 minutes more.
Raise the oven temperature to 400 F, remove the foil, baste the pork and apples and cook for an additional 15 minutes.
Transfer the pork to a cutting board, remove the string and let rest for a minimum of 10 minutes before slicing. Transfer onions and apples to a platter and the pan juices to a pan on the stove. Reduce pan juices by about half, and serve alongside the sliced roast. Place the roast over the apples and onions.
Photography by Briana Brough