You might not recognize chef Justin Hughes if you see him out in public these days.
Owner/creator of The Wooden Toothpick, Hughes, 25, says, "I thought of the name because nobody really sees me without a toothpick in my mouth. Except now. Because we have to wear masks."
Hughes, pastry chef at Chickasaw Country Club, describes The Wooden Toothpick as "just a little side business I started at home. I started making homemade ice cream. It was really just people who wanted stuff — pastry and cakes. And I said, 'Sure. I can do it.'"
- Marcia Woods
- Justin Hughes
His menu also will include hamburgers. "One is going to be the Spicy Shroom, with jalapeños, roasted mushrooms, American cheese, and bacon. It's not all pastries."
Hughes conducts his side business in his home kitchen when he's not at the country club, where he makes desserts for banquets and "all the special desserts for dining in. I also do cakes on request by the guests."
The afternoon we spoke he was preparing to make an alligator cake for the club's swim team.
Becoming a chef was the furthest thing from his mind growing up in Memphis. Hughes found himself in a kitchen when he was 18. His dad, who worked at Galler Foods, got him a job at Interim restaurant.
Hughes began working as a dishwasher under chef/owner Jackson Kramer. "I didn't know anything about cooking at the time," he says.
Kramer liked to "get people who don't know anything and mold them. In my interview, he asked if I wanted to start learning cooking. I said, 'Sure. Might as well.' So I washed dishes about three months, and in between those three months, he was showing me prep work and knife skills."
Kramer asked him if he wanted to make salads. "I took to it real quick," Hughes says. "It took a while, but once I started learning all the vinaigrettes, how to clean and prep the lettuce, it was a no-brainer after that. Something in me took over and I bonded with it."
He moved to prepping burgers, grilling, hot apps, and vegetable plates. Kramer took him "from the ground up" and taught him.
When Hughes thought it was time to move on, Jason Dallas, then Interim's executive chef, helped him get a job as a room service cook at The Peabody, where Hughes eventually got a crack at making pastries.
"They needed 500 duck cookies or something like that. I had to help the lady upstairs bake all the cookies, cut them all out duck-shaped, let them cool down, ice them, decorate them, and hand-bag them up with a gold duck sticker."
Hughes landed a job as a pastry chef at the hotel. "I had no choice but to pick it up really quick," he says, adding, "It was very confusing at the start. It was tedious work. I had no patience at the time, but pastries have really calmed me down. I've learned to prioritize and organize everything and actually take my time as a pastry chef because they're real delicate. If you move too fast, you mess it up and have to start all over again.
"We had to make soufflé batter every day. I had to make giant opera cakes probably once a week. I did all the desserts for tea time. Tea time took up most of my time. I had to make all the scones, macarons, and key lime tartlets."
Hughes moved on to other restaurants, including Paulette's, Char Restaurant, and Cafe 1912 before Chickasaw Country Club.
The country club is "actually more relaxed," he says. "You're not worried about walk-ins like a regular restaurant."
Though he might make 120 crème brûlées for a function, "I don't really care for the fancy desserts I make all the time. My go-to is chocolate peanut butter cake."
That cake — layers of chocolate cake with peanut butter mousse in between and chocolate ganache on top — isn't on The Wooden Toothpick menu. But, he says, "It could be. That'll probably be one of the cakes of the week I do."
To order from The Wooden Toothpick, go to the-wooden-toothpick.square.site.