If you're craving a particular type of dish, describe it to Branon Mason. He'll make it happen.
"I create things on the spot," says Mason, 36, Ciao Bella Italian Grill executive chef. "It's kind of like jazz. You know how you get a solo in jazz? It's like, 'All right. Pick the solo and go make something.' That's pretty much been me."
Where does that talent come from? "I have no idea. The ability to create on the fly, maybe it's something from my musical background. Maybe it's something from being into sports. A lot of thinking on your feet type of things."
Mason's first love was football. "I played Pop Warner Football for the Cherokee Dolphins. That was in a little neighborhood on the edge of Orange Mound."
Football as a career was over for the most part after Mason suffered ligament damage to his knee.
He ended up joining the Overton High School band. His band director said Mason "had the lips of a tuba player."
He landed a scholarship to Tennessee State University in Nashville, where he was part of the concert, brass ensemble, and pep bands as a freshman, but he flunked out. "Not being used to the whole college atmosphere and being away from home for the first time, it was too much for me."
Mason had worked the doughnut machine at a Krispy Kreme when he was 16 and, later, flipped hamburgers at a Wendy's and made sandwiches at a McAlister's Deli, but he had no desire to make cooking a career.
That is, until he got a job at the Olive Garden on Winchester.
"Once I got the grasp of how to cook and saute and grill and prep, I ran with it. I fell in love with cooking at the Olive Garden," he says.
But he didn't feel creative. "I just knew I was a cook at Olive Garden, but a chef was something different."
He began "researching chefs and what they do. On the internet. Books. I can remember going to sit in Barnes & Noble and reading The Joy of Cooking."
Mason moved to New York with the idea of going to culinary school. He got a job at the Blue Fin restaurant of the W Hotel. "It was the biggest kitchen I have ever seen in my life. It was three floors."
But after a year, he moved back home because he couldn't afford New York.
Mason got a job at Ciao Bella the day after he returned. He's been there ever since.
His creativity was unleashed after he became Ciao Bella's head chef in 2013. "I started getting into taking pictures of my food. And Instagram came out. I was like, 'All right. I can make something new and put it out and people will see it and people will come here and taste it. That idea just lifted me."
The Ciao Bella menu features favorite dishes from the restaurant's owners — the Tashie family. Mason and family members collaborate on how to execute those dishes. Most of Mason's creativity is seen in his specials, like the shrimp cocktail he featured.
Ciao Bella owner Paul Tashie wanted Mason to come up with a shrimp cocktail. "I'm like, 'Okay. How can I take shrimp cocktail and make it new and fresh and exciting? And also have it relate to the restaurant and the Italian/Greek thing? I orchestrated a Greek spice blend that I marinated my shrimp in, using oregano, lemon, garlic. I grilled the shrimp."
Instead of the "good old red traditional" cocktail sauce, Mason blended basil pesto, traditional horseradish, and "a sweet tomato essence" to come up with a "basil, pesto cocktail sauce. And it was a killer."
Using purple Peruvian potatoes, Mason made a purple potato puree. "The color from it — the bright pink from the shrimp, the royal beautiful purple for the potato, and the bright green from the pesto — it just made a ridiculous color scheme."
Mason's dishes are combination of care and the "wow factor," he says. "Something that's special that you wouldn't think you'd put on a plate. Just knowing those things and trying to incorporate them into my cooking, that's what translates. That's what you get. Just raw, unpolished gold."
Ciao Bella Italian Grill is at 565 Erin Drive, (901) 205-2500.