Just outside Austin at a place called Hudson’s on the Bend, chef Jeff Blank serves up solid, savory country fare—sophisticated food that sticks to your ribs.
By this time of year in the Hill Country west of Austin, the white flowers of the wild yucca and the pink-and-white blossoms of the plum trees are blooming in the back yard of Hudson’s on the Bend, Jeff Blank’s ranch house turned restaurant. On a mild spring morning the robust, red-haired Blank, wearing a white chef’s shirt and black-and-white-checked pants, rushes out to gather the edible blossoms. Stumbling over rusty old horseshoes, with no time to take in the peaceful view of the surrounding hills, he roams into the fragrant cedar and juniper bushes beyond the back parking lot to pick the yucca flowers that grow candelabralike from the desert plant.
Blank and his co-chef, Robert Hughes, use the flowers to garnish regional dishes that have won national attention for their homey three-year-old country restaurant. Smoked game, smoked fish, smoked just about anything, and abundant amounts of fresh vegetables and herbs are the trademarks of Blank’s wildly imaginative cuisine, which, appropriately enough for this part of the country, swings from Mexican dishes to German food. In recent months the up-and-coming Blank has garnered notices for his hearty, unpretentious Southwestern cooking in the New York Times and high-style M magazine and has appeared in the PBS series Great Chefs of the West. The publicity has brought the hardworking Blank and his small staff long-distance reservations from both coasts.
Four years ago Blank and his wife, Debby, were looking for a new restaurant concept and a new start. The chef, now 37, got his first taste of restaurant management during high school, when he managed the Beef’n Bun at Austin’s Lakeway Marina and hired his future wife to cook burgers. After attending hotel school at Oklahoma State University, Blank met chef Gert Rausch, a German trained in Europe and the founder of Austin’s Courtyard restaurant. Blank kicked around in various restaurants and eventually teamed up with Rausch and Robert Hughes, an old friend who had worked with Rausch, to open a restaurant in the Colorado ski country. But the snow failed to fall that winter of 1978; the restaurant closed. So Hughes