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Jason Hoke judges dog shows around the world while remaining a top-notch chef

Jason Hoke’s first time judging a dog show involved Great Danes, the breed he grew up with and knew extensively. Though nervous, he felt ready.

You can’t prepare for everything.

This was a decade ago, at Meadow Farm in Virginia, where the legendary racehorse Secretariat was born.

Many of the people Hoke grew up with in the dog show world were in attendance.

Hoke walked onto the field where the judging would take place, leaned over to set down his briefcase and split his pants, front to back.

“A catastrophic failure,” he says. “I was horrified. I clenched for seven hours.”

Hoke, 49, quickly overcame that inauspicious debut. He has traveled from his home in Madison to judge shows in 29 countries, including Crufts in England, the largest dog show in the world.

Hoke was the first American invited to judge Great Danes in their native Germany. He has both judged and provided national television commentary at the famed Westminster Kennel Club dog show in New York City.

“He’s established himself as a preeminent judge,” says David Fitzpatrick, a Pennsylvanian who breeds and shows dogs and, in 2012, won Best in Show at Westminster with a Pekingese named Malachy.

“Jason is a second-generation dog person,” Fitzpatrick says. “He knows breed standards and has what is called an eye for a dog. He can easily discern which animals are the quality dogs.”

Somehow Hoke has also managed a parallel career in the culinary arts. He worked as a chef at the Inn at Little Washington in Virginia under 2019 James Beard Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award winner Patrick O’Connell.

Hoke and Dino Maniaci, his personal and professional partner, earlier this year opened D’Vino, a wine and small plates bar on King Street. It’s next door to Woof’s, the nightclub they launched in 2006. The couple also co-founded the nearly decade-old King Street Pride Block Party held each August.

“We don’t stay still very long,” Hoke says. “We’re not built that way.”

Hoke grew up in the small Pennsylvania town of East Berlin. His parents bred and showed dogs — German shepherds and Great Danes.

“I was born into it,” Hoke says, and by the time he was 8, he was showing dogs in children’s competitions.

Into high school, he was a good student. “But by the time I graduated, I probably missed a year of school going to dog shows.”

Hoke moved to California, got a job showing dogs for a wealthy family and earned a business degree from California State University, Fullerton. He began working for handlers of breeds beyond Great Danes, expanding his expertise to include small dogs.

By the early 2000s, Hoke says, “the time was right for me to take a break.” He returned to Pennsylvania, purchasing a property that had belonged to his grandparents.

Jason Hoke Hugging Winston

Photo by Patrick Stutz

“I loved cooking,” he says. “I decided I wanted to go to culinary school.”

He got a two-year degree — “This was before it was cool to go to culinary school,” he says — and the last requirement was an apprenticeship. Hoke applied at the Inn at Little Washington, an internationally celebrated hotel and restaurant.

Chef Patrick O’Connell, already a legend, presided.

“He was my boss,” Hoke says. On his first day, when Hoke was to make cold appetizers, O’Connell informed him of the restaurant’s AAA Five Diamond rating and said, “I hope you’re not the reason I lose a diamond.’ ”

It was exhausting work — 15-hour days for inadequate pay — but Hoke stuck with it. After two years he was the only one allowed to cook breakfast, the hardest meal because of the extensive prep work required.

There was other culinary work, including working for a Washington, D.C., caterer that provided expansive dinners for the tenants of Embassy Row. But by 2008, Hoke missed the dog world and began showing again.

“The natural progression in our sport is to judge,” he says, and Hoke was eventually certified to judge numerous breeds.

He had also, by that time, met Maniaci, who was living in New York but had Wisconsin ties, including having run an Italian restaurant in Green Bay. In 2004, they moved to Madison together.

“It’s easier to have a nice life in Madison,” Hoke says, “and not have that heavy beat of the drum every day from New York or D.C. It’s a comfortable life but a vibrant city — theater and art, always something going on.”

Jason Hoke judging a great dane

Photo courtesy of Jason Hoke

Of their new restaurant and wine bar, D’Vino, Hoke says, “It’s exciting. I think there’s a niche for it.”

Hoke did television commentary at the Westminster show last summer and recently recalled what happened his first time there as a judge.

“It was my first time on the floor of Madison Square Garden,” Hoke says. “I was excited and nervous. The timing is very regimented for the TV production.”