Here's the recipe for the Arkansas Times' latest special event: Hundreds of pounds of slow-cooked, smoky, melt-in-your-mouth tender pork, cooked by a who's who of culinary experts from around Central Arkansas (and even one from Memphis). Craft beer and wine. And a veritable raft of great bands, including 2013 Times Musicians Showcase winners The Sound of the Mountain and the Grammy-nominated Cajun party-starters in Lost Bayou Ramblers.
If that sounds like its up your alley, clear your calendar for Saturday, May 4. That's when the Arkansas Times and Argenta Arts District will present our first Heritage Hog Roast, at the Argenta Farmer's Market at Sixth and Main streets in North Little Rock. The cook-off involves 11 teams of local chefs, who'll be roasting 125- to 140-lb. heritage-breed hogs from Falling Sky Farm and Freckle Face Farm from the wee hours (or possibly even the night before) over specially constructed outdoor pits. Gates open at noon; music starts at 12:45 p.m. At 3 p.m. each team will prepare plates for celebrity judges and serve up portions of their hog and two sides to ticket-holders. Think of it as a buffet sampler of gourmet pork bites and fixin's. That'll last until 7 p.m., or until food runs out. The entertainment line-up includes Mandy McBryde, Davis Coen, Bonnie Montgomery, improv from The Joint, Riverboat Crime, The Sound of the Mountain and Lost Bayou Ramblers, who'll play a full set starting at 8 p.m. Tickets are $25 in advance or $30 at the door. After 7 p.m., tickets to hear music are $10. Kids 10 and under get in free. Get advanced tickets at heritagewholehogroast.eventbrite.com. Thanks to Ben E. Keith for generous sponsorship.
'Argenta Market Team'
Brian Cherry, executive chef at Argenta Market, grew up in Florida, where he used to dig ditches in the sand and roast pigs in banana leaves. His sous chef Greg Dooly cooked whole hogs years ago working in hotels. But they're not sweating their lack of recent experience. "It's like riding a bike," said Dooly. Plus, they've got a barbecue sauce guaranteed to separate them from the pack — Dooly's patented blueberry barbecue sauce. They're planning to rub the pig with a yet-to-be determined spice combo, baste it with blueberry barbecue sauce and pair that with roasted corn and potato salad. Cherry has been at Argenta Market for a year. He said he's the first actual chef the grocery/deli has had in some time, and he's worked hard to restore its culinary reputation. It seems to be working; 750 people walked through the store during a celebration of the store's third anniversary. Before Argenta Market, Cherry was executive chef at SBiPs in the Quapaw Tower, which attracted a lot of critical love, but too few customers in its seven months of business. Dooly followed Cherry from SBiPs to Argenta Market. Cherry said there are no plans to add dinner service to the market. One day, if he can afford space in Argenta, he might like to try his hand at another sit-down restaurant. Until then, he stays busy with the cafe and catering for the Arkansas Travelers when they're in town. He's got plenty of experience cooking for baseball players. He catered for the LA Dodgers for a decade. LM
'The Bossa Nova Porcaos'
Cafe Bossa Nova
Sure to bring a little Latin flavor to the Arkansas Times Heritage Hog Roast is the team fielded by Dan Monroe, who helps run Brazilian restaurant Cafe Bossa Nova in Hillcrest with his wife, Rosalia Monroe. Though Dan Monroe admits he's never personally cooked a whole hog, the Bossa Nova Porcaos are still a pretty sure bet to turn out something amazing given that their eight-person team is loaded with friends and Bossa Nova employees from all over Latin America, several of whom learned to prepare and cook whole hogs at outdoor roasts back home. Monroe said they were still formulating their strategy when we talked to him earlier this week, but given that some of the best pork we've ever had was cooked by folks from Mexico, Central and South America, all signs point to "delicioso." "We've got several different flavors of people in our group," Monroe said. "We have Mexican, we've got Brazilian, we've got Argentinian. They've all got something they're going to contribute to this thing. ... Everybody's got a different way to do it, so we're still in the 'how are we going to do it?' stage." Monroe said that one thing they have settled on is imported Brazilian charcoal, supplemented with hickory for "a little flame." Made of South American hardwood, the charcoal burns longer and is a little heavier than standard charcoal, which Monroe said should mean less fire-tending as they cook through the night. DK
'The Capital Chefs'
Capital Bar and Grill
Travis McConnell, the Capital Hotel sous chef who runs the Capital Bar and Grill, leads "The Capital Chefs" team, which means it's one of the most experienced teams in the competition. No one participating has been more focused on whole animal butchery and cooking in recent years than McConnell. He's already hosted two hog roasts this year, and he regularly butchers hogs in the Capital kitchen. Whole animal butchery will be the focus of Butcher & Public, the restaurant and butcher shop he plans to open sometime after his contract with the Capital Bar is up this summer. To get his name out and highlight local producers and brewers, he's hosting a semi-regular series of hog roasts in Little Rock at urban gardens. The first, held in January at Dunbar Garden, drew more than 100. For the Times event, he'll cook his pig much like he has at earlier roasts — he'll salt and cure it briefly ("sort of a dry brine"), marinate it for a couple days in a concoction likely to include olive oil, lemon, garlic and herbs and then cook it on a custom spit he and his father made over a fire fueled by hickory and oak. He'll serve the pig on house-made ciabatta rolls with a chimichurri sauce. LM
'Country Club of Little Rock'
Country Club of Little Rock
The CCLR stole chef Brian Kearns from YaYa's several years ago, and since then he's worked to balance tradition with innovation in the menu for the more than 100-year-old institution. Kearns, 38, trained at L'Ecole Culinaire in St. Louis and apprenticed under Chris Desens at Racquet Club Ladue. He's brought that French touch to the country club, and asked what he thinks members might consider his signature dish said it would be his lobster penne, a creamy pasta dish with sweet peas and prosciutto. You might not think a chef from the rarefied air of the LRCC chef would be interested in a hog-cooking contest, but he is. "I want to showcase the hog itself" at the cook-off, Kearns said; he'll go the traditional, "Carolina-style" route to let the flavor of the pig flesh dominate. He'll baste his beast with lots of vinegar and a little mustard and roast it covered on a grill over a 56-by-40-inch pit about 40 inches deep, using what he figures will be a quarter cord of apple wood. Kearns does four or five whole hogs each year at the Country Club, for the Fourth of July and "anytime I can get an excuse" to cook one. Teammates are club general manager Blaine Burgess, executive sous chef Jon Vovo and a friend from St. Louis, Eric Krauska. LNP
'The Italian Stallions'
The Italian Kitchen at Lulav
Mario Flores is in charge of the kitchen at The Italian Kitchen at Lulav. No, he's not Italian, despite the name of the restaurant and his hog-cooking team. Flores, 28, is from Mexico, and got his culinary training in Mexico City, "everything from the basics to the fresh pastas, bread, sauces, dressings" and so forth. He came to the United States nine years ago to "cook and get a better life and learn this culture." Before he was hired as sous chef at Lulav two months ago he was a cook at the Alotian, the private and very exclusive golf club on Hwy. 10 owned by financier Warren Stephens. He loves Lulav, Flores said: "It's a great place." The Mexican native will return to his roots, cooking his hog the way he did in his native country "for big parties": He'll rub the pig in a chimichurri paste of coriander, cumin and other spices and herbs and smoke it in a pit before finishing it off on a grill. Flores likes to slow-cook pork, for several hours over a medium heat. "It tastes fantastic," he said. He said he may do a special side dish, like potatoes or another starch. He'll be cooking with Matt Lile, the owner of The Italian Kitchen at Lulav. LNP
'The Porkshank Redemption'
John Beachboard, Scott McGehee and Ben Brainard have been going balls to the wall for months opening their tremendously popular gourmet Mexican restaurant Local Lime and overseeing and further growing their burgeoning restaurant empire. So this will be a nice break from the grind of business. A chance to bond. "John, Scott and I haven't done anything like this together before," said Brainard, Local Lime's head chef. "Travis McConnell [with Capital Bar] has forgotten more about cooking whole hogs than the three of us ever knew, but we're not scared to mix it up." In fact, despite the talk about taking a break from the business, they're so committed to competing they're planning a test roast in a couple of weeks. Brainard said they're planning a Central American take on the roast that ends up served on tacos. They'll likely do a porchetta-style hog, where they take all the bones out, keep the head on and cook it on a spit. He said he wouldn't know firm details until after the test, but the general plan is in place: "Low heat, lots of attention, lots of rotation." LM
Chef Brian Deloney's Maddie's Place in Riverdale just celebrated its fourth birthday. Maddie's serves "comfort food with a New Orleans influence" in a comfortable, relaxed environment, which it turns out is a recipe for success in the Little Rock restaurant scene. Of course, Deloney's training (Culinary Institute of America in New York) and professional pedigree (executive sous chef for Emeril Lagasse at NOLA and Delmonico Steakhouse in Las Vegas and sous chef at The Capital Hotel, among others) would be good clues that Maddie's isn't just serving up run-of-the-mill South Louisiana fare. So what sort of strategies might Deloney and crew employ for winning the Heritage Hog Roast? "Strategies?" he said, sounding more than a little incredulous. "We're gonna make it up as we go along." While he's been to several whole hog roasts before, the Times shindig will be his first time to try his hand at cooking an entire pig. "So we're going to try some different techniques on it, maybe inject it and see where we go from there," he said. "Slow roast it, drink a bunch of beer and watch it cook." RB
'Reno's Pit Crew'
Reno's Argenta Cafe
A couple of years ago, Gabe Holmstrom had some buddies over for the Super Bowl and after brainstorming over a few beers, came up with the idea of hosting a party in his backyard centered around cooking a whole hog in the ground. Holmstrom, chief of staff for Arkansas Speaker of the House Davy Carter, built a bricked-in pit about 3 feet deep, 3 feet wide, and 4 feet long. He's used it as a fire pit, a smoker, and has buried a pig in it several times as well. Last spring, Holmstrom debuted the first annual Downtown Pig in the Ground party, along with a bipartisan group of political players with a passion for pork (food, not GIF money!), including Mitch Berry, Chad Causey, Ben Noble, Bishop Woosley and Bill Vickery. Veterans of Marion Berry's Pre-Coon Supper reception, they decided they'd like to create a similar food-centered political event in Little Rock. "We're all guys in our 30s and 40s," Holmstrom said. "Here's something that if we start it now, maybe we can turn this in to something." Their second annual event, raising money for the Quapaw Quarter Association, will be held just a week before the Heritage Hog Roast competition. Will that give Holmstrom and company, who are competing for the Reno's team, a leg up? Holmstrom noted that some of his competitors are serious chefs, whereas he's "just a good old boy that likes to play with fire." But he's had a lot of success in the past making tender, succulent barbecue, he said. "Something that Chef Lee [Richardson, former chef at the Capitol Hotel] told me is: Make sure you get it up to 140 degrees and shoot the dirt out of it. Do that and you're going to be just fine." DR
'Hog Time BBQ'
Not only has chef Brian Isaac of North Little Rock's Ristorante Capeo never cooked at a whole-hog roast before, he's never even been to one. But Isaac, along with his brother and partner in the kitchen, Eric Isaac, are confident about their chances. "I think we're going to win," Brian predicted. They're already cooking up some meat to try different sauces as a test run — their plan is to steer away from a traditional barbecue sauce. "We want something a little different," Brian said. "We're going to try to make it a little jazzy." The Isaac brothers have been cooking together since they were teenagers. After training on the Italian Riviera, Eric returned to bring authentic Italian cuisine to North Little Rock, opening Capeo along with Brian in 2003, when a revived Argenta was a twinkle in North Little Rock's eye. It's been a neighborhood favorite ever since. DR
The Root Cafe
Times readers are no doubt familiar with The Root Cafe, the local-foods-focused restaurant opened by Jack Sundell and Corri Bristow-Sundell on South Main Street. Their place has proven enormously popular in the two years it's been open. And while pork doesn't make up the majority of the menu at The Root (try the vegetarian bahn mi, seriously!), it is well-represented, with locally made bratwursts and a ham and cheese sandwich made with Falling Sky ham. So what sort of approach will Sundell and his Roasted Root teammates Jerry Puryear and Kelly Gee take to win glory at the Heritage Hog Roast? "We are going to take that thing and we are going to talk to it," Sundell deadpanned. "We're going to get with it the night before and discuss some existentialist philosophy, we're going to listen to its opinions about how the world should work, and then we're going to throw it on the smoker and see what comes out on the other side." Surely Sundell jests, not wanting to reveal any trade secrets, right? "No, I'm serious, that's what we're going to do," he said. Oh, and in case you're wondering if that team name is a reference to neo-hippie jam-band Rusted Root (they were big in the mid '90s), Sundell said: "For people our age it is. But I asked some of the younger folks who work here and they were like, 'Rusted who?' So it might just be a little inside joke." RB
'The Farmer and the Chef'
St. Jude Children's Research Hospital
As director of culinary operations for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Miles McMath oversees a battalion of chefs and kitchens that turn out over 8,000 meals a day. He's no pencil pusher, however. In addition to being a trained chef, McMath is a farmer who raises heritage hogs himself on his farm in Mississippi. He knows his way around an outdoor whole hog roast. He and his team of seven — which includes several chefs from St. Jude, plus farmers and chefs from Mississippi and Arkansas — pl an to turn out a Memphis-style hog with a vinegar-based injection, while incorporating some top-secret techniques that he didn't want to share before the competition. He said he generally uses cherry, pecan or apple wood to smoke. Though he said he gets a little better every time, McMath adds that roasting a whole hog and doing it well is one of the bigger challenges in cooking. "You've got about four or five different areas of that pig that have different cooking temperatures," he said. "The hams are a big, dense muscle without much fat, then you've got the shoulder, which has a pretty good bit of fat and a little less cooking time. You've got the tenderloin, the loin, the ribs. To me, it's about fire placement, injection and basting." McMath's team plans to start at around 6 p.m. the day before the competition, and cook through the night. "If we can all get along and agree, we should be good," he said, laughing. "That's going to be the hard part." DK