What do folks think of when they think of Arkansas? The Clintons? Football fanatics? Natural beauty? Fine cuisine is probably not high on the list. There have always been great restaurants here and there, but the Arkansas food scene has probably had more ebbs than flows over the years.
Lately, however, things are looking up. Just take a look at our "Best Of" list. If our readers are the judge, two of the state's best restaurants — South on Main in Little Rock and the Hive in Bentonville — just opened in the last year.
If we are to search for the beginning of this happy wave, a good place to start might be 2006, when Lee Richardson arrived as executive chef at the Capital Hotel and reopened the upscale Ashley's restaurant.
Richardson, a New Orleans native who had worked under John Besh, among others, was a wonderfully gifted chef, but he also set about building an unusually talented team at the Capital. Richardson recruited folks with Arkansas roots who had been trained at some of the best restaurants in the country — Little Rock native Brian Deloney returned home after spending 10 years with Emeril; another Little Rock native, Matthew McClure, came back from Boston; Conway native Travis McConnell returned from Portland, and Mountain Home native Cassidee Dabney left the world-renowned Blackberry Farm in east Tennessee to come to the Capital.
"We had traveled around, and we walked into Ashley's like we already knew how to cook; we already had these ideas about food," McClure said. "Then we got exposed to the Arkansas farmers markets, and all those networks of farmers evolved and cultivated the way we thought about what we could do in the state of Arkansas and really expanded it.
"It was amazing to work in the same kitchen as these guys. Now that we've all kind of gone our separate ways, there's an unspoken brotherhood or club that we're in. You don't realize you joined it, but you did."
Before he left the Capital in 2012, Richardson drew national acclaim for his work in Little Rock, with multiple nominations for the James Beard Foundation Awards, the prestigious honors awarded to the nation's top chefs and restaurateurs. As those who worked under him have started to branch out on their own, there's been a ripple effect that has impacted the culinary scene in Arkansas, which Richardson said "was my intention from the beginning. ... If I could provide an opportunity for people to learn and to develop and to grow, the reward for that is that they're going to go and do their own thing." Slowly but surely, restaurants are popping up with the same ambition and quality that Richardson brought to the Capital, and the same vision of meticulously crafted food sourced by local ingredients.
Longtime Little Rock residents remember Jacques and Suzanne, which opened in 1975 and drew nearly universal acclaim as the finest restaurant in the city for the next decade. It closed in 1986, but alums from Jacques and Suzanne went on to work at or founded dozens of restaurants, forming the bedrock of the city's dining scene in the decades to come.
Something similar is afoot among Capital alums. McClure is now the executive chef at The Hive, the Bentonville restaurant in the 21c Museum Hotel. The restaurant, which opened last February, is the choice of Times readers for numerous "Best of" categories, and is already in the conversation for best restaurant in the state; it's also getting national acclaim, with McClure recently named a James Beard semifinalist.
"Every chef in the country that has a clue is looking at that [James Beard] list to see if their name is going to be called," McClure said. "It's amazing. To be from Arkansas and bring something like that ... it's just a huge win for Arkansas. We're competing on that level."
McClure loved working in a big food town like Boston, but said he has been inspired by the challenge of leaving a well-established foodie culture and moving to a place still finding its sea legs.
"It's like, OK, what is this actually accomplishing?" McClure said. "What are my long-term goals about changing food? You've got to move to the middle of the country where there's not the movement, and my home state is a great example. I'm from here. I'm an Arkansan through and through. To be able to do it here, and feel like I'm not compromising anything ... that's the absolute cherry on top. ... I'm serving the same food I would serve if I was in a bigger market but I'm doing it in my home state successfully, and trying to just change the way people think about what Arkansas contributes to the culinary world."
Last August, Capital alum Matt Bell opened South on Main, another multiple-category winner in this year's "Best of Arkansas." Bell, a Montana native, was hired by Richardson in fall 2008. He started as a pastry player, "low man on the totem pole," as he puts it. Bell worked his way up to sous chef, eventually writing the menu and running the kitchen at Ashley's, but it wasn't easy.
"My first six months, I would go home repeatedly and tell my wife, 'I am so in over my head,' " Bell said. "Cassidee Dabney and Matt McClure really pushed the boundaries of what I thought was professional cooking, especially for this town. With Cassidee, Matt, Travis [McConnell] — it was a realization for me that these people are not only the best in Arkansas, they could be anywhere cooking and they could compete on a top level at any restaurant."
Ashley's and the Capital, Bell said, "set a new expectation for what great food is and what great service is. ... Lee spent over a year researching Arkansas and food providers and food preparers. ... Ultimately, with all the talent in the world, he really managed to focus it and try and tell this food story that is locally sourced, locally grown and honing it with an eye for what is Arkansas cuisine."
Working on that question — what is Arkansas cuisine? — seems to be a mission statement of sorts for places like The Hive and South on Main.
"I think as the people kind of go and seed from the Capital Hotel, I think we're finding our answer," Bell said. "I think Matt McClure will be that second huge wave of what is Arkansas food and what can we do with stuff we can get within a couple hundred miles."
McClure said he's rooting for fellow Capital alums like Bell as they start other projects in the state (see sidebar for more). "I want them to do great," he said. "As long as they stick to the philosophy that was the philosophy at the Capital, just being honest about your food, then I want everybody to do well. When I go back to Little Rock, I want to go eat at chef-driven restaurants. I want to eat food that is interesting and delicious as opposed to just slopping it out for the crowds because that's what they've done for the last 30 or 40 years."
Both McClure and Bell have continued the careful preparation and adventurous menus from Ashley's but both have, thankfully, left the stuffy ambience behind. The Hive and South on Main certainly qualify as fine dining, but both restaurants are inviting and relaxed.
"I wanted to make sure it was fun," McClure said. "The food at Ashley's was fun and very creative, but the whole dining experience was stuffy. People were not comfortable laughing or being able to have a good time. [At the Hive] the passion and the seriousness that comes with sourcing all the ingredients and taking care of them and cooking that, that is all the same, or even elevated. But the casual dining experience is really what I felt like more people wanted."
Bell takes a similar approach. "An environment where people don't feel like they have to dress up, don't have to make advance plans, I think that puts people at ease and opens them up to the idea of trying new things," he said. "Like our rabbit boudin is really popular. That's not something you see everywhere on a refined menu, that's a roadside menu. Same with our pork rinds: It's something we have; it's something we love to do. But it's also just fun to sit down and eat a bowl of pork rinds."
Bell and McClure are too talented to be pigeonholed, but both have a particular knack, as Richardson did, for offering a refined and cultivated spin on familiar country classics. This approach (we'd call it downhome gourmet, but Bell said he hates the word "gourmet") has anchored some of the best new restaurants in New Orleans, where Richardson was born and raised and first cut his teeth as a rising chef. Richardson came to Little Rock in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
"I was very focused on trying to preserve the integrity of my own heritage in Louisiana," Richardson said. "That's where my mind was. But when I came to Arkansas, I saw a food culture and a food story that was under-recognized and essentially untold. I felt the same sort of calling. My driver is cultural preservation. We're at great risk of losing some of the meaningfulness, some of the soulfulness of life, as we barrel into the future."
"I'm damn proud to be cooking food in Arkansas, this food in Arkansas," McClure said. "We have the opportunity to become a culinary destination, and the fact that I'm a part of the conversation, I couldn't be happier."