The cockiest chef in Little Rock calls his parents every day. He proposed to his wife over greasy hamburgers at Midtown Billiards. Once a regular on the city's late-night party scene, he's more likely to ride a bicycle than a bar stool these days.
Donnie Ferneau isn't who you think he is, and he's also not who he was when he arrived to shake up the city's food scene 15 years ago.
"I totally feel like I've changed," says Ferneau, executive chef at The 1836 Club. "I've mellowed with age."
That's relatively speaking, of course. Ferneau still carries himself like a man who has had his name on the hottest restaurant in town, cooked for celebrities near and far and twice won the Diamond Chef Arkansas competition, one of the top cook-offs in the state. But he has also seen a restaurant with his name on it quickly fail, mended a few bridges in the local culinary community and realized that his legacy may not rest solely on being the most famous chef around.
His fellow chefs appreciate his abilities, in and out of the kitchen.
"He's super talented," says Todd Gold, dean of the Pulaski Technical College Culinary Arts and Hospitality Management Institute. "He's a personality, and I think that people are not only attracted to the product he puts out but also the sideshow that goes along with it."
"He likes to go out on the edge, he likes to do stuff nobody else does," says Jamie McAfee, executive chef at Pine Bluff Country Club. "A lot of people call it cockiness. He does have confidence, and he's not scared to try anything, and if he is scared to try anything you'd never know it."
Ferneau says it wasn't always that way. Growing up in Rock Falls, Ill., a town of 9,000 about two hours west of Chicago, Ferneau saw himself as a lanky, nerdy kid "with biceps like wrists." It's an image that's hard to reconcile with his physique today, which is 6-foot-4 inches and 230 pounds honed by regular bicycling and weightlifting.
Ferneau says he was "picked on a lot" and "girls immediately put me in the friend zone. It sucked."
One of five children, Ferneau was -- and still is -- happiest at home with his family. His father worked for the railroad, and his mother tended bar at a Ramada Inn. He says his family rarely went out to eat. Instead, they'd pick up a pot of red sauce from one restaurant, a bucket of fried chicken from another and a gallon of root beer from A&W and take it all home.
"Food to me was always like a family dinner."
After high school, Ferneau headed to a culinary academy in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where his father had been transferred. But it was a job with chef Philippe Forcioli at a restaurant in Rockford, Ill., called Cafe Patou that provided his most valuable training. Ferneau describes Forcioli, who had cooked on the Orient Express, as an old-school chef who criticized everything from his knife cuts to the way he held his spatula.
"He yelled at me, called me the stupid American," he says. "He would leave applications on the cutting boards just to show us that other people wanted our jobs."
Nevertheless, Ferneau rates Forcioli his biggest culinary influence and says the older chef was "very complimentary" by the time he left 18 months later.
Donnie Ferneau Jr.
DATE AND PLACE OF BIRTH: April 16, 1975, Rockford, Ill.
I RELAX BY riding my bike and spending time with my dogs and family.
NOBODY KNOWS I tend to get social anxiety in large crowds.
STRANGEST FOOD ORDER I’VE EVER RECEIVED: “I’m a vegetarian but don’t like vegetables. What can you do?” Surprisingly, this has happened more times than I can remember.
I’VE NEVER COOKED gumbo. Once I thought I had made gumbo, but a true Southerner tried it and said, “This is good, but it ain’t gumbo.” So I guess I have never made a true gumbo.
RESTAURANT I’D MOST LIKE TO VISIT: Tough question, but right now I’d have to say Toro in New York City.
PET PEEVE: The sound of people eating/crunching is truly my kryptonite.
EARLY RISER OR NIGHT OWL? Night owl, for sure
GUESTS AT MY FANTASY DINNER PARTY: Elvis Presley, my mother, chef Philippe Forcioli, Walter Payton, Lady Gaga and Abe Lincoln
MENU AT THAT MEAL: tacos, great barbecue and a whole mess of margaritas
ONE WORD TO DESCRIBE ME: patient
In 2001, Ferneau's father was transferred again, to Little Rock, and his son followed.
His first job, as a waiter at Shorty Small's, ended in less than a day, when a diner "looked at me like I was an idiot for not being able to read his mind." Ferneau took off his apron, told the manager he was quitting and ordered a beer.
His first cooking job was at Spaule, under chef Paul Novicky. Ferneau credits Novicky with teaching him "the Little Rock palate" but says they "didn't see eye to eye on a lot of things."
"I was very strong willed, and he was as well," Ferneau says, adding that today Novicky is "actually a friend."
MOVING ON ... AND ON
Ferneau next landed at Satellite Cafe, where his brother, Jeff, tended bar and Donnie prepared dinner Thursday through Saturday. "We tried to never do the same thing twice," he says. "That's where things started rolling. There was a buzz."
But the packed houses evaporated in the wake of 9/11, and Ferneau moved on to Lilly's Dim Sum, working for owner Kathy Webb, not always harmoniously. "We've got a great relationship now," Ferneau says of Webb, who's now a Little Rock City Council member.
Ferneau next helped open Vermillion Water Grill, then served as chef at Ciao Baci from 2002 until 2004, when he and business partners opened a restaurant called Ferneau on Kavanaugh Boulevard in Hillcrest. Diners "went crazy" over his ahi tuna nachos and other menu items "that Little Rock hadn't seen yet," he says.
"We had a good dinner crowd and then we'd turn around at night and have a great bar crowd."
Ferneau was often right there with the latter, says his wife, the former Meaghan Blaine, who met him during that period. "Ferneau was that place where, after work, all the pretty professional people would go to get a cocktail," she says. "He lived that lifestyle. When I met him, it was absolutely all about going out and having a good time. He would stay out till 1 or 2 in the morning."
"To say I was pretty full of myself would be an understatement," Ferneau says. But, he adds, "I was able to reel myself in at a time when I could have hurt a lot of people."
Ferneau sold his share of the restaurant in 2012, staying on briefly as chef during the transition, then took a year and a half off to figure out his next move. That turned out to be a health food restaurant called Good Food by Ferneau on Main Street in North Little Rock.
"I was just trying to cook for people what I was eating," he says, mentioning dishes like turkey meatloaf and "unfried" chicken. Then in his 30s, Ferneau had rededicated himself to a fitness regimen and finally realized he could get twice the results by combining exercise with a healthful diet.
But Good Food "never took off," closing after a year.
"Don't ever open a health food restaurant in Arkansas," Ferneau advises. "We were a little ahead of our time."
Nevertheless, the end came with a silver lining. After the restaurant's last party, Ferneau and Meaghan were at Midtown Billiards with friends when his sous chef started pestering him about his intentions toward Meaghan. "He finally just got down on his knees while we were eating a burger and proposed," Meaghan says. "It's not the most glorious, but it's very true to us."
Ferneau isn't afraid to step outside a restaurant kitchen, which is one reason he has maintained a high profile in the city's food scene.
McAfee remembers meeting him for the first time when they cooked against each other in a competition to benefit the Arkansas Kidney Foundation.
"He kind of brought out my competitive edge," says McAfee, who has been in the business 41 years. "I liked his attitude and charisma."
A few years later, Ferneau asked McAfee to help him stage the Slate 60 dinner honoring some of the world's biggest philanthropists at the Clinton Presidential Center -- an event the size of which Ferneau concedes he had no experience with. They were searing beef tenderloin for 200-plus guests when smoke set off a fire alarm and the whole glittering crowd was evacuated. "I remember looking over and Warren Buffett was right there," Ferneau says.
As soon as the Secret Service guarding former President Bill Clinton gave the OK, Ferneau says, "We went back in, put our game faces on and rocked it out. It was good comedy relief."
TEMPERING A DIAMOND CHEF
He has twice cooked for a celebrity poker tournament fundraiser in Texas thrown by actress Eva Longoria, and took part with other chefs in a 300-mile bike ride in California to raise money for the No Kid Hungry campaign.
He won the first Diamond Chef Arkansas competition in 2006 and did so again this year. His winning dish this time around: pan-seared chicken, topped with braised, poached and fried chicken testicles.
"They tasted like chicken butter," Ferneau says, clearly enjoying the retelling.
He has put his cooking skills to use for the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance, March of Dimes, the Farmbox2Family Charity Food Box Program and other causes. He did a cooking demonstration for low-income high school kids, preparing Caprese salad for one 16-year-old girl "who'd never had a fresh tomato in her life." Like many chefs, Ferneau champions the farm-to-table movement, although he realizes it can succeed only to the extent of local demand.
Ferneau has appeared on the Food Network and the Cooking Channel and says he was flown to Miami to try out for Top Chef, the Bravo network's reality competition, but didn't make the cut. "They loved my cooking but they wanted me to be a little bit more controversial, I guess," he says. "I was too nice."
Ferneau went straight from his second namesake restaurant to working as executive chef at The 1836 Club, a private club that opened in the historic Packet House on Cantrell Road earlier this year. Owned by state Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson and partners, it's geared toward a business and political crowd, with private dining rooms, a couple of bars and a cigar room upstairs.
"It's a really cool atmosphere, something like an old-school supper club," Ferneau says.
It's also closed weekends, meaning Ferneau can be present for all-important Sunday dinner with his parents, Don and Lindy. "It's part of who I am."
Donnie and Meaghan married Nov. 12 (coverage of their nuptials can be found on Page 4D of the High Profile section). Meaghan, who works in public relations, says her husband has "settled down in the days since I've known him," although he still possesses a sharp tongue and sense of humor. "I have seen him in the past five years grow into so much more of a respectful and responsible person."
The 1836 Club is no health food restaurant -- steaks and fried chicken are the current top sellers -- unless you count the kitchen, where in almost a complete reversal of industry culture, none of the staff smokes. Ferneau approves.
"I want to make sure they have a strong life."
He tries to promote a healthy emotional and mental atmosphere, too.
"I do get impatient and yell like any other chef, but at the end of the day, it's all positive. Happy chefs make happy food."
High Profile on 11/20/2016