BENTONVILLE — Matt McClure is casually dressed in jeans and a plaid shirt as he sits at a corner table at The Hive, the restaurant in this city’s swanky 21C Museum Hotel. The executive chef is not at all casual when talking about the James Beard awards, considered by many in the business to be the “Oscars of food.”
McClure, 37, has been a James Beard Award semifinalist for Best Chef: South every year since 2014. The Best Chef: South region encompasses Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi and Puerto Rico.
The awards are voted on by more than 600 culinary professionals across the country. Jones Bar-B-Q Diner in Marianna is the only Arkansas Beard award winner.
McClure, a Little Rock native, learned most of what he knows about cooking in New England, where he rubbed elbows in kitchens with some of Boston’s most talented chefs. He returned to his home state in 2007 to help reopen the fine-dining restaurant at the then newly renovated Capital Hotel. He was in the process of putting down roots in Little Rock when he got news of the art and culinary movement in fast-growing Bentonville.
With nothing else like it in the area, The Hive developed a local following, and attracted out-of-towners drawn to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. Soon, McClure caught the attention of the James Beard Foundation — although he has yet to win the award.
“I just love being on the list [of semifinalists],” McClure says. “It keeps us relevant. I do want to be able to say, ‘I’m a James Beard Award-winning chef,’ but quite frankly, being on the list gives us that national credibility that opens up doors.”
McClure first heard about the late Beard while cooking in Boston in the early 2000s. He helped a chef and friend, Keith Pooler, cook at the Beard House in New York.
“I think the main connection that I have with James Beard is that he was all about promoting food and cooking in America,” McClure says. “We are a nation of immigrants that has pulled from many cultures that make up our food. I feel very proud to identify as an American chef, and my food, too, is absolutely American. Without James Beard’s contributions to cooking I would not have been able to do what I am currently doing.”
DATE AND PLACE OF BIRTH: Oct. 8, 1979, Little Rock
FAVORITE CHILDHOOD MEMORY: When I was finally able to drive, I liked going to downtown Little Rock and running around at night. I love wandering old downtowns.
TODAY I’M CRAVING: We just got in some beautiful striped bass from Maryland, and I really want to take those collars and roast those collars. Most people throw them away.
MY FIRST JOBS WERE mowing yards in my neighborhood, washing cars for a friend’s stepdad’s dealership and hauling hay.
MY WORST JOB WAS working for a catering company in Boston for two months. It was all soul-less food. It was the summer they had the Democratic National Convention in Boston, and we did all the food for CNN and ABC.
I DRIVE A 2003 Toyota 4Runner with 150,000-plus miles on it.
ALWAYS IN MY REFRIGERATOR YOU’LL FIND cultured butter, eggs, some kind of jam or jelly, homemade pickles, yellow mustard, maybe salami.
I ABSOLUTELY WON’T EAT: putrid shark and whale blubber that I had in Iceland — I don’t need to try those again.
MY ASPIRATIONS FOR THE HIVE: In 15-20 years, I want my staff to have their own restaurants and be successful from what they learned here.
MY STAFF WOULD DESCRIBE ME AS levelheaded.
ONE WORD TO SUM ME UP: steadfast
Inspired by a father and brothers who loved to hunt and fish in central Arkansas, McClure grew up eating lots of fresh food. The family ate what was in season, be it crappie, white bass, bream, catfish, dove, deer, squirrel or the occasional rabbit. With fishing, “we would go for a particular species, but hey, if we were bass fishing and caught a catfish, we were catfishing,” he says with a grin and shrug of his shoulders.
There was an unspoken emphasis on healthful food in the family. “It’s a lot of work to cook from scratch, feeding a family of five,” McClure says. And the three boys “ate like it was our job.” (He says his 2-year-old daughter, Helen, inherited their healthy appetite.)
McClure was born and reared in Little Rock, moving with his family to the southwest side of the city when he was 2. While a student at Parkview High School (he was bused across town), he worked as a sacker at Kroger, made pizzas at Pizza Hut and toiled on the cook’s line at Macaroni Grill. Still, he never considered a career in food. He thought he would be a mechanical engineer, but three semesters at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville proved traditional schooling wasn’t for him.
“It just wasn’t who I am,” he says. He did get something out of it though — one of his professors planted a seed about culinary school, one in particular in Vermont, the New England Culinary Institute.
His relationship with his high school sweetheart, Jenny Ahlen, also weighed into his decision to head east. She was attending Boston University, and a move to Vermont would put them within easy driving distance of each other. So in the fall of 2000, McClure packed up everything he owned in a Ford Taurus and headed to culinary school.
The school was set up so that McClure would alternate six months in class and six months interning in Boston. At age 20, he interned at the now-closed Sel de la Terre. “I view that as the beginning of my cooking career,” he says. He also interned at No. 9 Park in Boston, where he worked under the direction of James Beard Award-winner Barbara Lynch, one of the city and nation’s leading chefs and restaurateurs.
“I was a Southern kid in a Northern kitchen, and man they let me know I was an outsider,” McClure recalls. After his internship at No. 9 Park, he worked short-term as a line cook at Harvest, an institution on Harvard Square said to be one of Julia Child’s favorites. He then became a line cook at Troquet, a smaller restaurant in Boston’s theater district.
“I needed to go to the place that was really going to … make me into what I wanted to be.”
Pooler, a Boston restaurateur who was McClure’s executive chef at Harvest, thought enough of McClure’s “skill, attitude and drive” to make him his executive sous chef.
“He always had it in him,” Pooler says. “He was willing to put in the work,” which often amounted to as much as 70 hours a week. Mature for his age, McClure had goals and ambition, avoiding the early Anthony Bourdain stereotype of playing as hard as he worked.
McClure describes the Boston restaurant scene this way: “I worked for these chefs who had gone out, seen the world, came back and were doing something to make their town better.” McClure seized the opportunity and mastered different aspects of cooking everywhere he worked. For instance, at Troquet, he learned to cook suckling pig, properly cure duck for duck confit and cook duck confit.
CAPITALIZING ON HIS
Matt and Jenny consumed themselves with work while in Boston, leaving little time to explore the city and its amenities. Feeling the need for change, they quit their jobs, got married and moved back to Little Rock, all within a threeweek period.
As the Capital Hotel was opening after a massive renovation in 2007, McClure took a job as sous chef under executive chef Lee Richardson at Ashley’s, then the hotel’s fine-dining restaurant. His friend Travis McConnell had the same job at the Capital Bar and Grill across the hotel’s lobby.
“I think he learned a lot about working at hotels at that level, as well as an appreciation for Southern cuisine and seasonal foods,” McConnell says. The two remain close, both living in Bentonville and being peers in the restaurant business.
“Overall, he’s a great leader and professional, and has a very thoughtful approach to his cooking,” McConnell adds. He attributes McClure’s demeanor to his upbringing.
“I think he’s always held himself to a higher standard. He’s just a very mature man.”
At Ashley’s, McClure loved the fast pace of the popular restaurant and was impressed with the freshness and variety of ingredients sold at the nearby Little Rock Farmers Market. He told his chef friends back in Boston, “Man, you guys won’t believe what all I have to work with here.”
Four years later — just after Matt and Jenny bought a house in Little Rock — she found her dream job with the Environmental Defense Fund in Bentonville. About that time, Matt started talking to management from the Louisville, Ky.-based 21C Museum Hotels, which was planning what would become its third location, just off the square in Bentonville. He was hired in 2011, spent three months training at the flagship property in Louisville, and then he and his team opened the doors on The Hive in 2013. It is his first job as an executive chef.
Today, he rides herd over 20 in the kitchen, including five sous chefs.
“I’ve got a lot of people cooking my food for me, so I have to manage with my palate more so than I ever have,” McClure says.
Melanie Tapp, corporate director of food and beverage operations for 21C’s seven museum hotels, says McClure has become a mentor to the new chefs at other properties, such as the one 21C recently opened in Nashville, Tenn.
ALL THE BUZZ
“They want these properties to be chef-driven,” Mc-Clure says of 21C. “They want each property to have its own unique feel.”
With that in mind, McClure says he’s grateful for having a part in telling the Arkansas food story.
“I think the conversation is still going, but I think it’s linked to the ingredients, what’s grown here and the growers,” he says.
Immigrants from South and Central America and India provide additional flavors and cooking techniques, he says. “It’s not necessarily what people think about when they think about Arkansas cooking, but it’s a snapshot of what’s here and now.”
One example: McClure’s garam masala roasted chicken — chicken marinated in an Indian spice blend served with a bread-and-butter braised cabbage. Another is his Arkansas trail mix bar snack consisting of pecans, black walnuts, soybeans and black-eyed peas, all spiced and prepared in different ways. Pretty much everything on the menu is made in-house.
“We’ve built The Hive,” he says. “We got the reputation that we really always yearned for. So now it’s making sure we stay current and modern and keep adding things.”
To that end, McClure has time to pursue other related interests, such as food policy matters. He tries to use ethically raised meats and produce whenever possible.
McClure has long supported local farmers and purveyors, sometimes spending as much time on farms as in the restaurant. Jeremy Prater, owner and operator of Cedar Creek Farm in Cedarville, became a source for pasture-raised pork at The Hive about four years ago. He was impressed that McClure wanted to tour the farm and visit Prater’s butcher and processor.
“He got really involved,” Prater says. “He wanted to go out and see the pigs; we walked the forest to check out all the hogs.”
When Prater makes a delivery to McClure, the chef quizzes Prater on what breeds he’s working with and other details of his operation. McClure can take an eviscerated hog and break it down into usable cuts, even the tail.
“Getting your product into a restaurant like The Hive, that’s where you can really start to change your farm as a business,” Prater says. Selling to McClure has led to business with other chefs.
After McClure was hired by 21C and before the restaurant opened, McClure taught culinary classes at Northwest Arkansas Community College and is now on the advisory board of the new Brightwater culinary school in Bentonville. Brightwater, named for a species of apple that was cultivated in Northwest Arkansas, is on par with the top tier culinary schools in the country, McClure says.
Being involved and sharing his techniques and talents selflessly with others motivates those under him, Tapp says.
“He’s not a boss, he’s a leader, and he leads with humor and coaching,” she says. “His passion sets him apart from someone who’s just a really great cook.”