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When I see Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin, our conversations are rarely about politics. Griffin served in the U.S. House of Representatives, worked in the West Wing of the White House during the George W. Bush administration, and worked for the Republican National Committee. I was the political editor of this newspaper, spent almost a decade working for Gov. Mike Huckabee, and also served in the Bush administration.

Given our backgrounds, you would think Griffin and I would talk politics. Instead, we find ourselves discussing the Arkansas food scene and the growing group of chefs who are making this a golden era for the state's restaurants.

I wasn't surprised two years ago to learn that it's Griffin who selects the Arkansas representatives to the Great American Seafood Cookoff in New Orleans. The event was started in 2004 by the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board to promote domestic seafood. Chefs cook before a live audience and present their dishes to a panel of six judges who score based on presentation, creativity, composition and flavor. In 2016, Griffin selected chef John Munday and sous chef Marshall Smith from Samantha's Tap Room & Wood Grill in Little Rock. They placed second.

This year Griffin chose chef Maudie Schmitt of Cafe Rue Orleans in Fayetteville, which opened in 2001. Schmitt's grandparents were restaurant owners in the New Orleans area. Her mother was born on Tchoupitoulas Street in the Crescent City in an apartment above the family restaurant. A mirrored window pane from that building hangs in Cafe Rue Orleans. Schmitt attended Henderson State University at Arkadelphia and then returned to New Orleans to begin a teaching career. She later moved to Lafayette, La., and taught there for 23 years. When she retired from teaching, Schmitt returned to Arkansas and the restaurant business. Her business partner, Carla Williams, is from Camden and had a grandfather who was raised in New Orleans and later owned a restaurant.

For the past two years, I've been on the selection committee for the Arkansas Food Hall of Fame. One of the categories is Proprietor of the Year. Reading the nominations has given me a sense of how deep the talent pool has become in a state that ignored its food heritage for too long. This year's winner was Mary Beth Ringgold, who came to Little Rock to work for Bruce Anderson at Cajun's Wharf along the banks of the Arkansas River.

Anderson earlier established a reputation as a fine restaurateur with his Anderson's Restaurant at Beebe and its renowned seafood buffet. When I was growing up in Arkadelphia, we would follow the Ouachita Baptist University football team. I looked forward to the trip to Searcy every other year to play Harding University. The game was usually in the afternoon, and we would stop to eat in Beebe on the way home. Anderson's was the first place I ever saw live lobsters in a tank.

Ringgold's father and both grandfathers operated diners in her native West Virginia. After scrubbing pots and pans for years, she swore she would never be in the restaurant business. Well, things changed. She ended up owning three restaurants in Little Rock. She resurrected Cajun's Wharf when it was a failure after being purchased by the Landry's chain. She also opened Capers in west Little Rock, and Copper Grill downtown. All three restaurants have been successful.

This has been a good year for Ringgold. In addition to being inducted into the Hall of Fame, she won the Diamond Chef Arkansas competition for the second consecutive year. She defended her title against six competitors--Little Rock chefs Brandon Douglas of Green Leaf Grill, Joseph Salgueiro of Pleasant Valley Country Club, Coby Smith of Arkansas Heart Hospital, and Jordan Davis of Chenal Country Club, along with Casey Copeland of The Avenue at Hot Springs, and Jamie McAfee of the Pine Bluff Country Club.

I expect that the other three finalists for Proprietor of the Year--Matthew McClure of The Hive in Bentonville, Scott McGehee of Yellow Rocket Concepts in Little Rock, and Capi Peck of Trio's in Little Rock--will find their way eventually into the Food Hall of Fame.

McClure, who was born and raised in Little Rock, has been nominated for a James Beard Award (the top recognition in the food industry) for five consecutive years. Like many Arkansans, he grew up hunting and fishing. His grandmother's cooking fueled his passion for wild game and local ingredients. McClure studied at the New England Culinary Institute in Vermont and later worked at Boston restaurants such as Troquet, Harvest and No. 9 Park. He returned to Little Rock to work under chef Lee Richardson at the Capital Hotel and developed relationships with local farmers. In 2012, McClure joined the team that opened The Hive at the 21c Museum Hotel.

McGehee is the son of Frank McGehee, who operated such Little Rock classics as Juanita's and the Blue Mesa Grill. Scott McGehee's grandmother, Ruby Thomas, was legendary for her recipes at the Red Apple Inn on the shores of Greers Ferry Lake near Heber Springs. McGehee studied at the California Culinary Academy at San Francisco and later worked at the famed Chez Panisse in Berkeley. He returned to Little Rock to open Boulevard Bread Co. Yellow Rocket now operates Big Orange, Local Lime, ZaZa, Lost Forty Brewing and Heights Taco & Tamale Co.

Peck's grandparents were Sam and Henryetta Peck of the famed Sam Peck Hotel. She carries on their fine dining traditions at Trio's, long one of my favorite restaurants in Arkansas.

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Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.

Editorial on 08/08/2018

Print Headline: Hail to the chef

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