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REX NELSON: State of the plate

by Rex Nelson | July 7, 2019 at 1:53 a.m.

I find myself in a warehouse district in Atlanta on a hot Thursday night. This area has seen some of its buildings transformed into restaurants, distilleries and craft breweries. The warehouse I'm in is an events venue known as the Stave Room. It's connected to the American Spirit Works distillery.

It's the first night of the annual Atlanta Food & Wine Festival, and Arkansas is showing out.

One side of the Stave Room is taken up by Arkansas chefs and bartenders. There's also a large delegation of Arkansans wearing shirts that proclaim "Savor Arkansas." The festival celebrates the cuisine of the entire South, and no other state has as big a presence as Arkansas.

I see Rob Nelson from Tusk & Trotter and Matthew Cooper from The Preacher's Son at Bentonville. There are JaQuintin Means from Bike Rack Brewing in Bentonville and Lynn Darnell from Rock Town Distillery in Little Rock. There's Jack Sundell from the Root Cafe and Dos Rocas on South Main Street in Little Rock. There's Jonathan Boney from Three Fold in downtown Little Rock.

And there are a bunch of well-dressed people intent on sampling what they have to offer.

Arkansas' food scene has come into its own in recent years, adding to the quality of life for those who live here while serving as a draw for visitors. Little Rock and Bentonville now have what truly can be considered hot food scenes that are receiving a lot of national media coverage.

The Atlanta Food & Wine Festival was created in 2010 to draw attention to the rich food and beverage tradition of the American South. States from Texas in the southwest to the District of Columbia in the northeast are represented.

"I find myself in awe," says festival founder Elizabeth Feichter. "It has been nine years since we started the festival. Armed only with the crazy idea of bringing Southern food and beverage to the national stage, perhaps fueled by a little too much bourbon one night, and giddy with the excitement of creating something special that we truly believed in, we began this adventure."

Mark Abernathy, who has long operated Loca Luna and Red Door at the bottom of Cantrell Hill in Little Rock, was a member of the original board of advisers for the festival. Abernathy began urging the folks at the Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau to increase the city's presence here. Gretchen Hall, the bureau's savvy chief executive officer, realized what a boon to the capital city its hip food and beverage sector has become. She saw an opportunity to showcase Little Rock at the Atlanta event and jumped on it a couple of years ago.

"Culinary tourism is a growing sector of the tourism industry," she tells me as we watch the visitors enjoying the food and drink from Arkansas at the Stave Room. "We have an amazing culinary scene right now, and this is our chance to celebrate that. We talked to food and travel writers when we were here last year, and nine of them ended up coming to Arkansas during the past year to take photos and write about what's going on."

Hall later convinced the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism and Visit Bentonville to get involved.

In Bentonville, even the Walton family, with its creation of the RopeSwing Hospitality Group, realizes that a first-class culinary scene is an important part of the overall quality of life of a place. Good restaurants are part of the mix when it comes to drawing talented young people to live and work in northwest Arkansas. The same goes for Little Rock.

There also are exciting things happening in northeast and south Arkansas.

In northeast Arkansas, Gaylon Lawrence Jr., one of the largest landowners in the country, is transforming the old Wilson Plantation company town of Wilson in Mississippi County into a model Delta community. The town now has everything from an elite private school to an upscale retail outlet run by Holly Williams of Nashville, Tenn., daughter of Hank Williams Jr. Another piece of the puzzle will be 19 overnight rooms over the businesses on the town square. Fine dining figures into the plan. That's why Shari Haley from the Wilson Cafe is here in Atlanta.

In south Arkansas, the Murphy family is attempting to revitalize El Dorado by spending more than $100 million on the Murphy Arts District. A key part of that downtown complex is a restaurant and cabaret known as the Griffin. To serve as the executive chef at the Griffin and help run the city's annual Southern Food & Wine Festival, the folks in El Dorado hired Austin Johnson from Restaurant Frenchie in Paris (the one in France, not the one in Logan County). Johnson helped the restaurant earn its first Michelin star.

A Nebraska native, Johnson began his career at age 14 as a busboy at the restaurant where his mother worked. He later worked in a number of Omaha restaurants as a teenager.

"I saw this food I had never seen before," he told the Omaha World-Herald. "I begged the chef to let me cook. I went back the next day, and he put me on garde manger (an entry-level position in charge of salads and appetizers) with a bunch of 30-year-old grown cooks. And I was hooked. Since that day, I've worked in a kitchen."

After high school, Johnson worked in fine-dining restaurants in Indianapolis and Seattle before spending a season as a cook on an Alaskan fishing vessel. He later showed up at the back door of well-known restaurant Eleven Madison Park in New York and convinced night chef Daniel Humm to let him cook.

That was followed by a few years in Europe, where he worked at Noma in Copenhagen and Oud Sluis in the Netherlands. Johnson then returned to New York and spent three years with Humm at the NoMad Hotel. He moved to Paris in late 2015. Now he's helping those folks with big dreams in El Dorado.

Other Arkansans showing what they can do in Atlanta are beverage professional Brett Bassett of De Nux Distributors in Little Rock, Scott Baker of Tusk & Trotter, sake expert Ben Bell of Little Rock and Anna Russell of The Buttered Biscuit in Bentonville.

At 10 a.m. on a Saturday, dozens of people are lined up for an Arkansas breakfast. Russell, Johnson and Abernathy all have food items, while the drinks come from Rock Town and Tusk & Trotter.

According to the Atlanta Food & Wine Festival guidebook: "The food and drink scene in Arkansas, the Natural State, is booming. For proof, you are warmly invited to breakfast with a few of our finest chefs and purveyors of libation. ... Their influences are as varied as their ingredients and techniques, but one thing they have in common is a genuine passion to give diners and drinkers an experience that satisfies the palate as well as the spirit."

At 11 a.m., the room is packed as Abernathy teaches a class on hot peppers while Sundell talks about the annual hot pepper-eating contest at the Root.

During an afternoon session, Darnell, Haley and Johnson mix drinks. Here's how the festival guidebook promotes that event: "Known as the Natural State for its scenic beauty, Arkansas is also known as an up-and-coming destination of choice for food and cocktail lovers, too. Deep Southern roots intertwine with international influences to create flavors that are broad and tasty."

At a later session, Bassett and Bell discuss sake and mezcal pairings. It's not the kind of thing one might have expected from Arkansas a decade ago. We're making culinary progress. That's a good thing for those of us who live here.


Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Editorial on 07/07/2019

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