Mark Abernathy and I are having breakfast while sitting at an outside table of a French bistro in Atlanta. The coffee at Cafe Intermezzo is strong. That's a good thing since I have a long day ahead at the Atlanta Food & Wine Festival.
I know what you're thinking--yet another hardship assignment for the roving correspondent.
We might be in Georgia on this Friday morning, but we're talking about the Arkansas food scene, one in which Abernathy has played an important role for decades. It's hard to believe he's 70 now. He has been working in kitchens for almost half a century.
I got to know Abernathy shortly after moving back to Little Rock from Washington, D.C., in 1989. He and Frank McGehee had created Juanita's, a Mexican restaurant on a desolate strip of South Main Street, three years earlier. During the time I lived in the nation's capital, Juanita's became both Little Rock's hottest restaurant and its most popular venue for live music.
Soon after I came back to Arkansas, Abernathy and McGehee also opened a Southwestern restaurant in west Little Rock named Blue Mesa. It was the favorite spot for my wife and I to dine out before we had children.
"Blue Mesa was probably the best restaurant with which I was ever involved," Abernathy says a bit wistfully.
It's clear that Abernathy is friends with chefs from across the South. He speaks to them by name as they walk by. He was on the founding board of advisers for the Atlanta Food & Wine Festival when it was started in 2010 to showcase the region's cuisine. He thought Arkansas food needed to be promoted here and has been coming to Atlanta ever since.
When Abernathy was growing up, there were few high-quality restaurants in Little Rock.
"It has been exhilarating to watch things change for the better," he says.
Abernathy tells me that coming to events like this one to teach classes "gets me out of my box. It pushes me to be better. I don't have anything left to prove, but I still want to learn."
Yes, even at age 70, he's trying to make his restaurants and the overall Little Rock dining scene better. He convinced Gretchen Hall, the chief executive officer of the Little Rock Convention & Visitors Bureau, to make sure the city had a large presence at the event.
"Look, we're not Charleston and we're not New Orleans," Abernathy says. "If we don't toot our own horn, no one is going to do it for us. Arkansas is all over the place now. Because of this, we have media people coming to us to ask what's happening with Arkansas food. That excites me because we have a great story to tell."
Abernathy grew up near the Park Plaza shopping center in Little Rock and attended Hall High School. He graduated from the University of Arkansas in 1971 with a degree in banking and finance, but decided he didn't want to work at a bank.
"I was a hippie," he says. "I wound up working at the third TGI Fridays in the country when it opened at the corner of Third and Victory near the state Capitol. The first two were in New York and Memphis. In 1973, an investor decided to open the first Fridays in Dallas and hired me to help run it. We were at the corner of Greenville and Mockingbird. I was able to see that whole concept of dining take off as restaurants such as Bennigan's and Chili's got their start."
Abernathy later moved to San Antonio and spent almost a dozen years there, becoming enchanted with the city's food traditions. The things he learned in San Antonio would soon be tried out at Juanita's and Blue Mesa. He had driven down Main Street and seen a building that he thought had potential. He obtained a loan from nearby Madison Guaranty Savings & Loan (of Jim McDougal and Whitewater fame), and Juanita's was off and running.
"People were waiting out the door every night," Abernathy says. "It helped when they finished Interstate 630. That made it easy for people to come downtown from west Little Rock to eat. It also helped when Clinton ran for president in 1992. The media came to town, ate out every meal and began mentioning restaurants in their stories. It benefited all of us in the restaurant business in Little Rock."
Abernathy opened Loca Luna more than 23 years ago and started the adjacent Bene Vita a few years later when chef Peter Brave abandoned the building to move his Brave New Restaurant to the banks of the Arkansas River. Bene Vita featured Italian food. Red Door, which replaced it in 2009, has a more eclectic menu.
Abernathy also began taping food vignettes for KATV, Channel 7, in Little Rock. The segments became nationally syndicated but required a great deal of time and travel.
"I had to decide whether I was going to abandon that or abandon the restaurants," Abernathy says. "I was tired of the travel. So I ended my budding syndicated television career and concentrated on the restaurants."
He's enthused by what's now happening across Arkansas.
"Restaurants are important to economic development," Abernathy says. "Arkansas food is this fascinating combination of French, African American and Native American traditions. It's fun for me to watch so many people discover what I've known all along, and that's the fact that we have a rich food tradition in Arkansas."
As for his own restaurants, he says: "We do a steady business all day long. The weekend brunch crowds are almost more than we can handle. The hardest thing in the restaurant business is keeping a team together. We've been able to do that. My team makes life easy for me. I'm not looking to retire. I still like what I do. It's just that I don't want to work as hard at age 70 as I did at age 40."
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 07/10/2019
Print Headline: REX NELSON: A chef reminisces