I was having lunch with a Pine Bluff business leader one day when he told me that the two most important people in town were the head football coach at Pine Bluff High School and the chef at Pine Bluff Country Club.
His reasoning: Blacks and whites (in a city where issues often break along racial lines) unite behind Zebra football teams. That could lead them to find common ground on other issues.
As far as the chef, Pine Bluff has lost countless good restaurants during decades of population decline. Business and professional people need somewhere to take potential clients to dinner. Chef Jamie McAfee provides the type of food that impresses such clients.
So it is that I'm sitting at PBCC visiting with McAfee. We're both 61. We both love fine food and south Arkansas. I want to learn more about the man some food industry insiders tell me is the most talented chef in the state.
McAfee was born in Little Rock and grew up in McGehee, where his father managed Delta Country Club and his mother managed a hotel.
"My dad had earlier been a chef at hotels in places such as St. Louis," McAfee says. "He ran the country club in McGehee from the early 1960s until the late 1970s and later managed the country club at Lake Village. I started at a young age helping him out in the kitchen."
McAfee attended Memphis Culinary Institute and also worked at Nike's massive Memphis distribution center. It was there that he was asked to cook for Nike founder Phil Knight and other senior executives.
"I could have stayed with Nike, but I wanted to get back to Arkansas," McAfee says. "I moved back to McGehee in September 1986 and came to the Pine Bluff Country Club in February 2003."
During his years at Delta Country Club, word of McAfee's skills spread throughout southeast Arkansas, north Louisiana and west Mississippi.
Pine Bluff native and longtime Arkansas journalist Jim Harris wrote about McAfee in March 2005. Harris had attended an event in Pine Bluff during which the American Culinary Federation's central Arkansas chapter named McAfee its chef of the year. Cooking part of the meal that evening was one of the nation's most famous chefs, Paul Prudhomme of New Orleans.
Former Razorback football player Bo Busby, a cardiovascular surgeon in Pine Bluff, had met Prudhomme when Busby was a resident surgeon in New Orleans. Prudhomme, who died in October 2015, needed emergency gall bladder removal and credited Busby with saving his life. The two men remained friends, and Busby convinced Prudhomme to spend a couple of days in Pine Bluff.
"It would be like bringing in Jack Nicklaus for two rounds of golf," Harris wrote for the Arkansas Times in 2005.
Harris went on to note: "My father, a dentist in Pine Bluff by trade and a gourmet in his spare time (when he wasn't hunting or fishing), would have loved every bite. He enjoyed cooking for his family and friends. ... Everyone would enjoy his barbecued ribs.
"He has been gone now for 21 years, but if he were still around, he'd really be ecstatic about what Jamie McAfee has been able to do with the food at Pine Bluff Country Club. Alas, it's a private club, but find someone who is a member to take you there. I've been hearing for some time now that the food at PBCC is in a class with the best restaurants in the state, if not the region."
More than 16 years after Harris wrote those words, McAfee is still at it.
"I can cook better than I ever have," he tells me. "What's hard at my age is managing people."
McAfee, who also cooks for the state's most prestigious duck clubs, enjoys helping young people learn the business. He has big dreams for the future of the food scene in this part of the state. McAfee has been meeting quietly in recent months with a group of noted chefs and hospitality consultants to develop a plan for making Pine Bluff a culinary destination.
"When I was 24 or 25, I acted just like Gordon Ramsay in the kitchen," McAfee says. "One day, a man I respected said to me, 'Why don't you stop yelling and start teaching?' I took that to heart."
The pandemic was difficult for McAfee.
"People stopped coming out for business and social lunches," he said. "We went from averaging $1,500 a day at lunch to averaging $300. The banquet business also went away, but we're finally starting to see that come back."
McAfee caters events throughout south Arkansas. In 2018, he bought a food truck that his son operates about one day a week.
With the opening of Saracen Casino Resort's Red Oak Steakhouse, there's now another fine-dining venue in Pine Bluff. McAfee thinks future casino guests might also enjoy development of what he promotes as "a little Beale Street" in the part of downtown that has seen the addition of improved sidewalks, lighting, benches and landscaping.
"My initial thought is to have what's known as a commissary kitchen to jointly serve businesses that, in turn, would occupy four or five storefronts downtown," McAfee says. "We would have to subsidize them for at least a year until they could attract regular customers. But with proper marketing, I think it will work. I see it happening in the next five years."
The early success of the casino has people thinking that Pine Bluff can regain the status it once held as the regional center for southeast Arkansas. McAfee has been there for 18 years and watched the city's decline. He doesn't view more restaurants and bars as competition. He sees them as adding to the critical mass while putting this historic town back on the dining and entertainment map.
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.