Catching Up With Chef Lee Richardson: His Past, Present, and Future

Few would disagree that Lee Richardson has been one of the most influential chefs within the Little Rock food scene over the last decade. The New Orleans-trained chef transformed the dining program at Ashley’s and The Capital Hotel into a world-class destination and brought more critical acclaim to the state than any other chef in recent memory. In addition, his uncanny ability to recruit and hone the skills of young talent has left a lasting impact on Arkansas food that will be felt for years to come.

But when Richardson stepped down from his post at The Capital Hotel in the summer of 2012, he left many wondering what his next move would be. Surprisingly, this celebrated chef has remained remarkably silent…making the future of Lee Richardson all the more mysterious to those who anticipate eating his cuisine once more.

We were fortunate to sit down with Richardson recently, hoping to get a clearer picture as to how he views his past achievements, his current engagements, and his future opportunities. Even he admitted to us that this was, at least at some point, an uncomfortable subject for him to discuss…with questions that have gone unanswered for good reason. “It’s the interview I have been trying to avoid,” he says. “That’s the reason that nobody has had a conversation with me in almost two-and-a-half years since I have been gone from the hotel.”

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Richardson began by opening up about those silent years after leaving Ashley’s, a time that many expected he would have settled into a place of his own. “I had a restaurant with one group that consumed my time for years that ultimately they chose not to build. I have pursued at least one other restaurant that lots of people know about, and that was the Packet House. That was going to be, I thought, the restaurant that I had always wanted to start with and end up with at the same time.” Of course, the Packet House deal was soured by numerous problems with the building ownership, and in the end, it did not pan out for Richardson.

He describes an interest, at one point, in old Hestand’s grocery store and even the former Brownings (where Scott McGehee and Yellow Rocket Concepts are currently developing their forthcoming Heights Taco and Tamale Co.).

“That brings up one of the primary reasons no one has seen me come out with the restaurant that maybe they are expecting me to come out with,” he continues. “Opening a restaurant is extremely capital-intensive. The talent involved almost never has any money and I fall into that category because I have spent twenty years coming up into in the industry and it is a terrible place to make any money.  If you make it, the margins are thin and the debt load is high…so it is very difficult to put something together numerically particularly in a market like Little Rock.”

Richardson relates some of the difficulties he foresees in opening and successfully operating a restaurant in Little Rock. “Little Rock is changing visibly before my eyes, but it is still of little interest to people from a tourist standpoint. It still has fairly limited business traffic.” He then describes his philosophy behind Ashley’s and part of what made it so successful. “My objective at The Capital Hotel was to have every single person that was flying into this place on an airplane to have already gone through their mind that they needed to be in my restaurant.  Building an international presence was a primary focus that I had there. It had to be a destination, the food story (as I call it, from the Delta to the Ozark’s) had to be a destination not only for the product but for writing. You need to have that story.”

Yet Richardson’s restaurant ambitions have yet to come to fruition. There’s surely a combination of hurdles he’s yet to clear, but for one reason or another, his food has yet to hit the table. “I have had considerable trouble in getting that restaurant together. I am still here for the same reasons that I came here in the first place…this is a very charming and livable town. But it is very difficult to make a good living here. It is very difficult, I think, for business, both for small independent start-ups like myself and for big companies.  We have a lousy, filthy taxation program here. It is almost designed to keep people out.”

He continues, “So, I have made my name.  As far as my own personal ambitions or drive to earn myself a spot in this industry, I rang that bell. I got as high up that mountain as I ever wanted to go. The next step for me then would have been to have my own place.”

Richardson explained why his experience at The Capital Hotel was such a memorable one, and how he sees the hotel and its restaurants fitting into the current culinary landscape: “I had about over 100 employees that I directed. I created the menu, created the story, created the concept, the feel, and the major production in that every thing was done by hand.  In doing that, anything that you had at The Capitol Hotel was totally unique. In a Cuban sandwich, we made the bread, we corned the beef, we made the condiments…there was no way to get that replicated somewhere else.  Because they couldn’t buy our bread, they couldn’t buy our corned beef.”

When asked what dish at Ashley’s he felt he would best be remembered by, he jokes, “I should say something that is still on the menu.” He then responds, “I think, the most lingering slam dunk of all is probably the pimento cheese.” He also has a soft spot for Arkansas rice. “You know, I think as good a signature as I ever had was ground-up rice. It may or may not still be used to dredge catfish. In the bar, I made grits out of it. I think that taking that Arkansas signature product and turning it out that way, using a preparation what no one else was doing…I think that’s one of the coolest things.”

Richardson hasn’t eaten at One Eleven at the Capital, the restaurant remodel that replaced Ashley’s. But he has, of course, been inside. “I think One Eleven is really sharp and crisp. I loved Ashley’s…really loved Ashley’s. What I really liked about Ashley’s previously…I felt it was sort of understated, although extremely elegant. I felt that the room was androgynous. I didn’t feel it was overly masculine or feminine, and I really liked that about it. But I felt we should always lighten the tone and make it more casual and approachable.” He continues, “If you go to The French Laundry, where I have never eaten, or a five-star, completely high-end restaurant in Aspen, Colorado…it’s jeans. They don’t fuss over jackets and ties. They focus on letting people be comfortable and put their energy into the food. I felt like that was kind of an important thing. I think the approachability of the decor there is probably very pertinent.”

As to the future of Lee Richardson, it’s probably safe to say that it’s not written in stone. For the acclaimed chef, opportunities will likely crop up along the way. But for now, Richardson has this to say regarding his immediate plans:

“I enjoy doing consulting. That’s where my interests are. I like working with people to make their product better. I did a lot of creativity with my chefs. If there was a dish that was all mine, by the time they were done executing it, there had been some changes made…which I was glad to have happened. If they brought a dish to me, I made some adjustments that they may have been happy to have happen.  So a lot of stuff is neither theirs nor mine…it’s ours.  That’s my interest…and given the cost challenges and the fact that I have already made my name, I am only willing to hurt myself so much to have my own restaurant.  I can get rent paid in a building but I am only gonna hurt myself so much for the privilege. More than likely, what I will be seen doing is consulting with other people working on other projects or focus more on business operations.”

(This is part 1 in our two part series with Chef Richardson. See part 2 of this interview here, in which we discuss his role in the “farm-to-table” movement, his training in New Orleans, his influence on many of Arkansas’s most notable chefs, and his views on the current state of Arkansas food. )

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Catching Up With Chef Lee Richardson: His Past, Present, and Future