Catching Up With Chef Lee Richardson (Part 2): On His Influences, Talent Recruitment, and Farm-To-Table

(If you missed the first part of this interview with former Ashley’s chef, Lee Richardson, you can check it out here. We now present the second half of our recent discussion with the celebrated chef–discussing his influences and training, those chefs he helped recruit to Arkansas, farm-to-table, and more.)

As an advocate for locally sourced food, Richardson has become known as one of the pioneers of “farm-to-table” cooking in Arkansas. But today, “farm-to-table” has become a slogan that’s widely used and perhaps thrown around a bit too casually at times. When asked about his role in this trend and all that it entails, Richardson remarks, “Farm-to-table has made several lists of ‘things the foodies are tired of.’ But when you open a restaurant, you’re trying to get recognition early on, trying to build a certain momentum, a certain level of staying power…you have to be relentless and fight tooth-and-nail to leverage any kind of publicity and attention-getting that you can. It’s easy to get tired of the endless self-promotion. I am happy for my colleagues and friends that have worked for me, that they are getting the attention they are, but I am glad I am not having to keep posting and pushing those messages around.”

He speaks of “farm-to-table” with respect…respect for those producing the food and for those preparing it. But he recognizes the problems this sort of advertising can give rise to. “I have always said from a marketing standpoint you have to blast the message.  You have to get people in the door.  But then when you do, you have to deliver on the promise…so you have to do both.  There may be some usage of “farm-to-table” because it gets people in the door.  There will be some people who may not deliver on it but want to leverage that to get people in the door.  If they are not delivering on that it, in time, the market will figure it out and it won’t work for them.” He continues, “Farm-to-table is important in that, publicly, we don’t get sick of it. It needs to become expected and it needs to become status quo. The chefs need to learn to stop saying it, but they are not going to stop saying it until they think their customers will say, ‘What do you mean it’s not farm-to-table?’”

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In regards to developments within our local food and beverage scene today, Richardson is cautiously optimistic. He says, “Most exciting to me is the brewing.” But he regrets some of the restrictions Arkansas places on the sale of alcohol in this state. “I think the state, as a whole is less than welcoming…it is very unfriendly.” He comments on the continuous flood of new restaurants into the Little Rock market, saying, “For every one of these new restaurants that’s on trend, that are relevant, that are enlightened in some way about their products…we’re going to see one-and-a-half restaurants close. There is going to be a real hard period where everybody is going to be there, in general. Then we will see some close…especially those that aren’t prepared to gap up to relevance. We’re going to see a flurry of closures. It’s going to be real hard for the people who do make it to get through that period.”

Richardson also reflected on many of the chefs and cooks in his past—both people who influenced him personally and those who he had some influence on. Regarding his training and his time spent “cutting his teeth” through the vibrant culinary city of New Orleans, he says, “I picked and chose my way through the whole deal. I decided to cook in my last couple of months of getting a degree in psychology…and decided when I was done I would go to work for Emeril. I courted him for six months to get a chance at peeling potatoes and chopping collard greens.”

He speaks fondly of his time with Emeril Lagasse, and describes how the world-renowned chef helped mold his approach to cooking in Arkansas. He continues, “Emeril’s approach of taking Louisiana food and ‘kicking it up a notch’ really helped to get my attention. It was the fact that he could come down to New Orleans from Massachusetts, from a Portuguese family, and resell New Orleans food to its own people, with that kind of celebration…it made me realize that I could tell a story in Arkansas. In the case of Arkansas, I didn’t feel like the story had been recognized yet, and so it wasn’t so much a ‘retelling’ but an illumination, rather, in the sense of casting light on something that was already there.” After working in Emeril Lagasse’s NOLA restaurant, Richardson spent time with Kevin Graham (The Savoy, The Royal Orleans), at Anne Kearney’s Peristyle, and finally, at John Besh’s Restaurant August. August was Richardson’s final stop in New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina brought him to Arkansas and the Capital Hotel.

Photo: Brant Collins
Photo: Brant Collins

We spoke of those chefs who have emerged from Richardson’s kitchen at The Capital Hotel, that family of cooks and bartenders who eventually left that grandiose kitchen of Ashley’s to develop restaurants of their own. It’s nearly impossible to eat in Arkansas today and not run into a member of this former crew—Matthew Bell, Matt Lowman, and David Burnette at South on Main, Alexis Jones at Natchez, Lee Edwards with Yellow Rocket Concepts, Brian Deloney at Maddie’s Place, Jeffrey Owen at Ciao Baci, Matthew McClure and Micah Klasky at The Hive, Travis McConnell at Butcher & Public, former Ashley’s pastry chef, Tandra Watkins, and many more. Clearly, Richardson has played a key role in recruiting and training talent within the Arkansas culinary world. Richardson says, “I am a lot more interested in cultivation of talent, and building relationships and networks, not only with my suppliers, but with the people who work with me, than I am in waving around my menu. I was focused on cultivating talent and so it is no surprise to me that so many of these guys left and felt it was time that they were ready to run their own places.”

We asked him what he hopes these chefs took away from their time with him, what lesson he hopes to have impressed on them most. He answers, “I hope that they took away, when it all shakes out, that it is about service. It is about pleasing people, it is about making people happy, and it’s about a celebration of our heritage and culture…and preserving a culture that is more and more at risk. No doubt they understood the value of southern culture. The southern food thing today—all the cutesy trimmings like mason jars and what not—that’s got a life that is going to go away…people are going to become interested in something else. It is the taking care of people that matters most. The way to get their attention is through the food, the menu, the creativity, and the artistry. But the artistry is just the mechanism, the medium by which the hospitality is delivered.”

In the end, it’s difficult to predict what the future holds for Lee Richardson. But it’s clear that he is a man who remains deeply passionate about cooking and about food in Arkansas. Will we be able to sit down at Richardson’s own restaurant at some point? Perhaps…but that day appears to be some ways off in the distance. Still, I except that enjoying Richardson’s cooking again, in some form or fashion, is not completely out of the question…and that is a day all of us should look forward to.

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Catching Up With Chef Lee Richardson (Part 2): On His Influences, Talent Recruitment, and Farm-To-Table