Food Insider: Ashton Woodward of Arkansas Fresh Bakery

Ever wonder what makes some of Little Rock’s food personalities tick? Rock City Eat’s latest series, Food Insider, takes a look at individuals who are helping change the landscape of our city’s culinary scene. Whether they’re in the kitchen, managing a storefront, farming land or running a food truck … we’ll delve into both the professional and personal side of these dynamite people. This week, we have Ashton Woodward of Arkansas Fresh Bakery.

What is your title with Arkansas Fresh Bakery?
Owner and Head Baker of Arkansas Fresh Bakery for three years.

Where is Arkansas Fresh located?
Arkansas Fresh Bakery makes wholesome, natural artisan breads available by delivery throughout Central Arkansas. We started in Benton, but outgrew our first home and built a location in Bryant, which is where we are now baking. We are the best bakery in a one-bakery town!

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What are all the places in the Little Rock area where folks can purchase your baked goods?
Our products are available at: Arkansas Ale House, Afterthought, Big Orange, Big Orange Midtown, Black Angus, Boscos, Butcher and Public, Ciao Baci, Cajun’s Wharf, Cheers (Heights and Maumelle), Doubletree Hotel, Deer Creek Fire and Stone, Greek House, Eat My Catfish (Benton and Conway), Greenleaf Grill, Hillcrest Artisan Meats,The Main Cheese, Marriott Little Rock, Natchez, The Root Café, South on Main, Sticky Fingerz, Stobys, The Pantry, Terri-Lynns, Verizon Arena, Whitewater Tavern, and ZaZa (Heights and Conway).

On a retail basis, customers can buy our bread at Hillcrest and Argenta Farmer’s Markets, as well as the ASN Little Rock Food Club and St. Joseph’s Farmstand. Our retail sales are booming! Our breads and pastries have been met with amazing customer enthusiasm and I am constantly surprised at how receptive people are to our new ideas.

Could you give readers a brief rundown of exactly what you offer?
The Arkansas Fresh Bakery product line consists of everyday restaurant-use items (sandwich loaves, buns, rolls, hoagies and table breads), crusty European-style artisan breads, breakfast pastries, and a genre I refer to as “snack breads.” We also craft custom products for large volume establishments. We try to accommodate any business, from small accounts in Hillcrest and the Heights, to the largest of downtown’s hotels.

What would you say is your most popular item(s)?
The Big Orange bun is our most popular wholesale item, which says a lot about the quality of the burger there. It’s not uncommon for both locations to use 1,000 buns on a Saturday. Our most popular items at the farmer’s markets are sourdoughs, of which we rotate through about ten different recipes, and our snack loaves are always a hit–try the Olive Fougasse, Dirty Cheddar or Garden Vegetable bread and you’ll see why! We just started production on an authentic Bavarian pretzel, and I gotta say it is a winner, too. For breakfast, check out the Gibassier (brioche with candied orange peel and anise seeds). Jonathan Wilkins cooks amazing hot foods at the Argenta Farmer’s Market every Saturday, and I think our collaborative sandwiches are well worth the drive to North Little Rock.

How long have you been a baker and how did you get in the business?
I have been in food service for half of my life. I started as a dishwasher at Satellite in the Heights fifteen years ago. I was promoted to breakfast line cook, then dinner service where I worked with Donnie Ferneau. He encouraged me to attend culinary school, and a month after graduating Catholic High, I started classes at Kendall College in Chicago. We had to complete an “intro to baking and pastry” class, and something was very attractive to me about working within a constrictive medium. When internship rolled around, I made sure to go to a restaurant where I could put some time in learning pastry. That restaurant was Trio in Evanston, Illinois, and I was fortunate enough to be there when the chef received a James Beard award and a five-star rating from several notable publications. I continued my education working with Jory Downer at Bennison’s Bakeries, also in Evanston, and it was there that I fell in love with the art of making artisan bread. I also spent two years apprenticing under the Piron brothers at Belgian Chocolatier Piron, where they make some of the best chocolates in the United States.

Do you go out to eat much? If so, what are some of your favorite restaurants?
We make it a point to cook most of our meals at home and eat as a family, but we also love to eat great ethnic foods. Living in Bryant, Desi Den Indian Restaurant is one of our new favorites, but Pho Thanh My is also a top pick at the Woodward house. These days, most of our fruits and vegetables are coming from the farmer’s markets, and it’s great to be able to trade my breads for beautiful Arkansas produce!

When you’re not in the kitchen, where is your oasis?
I am an avid outdoorsman, and my favorite activities are hunting ducks in Arkansas’s public timber and hunting the spring turkey season. I love to fly fish the Little Red River and troll for walleye and stripers on the big waters like Ouachita and Hamilton.

What’s one thing about you that might just surprise some readers?
I think it would surprise a lot of readers to know just how much time most culinarians devote to their craft. For me, working eighty hours in a week is common. The bakery lifestyle doesn’t allow me much time with my family, so they are my priority when I’m not working. My wife and I have a three-year-old, Jack, and another on the way in September. Hectic is a good description for my day!

Where would you go on your dream vacation?
I haven’t left the state since opening Arkansas Fresh, but I would love to travel Asia with my wife at some point. She speaks fluent Korean so I’d say Korea is high on the list, and Korean food is some of my favorite for the use of fermented flavors and interesting seafood preparations. My mother-in-law’s food is some of the best around, but I would love to find out what fine dining is all about on that side of the Pacific.

Ok…time to re-focus…what can folks expect to see from Arkansas Fresh Bakery in the immediate future?
In the near future, Arkansas Fresh will be introducing an artisan chocolate line, which will be sold through retailers across the state. Initial chocolate sampling went very well, but right now we are focusing on our farmer’s market stalls while our chocolate equipment is being freighted from Belgium. Very often we are asked when there will be an Arkansas Fresh store-front, and without allowing too much speculative info, I can say it will be a priority when the chocolate production meets my expectations. More culinary collaborations between Jonathan and myself are also on the horizon. We will be doing an event every weekend at St. Joseph Farm on Saturdays featuring a gourmet sausage/hot dog stand and our hand-made Bavarian style pretzels. I love it when a local chef takes something that I baked and creates a great tasting piece of Arkansas-inspired food.

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Food Insider: Ashton Woodward of Arkansas Fresh Bakery