Ever wonder what makes some of Little Rock’s food personalities tick? 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 feature Jeff Owen, Executive Chef of one of Little Rock’s finest eateries, Ciao Baci.
For someone who has never been to your restaurant, how would you sell it to a potential guest?
For a first timer looking to dine with us, I would say that we offer something unique to the Little Rock dining scene as far as food, service and ambiance. We are located in a 1950’s renovated bungalow in Historic Hillcrest. If you are a wine enthusiast, just check out our extensive list. Cocktail enthusiast? Niel Pedrick has you covered behind the bar. As far as food, I think we offer something for just about everybody. You can get the best burger in town for $9. The bar crowd picks up around 10pm on the weekends if you are looking for a party.
Being from Little Rock, what inspired Ciao Baci European influence?
Ciao Baci opened as a wine bar in June of 2001 with a small selection of tapas. Over the past 14 years of service the menu offerings have changed many times. We tend to focus on food that can be shared and enjoyed in a casual and relaxed environment, serving later hours than most places. You could say we have a Mediterranean approach in that regard. When asked, I always describe what we do as seasonally-driven, globally-inspired and thoughtfully-sourced.
Many of your dishes are influenced by classical French and Italian culinary techniques. How did you learn to cook?
Food and cooking have always been of interest. I recall watching Galloping Gourmet and Great Chefs of the World when I was around five thinking that is awesome! They captivated my attention by setting stuff on fire with bottles of brandy and carving whole ducks and making these massive cakes and sugar sculptures. This paid off during my Boy Scouts years. Since I made the best food, I never had to gather wood or dig toilets. At 15, I started bussing tables and washing dishes always being attentive on what was going on in the kitchen. The cooks were my friends. By 17, I was cooking and had four years under my belt before culinary school. In school, we learned all of the basics from mother sauces to kitchen math – a lot of which I remembered from the television shows. I also had the opportunity to learn from some really amazing people.
Tell us more about your wine program.
David Shackelford heads our wine program. “Our wine list is designed to offer a broad selection of unique wines that represent the many varietals, regions, and styles of winemaking. The 750ml and our wines-by-the-glass collection is built to tempt the guests to explore a new wine with which they might not be familiar. These distinctive well-made wines have been chosen with a focus on value and character. In building our wine collection, we have also kept in mind our chef’s culinary style with many food-friendly wines. Therefore, our by-the-glass list changes regularly allowing us to rotate the selections frequently, to compliment menu changes and or seasonal changes.
What’s your favorite dish currently on the menu and why?
Brown Butter Seared Scallops with Glazed Oxtail, Roasted Baby Root Vegetables, Pistachios, Mint and Pomegranate Molasses for its contrasting flavors and texture. It is my version of surf and turf with quickly seared scallops and 12-hour braised oxtail, cooked in beef stock and wine with aromatics, which is then reduced to a glaze. The sweet and earthy notes from the vegetables mingle playfully with the fresh mint and the pistachios adds a delightful crunch.
Who are your favorite local artisans?
Ashton Woodward and his crew at Arkansas Fresh Bakery do all of our bread. They make the best burger buns and individual baguette for our cheese and meat plates. Jay and Deanna at Arkansas Natural Produce grow my favorite salad mix I’ve encountered in my 15 years of cooking. Alexia Elichiry always brings the A-Game with her wines, spirits and friendly service at DeNux Distributors. Lastly, we love having H.A.M. in the neighborhood. The Brown family is just the best!
How has Ciao Baci changed this time as Executive chef compared to how it was during your first time here as sous chef?
We have matured: in our service, technique and skill. I was 19, I left at 22 after completing culinary school. I thought I had learned everything I could at that time. The food was great with my input on menus and specials. I simply thought it was time to move on. A chef has to find their identity as far as their relationship with food goes, and I thought this was lacking.
However, I always kept my eye on the place. Returning after almost five years, I realized we had not even skimmed the surface in terms of what we could be doing. Now three years in, we are curing and smoking our own bacon and making our own charcuterie. We have a garden on premise. From stocks to soups and sauces to desserts, everything is made from scratch in-house. We change our menu every three months, with separate New Year’s Eve, Valentine’s Day, and a Chef’s tasting each night. That’s six full, different menus a year. We have also built fantastic relationships with our producers and purveyors. Our kitchen staff kicks ass – Dom Heien and Randall Roach are rock stars!
What do you think has led to the success of you and the other Capital Hotel staff that came from that era?
In regards to the Capital hotel and the chefs that I worked with, I feel there was a high expectation for performance and professionalism. When you mix in a group of peers that have a real chemistry together, add in talented and charismatic mentors, the results are exponential.
Our crew was small, with four or five of us for dinner service every night. Some nights were rather intense. We spent a lot of late nights cleaning that beautiful kitchen until three in the morning. There were moments where opinions clashed, but they were heard. We cooked for some awesome guest and events. Everyone eventually hit their wall and we all kept going. Once you have been through that kind of experience, you come out on the other side kind enlightened.
What’s your least favorite part of being a chef?
Honestly, I would like to be able to “turn it off” when not at work. It takes a special kind of crazy to deal with the day-to-day operations of a restaurant; but, I feel like my mind is so immersed in work that I am always talking about, or thinking about it or doing it. It gets bad. Sometimes you obsess over things you love so much. Luckily, I have an extremely supportive wife and family.
What are some of your favorite places to visit and eat in the United States?
My wife and I agree New Orleans is our favorite food city. There is something magical there you cannot find anywhere else. It is sensory overload. You simply cannot recreate the sights, sounds and smells of the French Quarter.
What do you like to do for fun, outside of the restaurant?
Anything outdoors, whether working in our garden or grilling out with the family, fishing the Little Red or catching some concrete waves down at Kanis Park DIY.
If a Genie in a bottle granted you three wishes, what would they be?
A chance to cook one last meal for friends and family that have passed over the years. Not only as a chance to say goodbye but also as an outlet to express the love, respect and gratitude for the most influential people in my life.
A huge bag of money to design my restaurant from the ground up, with everything state-of-the-art, and no detail spared. The whole nine yards.
The last would be reserved for an oh crap moment.
What’s next for Ciao Baci?
Nothing major on the horizon per se. We have been working on a couple of garden plots at Two Rivers Park with a friend of the restaurant. Hopefully, we will be setup by the spring to produce even more of our own goodies. Mainly fine tuning what we have in place so far. I would be thrilled to see a Ciao Baci food truck of some sort, fueled by all our leftover fry oil.
What’s missing in Little Rock that you would like to see more of?
More adventurous eaters!