Food Insider: Chef Stephen Burrow of Forty Two

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. First up, it’s chef Stephen Burrow of Forty Two.

Could you give the readers a brief rundown of your culinary training/background?
I started out as a breakfast cook in Conway at a coffee house called Something’s Brewing. It was next to Hendrix College. I would go in before high school each day and cook breakfast, then come back in the afternoons. There wasn’t a whole lot of “direction” given to someone who hadn’t ever worked on a restaurant line before. With that being said, it was in a way, a trial-by-fire situation. I immediately fell in love with the rush. While cooking, I had been finishing my senior year of high school in a college program. After doing so, I decided that college wasn’t for me and that I wanted to head in the direction of the hospitality industry. I enrolled in the Le Cordon Bleu Culinary Arts Program in Austin, Texas. There, I got to work in several fine establishments. I honestly believe I got as much, if not more, education from the restaurants I was working in than in culinary school. From Austin, my wife and I decided it was time to head back home to Arkansas. I took a position with the Clinton Center before even moving back. I’ve been here ever since.

How long have you been at Forty Two?
Five years, in July.

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With Forty Two being in the Clinton Library, what’s it like cooking in such a unique restaurant setting?
It’s different. There are two sides or entities to it, if you will. There is Forty Two, the on-site restaurant, as well as the events side of it. Both entities play key roles in life at the Center. Regarding Forty Two, I try to “treat it like I own it.” By that, I mean I treat it as a proprietary restaurant. There have been several different catering endeavors that have managed Forty Two before the Clinton Foundation took it over. I think where others have failed is that they looked at Forty Two as just a restaurant inside of a museum. Because of that, the clientele used to pretty much just be museum guests. Now, we average about 65% local customers and 35% out-of-town museum guests, which I think speaks a lot for an entity located inside a tourist destination. It took a lot to get downtown business crowds to want to go through security and walk down the stairs just to eat lunch down town, when there were so many other great options. Little Rock is relentless when it comes to restaurants, meaning one bad experience could cause you to never see that customer again. We try to keep that in mind each and every day the restaurant is open, and give our guests a memorable experience in a short enough time span to get back to their office before their lunch break is over.

The other side of working at the Center is hosting events. Personally, I think we have the two best event venues in town. One, our Great Hall, overlooks the downtown skyline. The other, Forty Two (at night), overlooks the newly lit and renovated Clinton Center Bridge and the Arkansas River. Our department handles all events held within the center, with multiple venues. It is not uncommon for us to have multiple events taking place simultaneously. These events range anywhere from 30 to 3,000 people. As I’m sure you can imagine, the events side of our department is held in equal regard to the restaurant.

Where do you get your inspiration for many of the dishes you cook?
Everywhere, from traveling, to right here at home. Good food is good food, anywhere. It can be as simple as something my wife makes out of one of her grandmother’s cookbooks. When you eat something good, you instantly know it’s good. And as a chef, you have a moral obligation to take something that was good and play with it over and over again until you own it.

What do you typically cook for yourself at home?
Stupid, simple food. I love taco night. I love, especially this time of year with all of the great Arkansas great produce, to grill out. We eat a lot of pork at my house–cured, stuffed, smoked, fried…whatever the case may be.

What are 2-3 restaurants in town (besides Forty Two) where someone might find you eating?
Flying Fish, Simms BBQ and Maddies Place.

Do you have time to visit any of the local farmers market? If so, which one(s)?
Bernice Garden has grown so much into something I love. I also hit up Jacksonville and Argenta. I don’t get a lot of Saturdays off though.

What is the most difficult thing about being a chef?
It’s spending more time away from my kids than I’d like.

Most underrated restaurant in town?
Maddies Place, for sure.

Best spot to grab a drink?
For a “drink or beer with friends,” it’s Dugan’s Pub. And for that absolutely “blow your mind” cocktail, it’s South on Main.

What may surprise folks to learn about you?
People are usually most surprised to find out my age of 25-years-old.

All-time favorite movie?
Tough one … Pulp Fiction, wait no …. Natural Born Killers, wait … Usual Suspects. You’re not tying me down to just one, I promise.

Take all things food–related out of the equation … please describe what you enjoy doing in your free time.
I’m not much of a hobbyist, though I do love to fly fish. Honestly, just spending time with my family. I love the spring. Both of my boys are in baseball and our family gets really big into that.

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Food Insider: Chef Stephen Burrow of Forty Two