The Greek philosopher Heraclitus once said “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” For me food writing has always been a bit like that. You never experience the same meal, even if you have had it before. The food is different and you come to it from a different place each time.
Food, like rivers and men, do have stories to tell. In fact most of the time the story is more important than the food. The food fills us up, but the stories connect us for years to come.
Back in June Chef Matthew Bell called me into South on Main to discuss something he only wants to talk about in person. When I get there he has this grin like I have never seen. Part humble, part schoolboy excited. He starts to tell me about the invitation by the James Beard foundation to come cook in New York, something that has only happened twice before for the state of Arkansas.
We decided to join the South on Main crew in this journey. Not so much to eat the food, but to tell the story. It is a collective story that seemed to wrap all of the Little Rock food community together along with countless others.
For those of you unfamiliar, the James Beard Foundation is the most well known and respected culinary organization in the US. They work to promote culinary arts, known mostly through their annual awards given to top chefs and restaurants. The foundation has a headquarters in James Beard’s Manhattan house in Greenwich Village, which they use to host occasional dinners. Chefs must be invited to participate, and are required to cover their own expenses.
Members of the local food community came out in full force to support the South on Main crew. We had nearly 100 people join in for a fundraising dinner with many of them requesting to give above and beyond to help cover the expenses. Additionally groups like food brokerage firm Lakeland Marketing, and wine distributor De Nux Distributors gave resources to help reduce the costs.
Bell insisted on taking as many members of his staff as possible to make sure they were able to enjoy the experience. Along with Matt and Amy Bell were sous chef Phillip Schaaf, David Burnette, Trevor Swedenburg, David Bennett, former pastry chef Matt Lowman, Brittany Harris, and Todd Lindsey.
“Usually on trips like this it is just the top chefs and owners who get to go,” Bell tells me over dinner on Sunday night. “I wanted to bring these guys to let them experience it too. They make me great, not the other way around. We would be nothing without this team. This trip is about them.”
The time I spent with the crew while they were in town Sunday and Monday seemed as much of a celebration as it did cooking good food. Everyone seemed to have their spot.
After dinner on Sunday we went to the famed NoMad bar and proceeded to watch arguably the best bartender in Little Rock, David Burnette, look like a young kid in a candy shop. “This place is amazing” he kept muttering. Every time someone’s eyes lit up about something I could see Chef Bell crack a small grin.
Monday was go time on the dinner. Prep began much earlier than a typical dinner service at around 10 a.m. as everyone filled into the small confines of the Beard House kitchen. Bell quickly left to run to Harlem to retrieve and prep some items with chef Joe Johnson of The Cecil Harlem restaurant.
The crew prepped most of the day with the assistance of two interns from the Beard Foundation. In all I was very impressed with the hospitality of the Beard Foundation, they were quick to help with anything without being overbearing.
Then later that evening guests began pouring in for the dinner service.
“So apparently there is a group of chefs from Sweden that have always wanted to come to America,” Chef Bell whispers over to me in the middle of skewering beets for the Hors d’oeuvres. “They were looking at the list of Beard dinners and saw this one and made their decision based on our dinner. They said that they always wanted to try southern food. I am not going to lie, I feel pretty damn honored about that.”
Everything was a hit and well represented the state. We watched as people went back sometimes 2 or three times for Burnette’s sweet potato lemonade. We could hear rumblings from guests at nearby tables as they enjoyed their food.
“I may need to take a trip to Arkansas soon if it is all this good,” one guest remarked during the low country boil dish.
“I never thought I would enjoy southern food this much,” another one says during the pork loin dinner.
story continues after photos
We were privileged enough to sit at the table with Raptor Ridge Winery founder Scott Shull who generously donated the wine along with his Little Rock distributor De Nux. “You can really tell they (South on Main) understand our wine well, it is perfectly paired with the dishes.”
In fact the wine pairings were as big of a hit as the food with several local people asking where to pick up the wine.
Finally as the night ran down and guest began trickling out, all thanked personally by Chef Bell for coming, Bell looked around at his team and called for the celebration Miller High Life from the fridge.
It was the end of one river and the beginning of another. We will all eat this food again sometime, everything has appeared on the South on Main menu before. This team will never cook the same again after the experience, and we will have a new perspective when we sit down and eat. So is the journey of food, whether it is New York or back here in Arkansas.