To an outsider (as in someone outside of Arkansas), Scott McGehee might appear to be just another guy serving up burgers, pizza, and tacos. But of course, he’s much more than that. His string of successful restaurants, while focused on some of the more commonly served menu items in America, do an exceptional job at providing local farms and their produce the spotlight they rightly deserve. With the approach of summer, there’s no better time to “eat local.” And with the upcoming onslaught of Arkansas tomatoes, do yourself a favor and dig into one of these lovely red fruits at some point during the season. And I’m here to boldly declare that there is no better way to dive into Arkansas tomatoes than with Big Orange’s seasonal caprese salad.
We caught up with McGehee and drilled him on what makes this dish a “must-try” item this season.
He speaks of his Italian family in Arezzo, who like most Italians, “are passionate about food.” He calls them “traditionalists” with their tendency to “stick to classic recipes fanatically.”
He continues, “The classic caprese is made with fresh mozzarella from cows or buffalo milk (water buffalo, not the ones in North Dakota), ripe summer tomatoes, fresh basil, good quality Italian olive oil, and a pinch of salt.” But he recognizes that his preparation is slightly different than most Italians…he adds a splash of high quality balsamic vinegar to finish.
McGehee emphasizes that the Big Orange caprese is “all about the tomatoes.” He continues, “We first seek out the most delicious local heirloom tomatoes with best texture. We like different varieties so that you can taste the uniqueness of each one…slightly different from visit to visit.”
Big Orange will be sourcing most of their tomatoes from North Pulaski Farms. McGehee says, “This year we did something unique. Kelly Carney of North Pulaski farms, as with most small farmers, is cash flow poor between seasons. We paid Kelly in advance for several long rows of tomatoes. This partnership is a giant win-win, as it takes some pressure off of the small farmer, divides the risk, but yields something truly grown out of mutual respect and appreciation. Additionally, Kelly is staunchly chemical and pesticide free and is certified organic. You can absolutely taste the difference!”
“Alice Waters (of Chez Panisse) always preached to me, ‘The best things are simple, and grown locally with love’. There are not many dishes that exemplify this in Arkansas more than local heirloom tomatoes on a plate,” says McGehee.
Of course, McGehee’s restaurant group, Yellow Rocket Concepts, supports many small local farms from all over central Arkansas. “We love Dunbar, Little Rock Urban Farms, The Russian Farmer, Arkansas Natural Produce, Tanner Farms, Hardin Farms, Cedar Rock Acres, and many more.”
He continues, “The joy of partnering with these farmers is not only an amazing benefit to the quality of our food, but it is also extremely fulfilling to support some of the hardest working families in Arkansas. Any small farmer will tell you that it is absolutely a labor of love, not a way to get rich. I have so much respect for people who have the integrity to choose this life.”
Simply put, you’re going to want to get your hands on Big Orange’s caprese salad this summer. If you’ve ever questioned whether “eating local” translates to better food, look no further than this dish. It’s the perfect summer plate…and you’ll want to get in on this while it lasts.