The restaurant world is driven by personalities. Some good, some bad, but most somewhere in between. The best part about this job is being able to cover the personalities and as we begin a week of our favorite things about 2015 I think it is important to take a minute to talk about those who shaped the restaurant landscape this past year. In no order, here are 10 people who influenced the restaurant scene this year.
Capi Peck – Trio’s
If you wanted to refer to Capi as the Queen of Little Rock food I do not think anyone would argue with you. Her restaurant, Trio’s, just celebrated their 29th year in business and seems to be stronger than ever. Even without the longevity Capi experienced a bigger than normal year by continuing to embrace the changing food scene and finding new ways to stay fresh. In October Capi was named the chairperson of the Little Rock Advertising and Promotion Commission, further extending her influence on Little Rock food.
Rusty Mathis – Ben E Keith
Not all the top influential people experience high public visibility, but ask almost any restaurant owner who is influential and the name you constantly get is Rusty Mathis, head man of Ben E Keith’s midsouth division. Rusty has silently shaped and grown the food scene through strong promotion, huge philanthropy, and a passion for supporting local businesses that is matched by no one.
Anthony Valinoti – Deluca’s Pizzeria Napoletana
Anthony is hands down the biggest personality in Little Rock food, and he does not even own a Little Rock based restaurant despite being begged constantly to move. There are absolutely no words to describe Anthony. His 5″4′ 115lbs frame (I may am being very generous here) is packed full of more heart, passion, and cooking ability than anyone I know. He is Rocky Balboa meets Chris Bianco. Mostly though he is our favorite Italian uncle that we never had.
Payne Harding – Cache Restaurant
What is the restaurant world without controversy? None may be more controversial than Payne Harding of Cache. Payne runs the kitchen in the flashiest restaurant in Little Rock and shows glimpses of cooking talent. Yet maturity has been a constant issue from arguing with guests who do not like a dish to throwing buckets of water on protesters. Regardless of your opinion of Payne (mine is mixed) he makes himself impossible to ignore.
Gwen Jones – Beast Food Truck
The food truck scene in Little Rock continues to mature and evolve, a strong part of that is the passion and dedication of Beast Food Truck. Between a small truck and a niche menu, not everyone knows the quality of Beast, but Gwen’s influence on the community is deep. She has been a strong advocate of local sourcing, and has been quick to keep restaurants and trucks alike honest on their sourcing practices. Additionally her part in the Small Business Revolution documentary series helped bring new light to local farms and trucks.
Lisa Zhang – Three Fold Noodle & Dumpling Co
As far as restaurant owners go, Lisa Zhang is a quiet one. She lacks the ego and need for attention that most have, allowing her daughter Rebecca and marketing person Rachelle Branca to serve as the face of the restaurant. She instead is building a quiet empire in the Little Rock restaurant world, making moves behind the scenes and creating one of the most successful restaurants in 2015. Zhang is not done yet, the work and rapid success will likely pay off in big ways in the coming year.
Matthew Bell – South on Main
A guy like Matt Bell is a safe pick, almost too obvious, but what Matt did outside the restaurant this year is why he made our list. He focused this year on national attention to the Little Rock food community through things like the James Beard House dinner and a number of special collaborations with No Kid Hungry. Bell has developed a name for himself and the Little Rock food community in some of the major culinary markets like New York. This is something that should have a future impact of bringing talent and investments in the local food scene.
Zara Abbasi Wilkerson
Over the last year Zara has influenced more restaurants than any single person except maybe Rusty Mathis. Like Mathis, not everyone even realizes it. Zara began the year slowly taking over the pastry duties for restaurants like Heights Taco, The Fold, Raduno, Natchez, 109 & Co, and many more. Her desserts are in such high demand she often has a backlog of restaurants wanting to add her items to their menu.
Cody Hopkins – Grass Roots Coop
There are a number of great farmers who could have made this list. The thing that stands out about Cody, who also runs Falling Sky Farm, is his ability to bring them all together. Cody, along with a number of other local farms, founded Grass Roots Coop last year, and Cody was named the general manager of the effort. The idea is to create a collective front for local meat producers to market and sell their product. This is something that has greatly increased the awareness and use of locally raised meats for restaurants. Cody is also responsible for effort to bring these same quality meats to consumers through their delivery service.
Omar Castrellon – Lost Forty Brewing
2015 will be remembered as the year brewing in Little Rock experienced its long awaited boom. Lost Forty was the biggest of these, looking to single handedly outpace craft beer production for the entire state in 2014. Omar Castrellon, who runs the brewery, refuses to use the term brewmaster, so we will just start referring to him as General Hops until he comes up with a better title. Regardless of what you call him, his influence on the beer scene has forever changed craft brewing in Little Rock.