Eloise, the main character from the children’s book of the same name, grows up in a hotel, finding new ways to get into shenanigans daily. Rock City’s own Capi Peck feels her beginnings were similar in that she spent most of her formative years in The Sam Peck Hotel.
“My love of food grew out of my experiences from a toddler on, in my family’s hotel. At the time, it was one of the premier places to dine in the state. My grandfather had a very curious and adventurous palate, and he traveled a lot and brought ideas back,” she explains.
Fast forward to now, and Peck is at the helm of Trio’s Restaurant, where she has been for the last 29 years, no small feat for an independent restaurant chef-owner who happens also to be a female.
Peck traces her resilience back to The Sam Peck, and her family in general. “My dad raised me to be independent and to believe that I could do anything a guy could do. Plus, my grandmother was a strong role model and she wore the pants,” she says. She laughing adds, “Nobody ever told me I couldn’t, so I just did.”
After studying art history, Peck didn’t have a plan for a restaurant on her radar, but she loved hospitality and entertaining. In the mid 80s, she helped cater a party for her sister, and one of the attendee’s was duly impressed – so much so that she offered to back Peck in a restaurant venture.
“I was in my early 30s and I didn’t want to ask my family to help and she offered to back me, so I thought, what do I have to lose,” she remembers.
Nine months later, Trio’s opened its doors at Pavilion in the Park. “We’re the only original tenant,” Peck smiles, adding, “back then this was the Western border to town, but now it’s like Midtown.”
In the beginning, the eatery was mainly a self-serve, retail establishment with deli cases full of sandwiches and salads, coffees and candies, charcuterie, and the like, with the name of Trio’s Good Food To Go. A little before its time, perhaps – “That concept would kill now,” Peck says. Over the next year she and her team of business partners began to tweak the model, slowly adding lunch and dinner service and even catering. “All the while I was just figuring it out as I went along,” she says.
Peck’s flexibility paired with finding the right line between innovation and tradition have contributed to her success. She’ll never take away the remoulade that comes from the days of her family’s hotel, but she’ll also continue to go to the market and try new things. She likes to channel her grandfather, who was responsible for serving Arkansas its first Caesar Salad.
“I inherited his adventurous and refined palate. I wish I had gone to culinary school – I didn’t – but I do have a good trained palate from an early age on,” she says.
Culinary school or not, there’s something to be said about the loyalty of her kitchen family. “I think because I’m a woman I have the kind of atmosphere I do in the kitchen and the front of the house,” she explains, “I have less turnover than anybody in this industry … I have 8 people with over 22 years of experience.”
And on that point, of women in the industry, she’d love to see more. When asked why she thinks the industry still seems to be a man’s game, she says, “I have thought about this for a decade and I really don’t understand why it is the way it is. … I think we are still so entrenched in that European system, even though Julia Childs broke the ceiling, it’s still an anomaly, it’s not the norm. You see it a little more on the East and West coast, and there are certainly successful chef-owners in Southern cities, but it’s a very low percentage.”
Peck credits the long hours and physically-demanding aspects of being a chef as intimating toward females, but she still hopes to see substantially more women break the mold.
In the meantime, Peck has found her niche. The 62-year-old remains passionate about her job, and her zeal is absolutely contagious. After letting her age slip in the interview, Peck says without a lick of embarrassment, “I’m proud to be 62 – I don’t even feel 62. Working your butt off will keep you young because you’ve got to stay agile and be able to bounce back.” Which she does, seven days a week. She considers a day off to only include five or six hours at the restaurant – Rock City Eats interview included.
“What I do is so rewarding to me,” she says. Even with today’s fast-paced technology ridden world, she sees restaurants as an oasis. “Yes, you see people on their devices and things, but I really think dining is one of the last frontiers where people make real connections. Families just don’t sit down and have dinner together anymore.”
And, she thinks it’s an exciting time to be involved in food in Little Rock. “We have the most diverse, independent restaurant scene, for a city our size. I am not kidding, just travel around. It’s even more vibrant than many cities better than us … It’s exciting.”
Peck finds time to give back to the community, getting involved with organizations she believes in, including Arkansas Hunger Alliance and Pride Corp. She also practices Tai Chi – her fool-proof method of unwinding.
In terms of food, though, she has plans to keep doing what she’s doing, to keep creating for people. “I love to come up with something that just blows me away and then sharing it with customers and watching them light up and say that it’s the best meal they’ve ever had. It’s instant gratification,” she smiles.