If you were to ask The Fold’s Alex Smith when she first discovered her love of food, she’ll look back on her childhood.
“I guess I’ve always been interested in food, it’s been a big deal in my family,” she says.
But her interest in restaurants developed later when the Arkansas native was attending the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. During her junior year, she decided she liked her part-time job working in a restaurant better than studying to be a civil engineer.
“I decided when I would rather be at work than in class, that maybe I wasn’t meant to be an engineer,” she laughs.
It was then that she decided she wanted to attend culinary school, and she made her way to New York to study at the Culinary Institute of America. She worked hard and even did an internship in Washington State during her two-and-a-half year program – “It was amazing, a really phenomenal experience … [plus] I got to live on both ends of the U.S.”
As she neared the end of her program, however, she had her eyes on Arkansas. “My whole family is here so it seemed like where I wanted to be,” she says.
Finding a job turned out to be pretty seamless, because when she returned a good friend of hers was involved with the opening of The Fold Botanas & Bar. She started out as a line-cook and worked her way up from there. As time went on she began to have more and more responsibilities, and Smith took them in stride. Over time, she became head chef.
“I went from being just a line cook here – to having to do all the ordering, scheduling, hiring,” she says. Then she adds, “It was a sink or swim moment.”
Currently she is focused on the menu, as she works to strike a balance there. Her goal – to keep loyal customers coming back for their favorite items while still putting her on spin on things. She says, “It’s been interesting to figure out a way to add things without changing the feel of the place.”
In fact, Smith is always on the lookout for good flavor combinations, and she carries a notebook with her to jot down thoughts. “I probably look like a crazy person with it – it’s all scribbles. I’ll write down things that sound good and then I’ll go back later and write down other ingredients that might taste good with it and I try to decide how that can become an item.”
Sometimes inspiration comes to her from the bar. For instance, there was a delicious special a while back – Green Apple Chorizo Empanadas. “At the time we needed green apples for one of the drinks on our menu, and I thought maybe I can integrate them into something from the kitchen,” she explains.
It was a great flavor combination, although she’s quick to mention that there are plenty of times she’s come up with things that don’t always work.
As a woman in the kitchen, Smith hasn’t noticed any bias in her direction due to gender, especially because she feels her work environment is tight-knit. “We’re such a small space, that it’s sort of like a family – we all get a long really well,” she says.
She does wish, however, more women would find their way to kitchen and restaurant work. “I definitely think it would be fun for there to be more women involved especially in kitchen positions – that is a predominantly male field.”
Since leaving Arkansas and coming back, Smith has noticed a turn-around in the local food scene. She says, “There’s a lot of different businesses and people that are trying to bring new things here and I think it’s being accepted well in Little Rock. We’re definitely moving forward.”
And she believes the key to growing is small business support – on all sides.
She explains, “It’s competition to a certain extent, but for us we definitely want everyone to succeed – we’re all small, local businesses and if we support each other I feel like we all have a better chance at surviving.”
When not working Smith loves to go out to eat. She laughingly says, “It’s always nice for someone else to cook for me for a change.”