In our time here we have profiled over 100 local food industry people, however none have had as interesting of a path to becoming an executive chef as Rick Garrett of Core Brewing. Strangely enough it may be his past life as an air traffic controller that allows him to succeed in one of the most difficult positions in the state.
Garrett came by his love of food honestly. Growing up in Fort Smith there are no famous chefs, glitzy restaurants, and it was an era before the tv chef craze. Garrett fell in love with amature bbq competitions and the thrill of competing.
“The first really was a bbq cook off when I was in high school. I walked over with my dad after a football game, I was still taped up and my knees were all bloody after playing. I am sure I had grass stains everywhere,” Garrett recalls. “There was a bbq competition nearby and I hobbled over to check it out. We talked with a lot of the competitors and tasted what they were cooking. Instantly I knew I wanted to do this too.”
Garrett threw together a smoker, welding it in their back yard, and he and his dad started entering competitions together.
“We split up the competition. He would do brisket and ribs and I would do chicken and pulled pork. I got a first and second in my categories and he came in dead last,” Garrett laughs. “It kept happening over and over again. Finally he decided to just give it up and help me set up, then go walk around the competition while I cooked.”
The two started doing competitions all over the country, hauling their smoker as far away as Bakersfield California for competitions.
“This was before good cell phones for photos, or any way to cheaply promote yourself. So the idea of starting up a restaurant always seemed out of the picture,” Garrett says. “So my plan was to go to college, teach of something for 30 years, then retire and finally open a restaurant.”
Garrett went to UCA, but a bbq competition in Conway quickly landed him a restaurant job. It quickly made him second guess the college career. He decided instead to join the Navy.
“I walked into the Navy and they asked what I wanted to, and I said I wanted to cook,” Garrett recalls. “They looked at my scores and told me that it was too high for a cook, and kept asking me what else.”
Finally, the Navy put him in as an air traffic controller where he spent eight years. The desire to become a cook still pulled at him.
Garrett decided to exit the Navy and use his GI bill to pay for culinary school. He enrolled at Le Cordon Bleu in Portland, Oregon. “It was nothing like what I thought, going from an amature cook to a chef. I realized how much I could do better with the proper training instead of just figuring it out myself,” Garrett reflects.
Garrett would spend the next few years in Portland, working at various restaurants, pubs, and breweries. After leaving a large brewery for a high-end retirement community that didn’t offer the opportunity he wanted, he decided to return home to Fort Smith.
It was the Fort Smith Core Public House that made the connection for him. Garrett quickly became a regular and would talk food with the manager there. Eventually his passion for food made its way to Jesse Core, owner of Core Brewing, who asked for a meeting.
“Jesse gets so excited about food, it was great to have someone to share that same level of passion with,” Garrett explains. “We hit it off right away and started coming up with ideas. Finally our initial conversation stopped for a second, and Jesse asked if I would be interested in becoming the chef for the public houses.”
Garrett began by building the menu for the Argenta Public House, then began to take on the public houses with food one by one.
“One kitchen turned into two, to three, to four. Now a food truck that is about to open in Springdale, a food truck in Rogers, and several upcoming locations,” Garrett says. “Being the point for that much has its challenges. My phone blows up all the time. We have someone who can’t come in at this store, we are out of something in another store, some piece of equipment broke on a food truck, and someone had to leave to go pick up a sick kid at another. It sometimes all happens in the span of just a few minutes.”
On top of that each location has a slightly different set of menu offerings and kitchen setups, making it less like managing a chain of spots and more like multiple unique locations.
It turns out running the Core Kitchens is something uniquely suited for a former air traffic controller. Garrett handles it all calmly and keeps everything from crashing all while raising the overall creativity of the menu at the Public Houses. What seems like chaos to some is a perfectly orchestrated takeoff and landing sequence to Garrett.
Things do not get any easier any time soon. Core is launching several new public houses and looking at ways to add food to others that previously did not have kitchen space. Meanwhile, the menu items continue to improve a little every day. Garrett’s unique background matches the unique position well.