Sustaining a burgeoning food scene requires, among other things, a diverse talent pool. Thankfully, Little Rock has a few fresh faces stepping up to the plate. This series aims to introduce up-and-coming chefs and find out what makes them tick.
Growing up, Kamiya Merrick found herself in and out of restaurants, as her parents owned a catering business for a time. She called Ontario home, and didn’t have Little Rock on her radar until she was recruited to play soccer at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.
Food, however, was a different story –“I’ve always had a dream of opening my own restaurant,” she says.
As a self-taught chef, she had no idea the opportunity that would present itself so soon. After graduating from UALR, she was pulled into the venture by the King sisters – Helen Grace and Leila. As luck would have it she found herself at the helm of the kitchen sooner than expected, nearly two years ago.
She’s been able to ask her parents for advice as her mom is a chef on the West Coast and her dad is self taught, but mostly, she’s risen to the occasion on the fly. Fast forward to now, and as co-owner and Executive Chef of one of Rock City’s most solid options, she’s been on one wild ride.
“When we opened this place,” she says, looking around at the space nestled on the corner of Markham and Scott, “We didn’t have any branding. We were working with a blank slate and I think we’ve done a really good job of growing and listening to our customers.”
For instance, most everything on the menu is prepared in-house at this point, from the house-cured pastrami and house-cut fries to hand-breaded chicken and much more. The mission of having the freshest ingredients has been at the forefront of Merrick’s to-do list – “That’s one of my top four values as a chef,” she says, “Use local as often as possible.”
It’s truly paid off.
“Now we have customers who know us, and come in for the classics, and who are also a little more open-minded to our creative dishes,” she explains. Along with the support of regular customers, Kamiya feels blessed to have such a strong, solid team. “I would not be able to do what I do without my work family,” she says.
Any time Merrick eats out or takes a trip, she’s examine flavor combinations, always learning, and always trying to take her cooking to the next level. In terms of cuisine genre, Merrick loves to experiment and loves cooking a little bit of everything. “As far as styles go, I like to cook healthier food, but it’s a hard sell. I’m highly influenced by West Coast cuisine – it’s light and fresh but also indulgent,” she says.
One thing she did know for sure when At The Corner opened is that she wanted to share a little bit of Canada with Little Rock.
As a student athlete at UALR, Merrick didn’t have all that much time to explore the local food scene, but one story stands out – “I remember getting excited over Canadian Bacon at IHOP,” she laughs, “But when they brought it to the table, I realized it was a glorified piece of ham.”
Menu creation is probably Merrick’s favorite part of cheffing, as she says, “I get really excited when we start flowing. I might have an idea and then Leila or Chris will jump in – it’s just so much fun.”
Merrick and the team continue to find new ways to be creative. In fact, the eatery just recently finished their first beer dinner collaboration with Lost Forty for Fat Tuesday. “I was really nervous about it at first,” she says, “Because it was a whole new set of skills, but it went really smoothly.”
Merrick has enjoyed becoming a part of the food scene. Now that she’s been here for eight years, she’s seen some great changes. For instance, she remembers her first dinner at South on Main. “At the time that was the most impressive meal I’d had in Little Rock,” she says. These days, if she’s not working you’re likely to find her at Kemuri or Ciao Baci, among others.
What she’s most excited about is watching and helping the farm-to-table movement take off here – “It’s only going to get better,” she says.
She’s proud of the scene, especially the women in it. “I think we’re actually really well-represented in the food industry here,” she says. “It might be that we’re not as well-known, but we’re definitely getting things done.”
For now, we can rest assured that Merrick will continue to turn out some great dishes. Thankfully she’s calling Rock City home, as she says, “I am so thankful that I get to cook in Little Rock.”