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Monday, March 18, 2013

What Donnie's been doing...

Posted By on Mon, Mar 18, 2013 at 10:13 AM

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Earlier this year, Donnie Ferneau somewhat unexpectedly announced he would be stepping down from his position as executive chef at his once eponymous, now named-after-a-pony Hillcrest restaurant, Rocket 21. The descent of one of central Arkansas’ most revered and established chefs had many scratching their heads; many speculated as to what this meant for such a towering figure, both literally and figuratively, in the Arkansas culinary scene. Since his arrival in Little Rock some twelve years ago, Ferneau has racked up a handful of awards and accolades based on the restaurant’s general success and his personal capabilities as a chef. When the news broke that he was leaving, some felt that this signified Donnie’s exodus from Arkansas, perhaps returning to his native Iowa. But Donnie’s love for the South (and admittedly, southern women), has kept him firmly planted in Little Rock and among the who’s who of Arkansas chefdom.

So what’s Donnie been up to? You’d guess he’s got some kind of restaurant development in the works…he does, but more on that shortly. Over the last few months, die-hard Donnie fans and aspiring chefs have been gifted with instructional cooking classes hosted by The Don himself. The events have been planned and coordinated with the help of local food blogger, Thanh Rasico, the mastermind behind Red Kitchen Recipes. Together, Ferneau and Rasico have hosted a number of intimate and engaging cooking classes, in which attendees are provided with numerous helpful tips and tidbits for the home kitchen. Donnie does the cooking, occasionally soliciting help from the studio audience (I pity the poor girl who was roped into stirring the risotto for an hour at the last meeting), and everyone is served tasting plates in which to sample the fruits of Donnie’s labors. Bellies are well fed, but perhaps even better is the seemingly constant stream of witty, candid, and coolly confident chatter that comes out of Chef Ferneau. The guy’s got a gift for entertaining—chock full of enough humorous and brutally honest sound bites to keep any good food writer or reporter grinding away at their note pads for hours. It’s really what makes the class a joy to be a part of, and it seems unlikely that they’d work nearly as well without such a lively and animated headmaster. At one point, Donnie remarks on television’s The Bachelor, and in regards to this year’s bachelor states, “When I first saw him I thought, ‘Hey, I’m better looking than that guy.’ Then he took his shirt off and I thought, ‘No, I’m not.’ ” The chef makes the experience. The food is good, but even if it weren’t, you’d still be getting your money’s worth.

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At Donnie’s most recent class, students and diners were schooled on the intricacies of shellfish, risotto, sautéed salads, and the flammability of alcohol. We started with a light, flavorful salad composed of baby kale and spinach, dressed with bits of pancetta, apple, sunflower seeds, and apple cider vinegar. Along the way, guests are invited to pass the raw ingredients around—tasting, touching, smelling—to gain a clearer understanding of why some techniques work better for certain ingredients than others; here, the baby kale, stiffer and more robust than the thin, soft spinach needing a bit more time in the sauté pan to get the appropriate wilt.

We moved on to a nice spring risotto with fresh corn. Donnie explains how patience is crucial to this dish—a constant, steady stir allows the slow absorption of vegetable broth by the raw Arborio rice. He adds richness with a touch of cream and pecorino cheese, and after making short work of a half-dozen ears of corn, adds the golden kernels to the dish. By the time we had moved on to the art of searing and serving thick, plump, appropriately-cooked sea scallops, the anticipation was almost palpable. Donnie’s audience was appropriately eating out of the palms of his hands. The dessert course, however, probably heard more moans of delight than anything the preceded it. Donnie whipped up a spectacular version of bananas foster with bourbon, brown sugar, and butter. Flambéed (with a touch of showmanship), and served over a scoop of vanilla ice cream, this simple and classic dessert recipe, had everyone (myself included) sending boat loads of compliments to the chef.

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Chef Ferneau can’t help but share a bit of his excitement regarding his upcoming restaurant developments, though he remains appropriately mum to any specifics such as location, opening date, or the restaurant’s name. Still, all ears prick up with every mention of the new venture. One gathers that Ferneau is determined to bring a relatively exclusive dining experience to Little Rock. It’s clear he thirsts for elegance, class, and quality, but he’s not afraid to explore the unorthodox to get them. He’ll refuse to take reservations, only opening after 7 p.m., and require diners to conform to a dress code. “It’s all going to be locally sourced, farm-to-table. You’ll know where everything on your plate came from.” His desire to produce a menu that’s anything but pedestrian is clear from his musings on the average, uninspired options all too frequent in modern dining. Everyone’s expecting shrimp and grits—it’s the South, and that sells—but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t get to enjoy a spread of beef bone marrow on crusty bread or a plate of sautéed sweetbreads with fava beans. “Adult mac-and-cheese is the most bulls**t dish on menus today,” he asserts. He laments the fact that a painstakingly labor-intensive poached pear tartlet on a dessert menu, nine times out of ten, will take a back seat to the crème brulee. Agree with him or not, it’s incredibly fascinating to get a small peak into the mind of an accomplished chef in such a casual, carefree setting. Questions are welcome, witty banter is encouraged—it makes for a special experience on all accounts.

Ferneau’s next class is scheduled to be held on Thursday, April 4th from 6-8:30 p.m. This time, they’re planning on taking the classroom outdoors where participants will be enjoying the art of grilling. Per usual, there will be three courses covered, and on this date, Ferneau will be making tacos with handmade tortillas. Wine and sangria will accompany. Classes cost $50 per person. If you’re interested in attending send an email to Thanh Rasico at: thanhrasico@gmail.com or follow her @ThanhRasico.

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