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Cooking ‘Arkansas’ 

click to enlarge A CAPITAL CHEF: Lee Richardson puts the finishing touches on a grouper dish.
  • A CAPITAL CHEF: Lee Richardson puts the finishing touches on a grouper dish.

When people hear that Lee Richardson, the new executive chef at the Capital Hotel, plans on serving fare like pork shanks, turnip greens, watermelon and Moon Pies at the forthcoming reincarnation of the historically swanky Ashley's restaurant, he gets more than his share of dubious looks. If dedication to concept is any yardstick, however, it might do well for even the snootiest gourmand to give him a chance.

Richardson has spent the past year and a half transforming the kitchens at the hotel (currently in the final stages of a ground-up renovation) into a high-tech wonderland where culinary dreams are born, and has scoured the state for the finest locally-produced ingredients. While some of the menu items he has on deck might sound like something better suited to a church social than a white tablecloth business dinner, it's not all turnip greens and pot likker. The veteran chef has more than a few five-star tricks up his sleeve, and a menu full of ideas that will kick even the simplest dishes several rungs up the culinary ladder. No matter how good she was in the kitchen, chances are that even your dear old Granny never made anything this good.

When can you taste it? The date is still uncertain, though October seems to be the best guess.

Born and raised in New Orleans, Richardson said he decided on a career in the kitchen while at the University of Colorado. Coming from a long line of fine, self-taught Louisiana cooks, Richardson became known during his college years as the guy who brought jambalaya and steaming pots of gumbo to the party while everyone else brought beer. After graduation, he moved back to Naw'lins, and — after foregoing a stint in culinary school (he still has an unmailed envelope with an application and signed check to the Culinary Institute of America inside) — he took the much harder path to chefdom, working his way up through an old-fashioned apprenticeship at some of the city's best restaurants.

By August 2005, when Hurricane Katrina roared through New Orleans, Richardson was Chef de Cuisine at Restaurant August, a Tchoupitoulas Street icon owned by Executive Chef John Besh. Though Richardson's house and the restaurant survived the storm without much damage, the future for his job wasn't so rosy.

“I was second in command to the owner of the restaurant,” Richardson said. “He also had two or three different consulting contracts with Harrah's Casino. The hurricane pretty much blew those out and cut the economy in half. I certainly felt like he and I were going to be competing for the same job. Also, I was a little bit later getting back on the scene during the rebuilding.”

In early 2006, as he and his wife were expecting their first child, Richardson heard about the executive chef position at the Capitol Hotel in Little Rock, and arranged to do a try out for executives of Stephens Inc., which owns the hotel. The first time he came to the state for the audition, he had to arrange a rain check. On the road between Dumas and Pine Bluff, Richardson's wife phoned to say that her obstetrician had decided to induce labor and that he had to come back. A later at-bat went off without a hitch, however, and in March 2006 — with an infant daughter only a few weeks old — Richardson and his wife made the move to Arkansas.

Given that the Capitol Hotel is still not open as of this writing, Richardson said that a lot of people ask him how an executive chef with no restaurant has managed to occupy his time for a year and a half. Richardson quickly nixes the idea that he has been sitting at home watching soap operas. Since signing on, Richardson has helped design five new kitchens at the Capital Hotel, has overseen the hiring of what will eventually be a 35-employee kitchen staff, and has fully reworked the plans for the large main kitchen. When completed, Richardson's new kitchen will be a state-of-the-art technological marvel — one that most guests will never see. Everything, down to the freezers and the ovens, will be computer controlled.

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