Travis McConnell is only 34, but he's been everywhere. A Kansas native who grew up partially in Conway, he's bounced from kitchens in Memphis to culinary school in Vermont, moved from restaurants in Oregon to the Four Seasons in Jackson Hole and traveled to Italy and Peru with his wife, who's Peruvian (and who he met in Jackson Hole). Amidst that globetrotting, he did a stint at the newly renovated Capital Hotel, where he found his passion.
"It's the first place I butchered a whole pig," he said. "I created the bacon program, which is still intact."
But after two years at the Capital, he and his wife Carla realized they weren't ready to be back in Arkansas and lit out for San Francisco, where McConnell worked for a time at a salumeria (an Italian-style butcher shop) in the Ferry Building before taking a position at a giant restaurant and theater in Berkley called Revival, where he rose to become chef de cuisine. After two years in the Bay Area, home came calling again. He wanted to be close to family and open his own restaurant. But how to pull that off without any income or insurance? The answer came days after reuniting with Lee Richardson, then chef of the Capital Hotel, and other Capital chefs at a special event in Memphis, when Richardson called him up and asked, "When are you going to come back and open Travis' restaurant?"
"I'd never thought about coming back to the hotel," McConnell said, but when Richardson offered him a 12-month contract, it seemed a perfect fit.
That Richardson ended up leaving the hotel before McConnell returned didn't change the terms of the arrangement, but it has meant that, since he returned as sous chef in September, he's largely been left to his own devices running the Capital Bar and Grill. He's made downtown's best casual restaurant better.
He's overhauled the entrees, improved the charcuterie offerings ($20 for five selections, plus olives, pickles and char-grilled baguette, a steal for a group of cured-meat lovers) and tweaked the specials. The bar's fried chicken lunch special on Wednesday has long been popular thanks to line cook Korey Dupree's skill with a frying pan. But since McConnell and Dupree updated the presentation, pairing the chicken with a cornmeal waffle and drizzling everything with honey and a jalapeno and lime salsa, you will not get a seat if you arrive any later than 11:20 a.m.
With entree specials, McConnell said he's doing the food he's really passionate about. A couple of week ago, he offered choucroute garnie, a sauerkraut and meat dish.
"We make our own sauerkraut here. I sauteed the sauerkraut in onions and duck fat and juniper berries, and poached fingerling potatoes and served that with variety of meats — I got a whole pig in and I butchered it and got rib on belly, which I braised, and trotters, which I braised, and a frankfurter, and garlic caraway sausage."
Even with his commitment to the Capital and the demands of the job, McConnell is already working to raise awareness for his coming restaurant, even if it's not coming until this fall at the earliest. He's already got a name — Butcher & Public — and he's begun to host special events under that banner. For his first, held in late January at Dunbar Garden, he roasted a pig from Freckle Face Farms, cooked veggies from the likes of Armstead Mountain Farm and Little Rock Urban Farming, served bread from Arkansas Fresh, beer from Vino's and local homebrew/microbrewer Flyway Brewing and Arkansas Black apple cider from Loblolly Creamery. Admission was donations only. He was expecting about 50; somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 showed up. Somehow McConnell worked some loaves-and-fishes magic — everyone got food. Still, for his second pig roast, scheduled for March 24, he's capping attendance and charging $25. Reserve a spot at butcherandpublic.com.
McConnell is actively searching for a location for Butcher & Public. Like the pig roasts, it's going to be "based off whole animal butchery and sourcing local produce," he said. It'll have a butcher shop component — "the kind of place you can come in and buy a pork chop and a pound of sausage and grab some cool cuts of steak that we pull off a chuck that not everyone knows about"— paired with a cafe. McConnell said he wants it to be a "community-oriented space," where people can come in for coffee, beer or a sandwich. He's also hoping to do fresh pastas in-house, and host private dinners that he can sell tickets to in advance, where he'll serve the likes of roast suckling pig or leg of lamb.
McConnell wants a fairly big place, where he'll have enough space to teach butchery, and he really likes the SoMa area, but knows the path is rarely straight in the restaurant business. Whatever happens, he said he's committed to Butcher & Public.
"I've got my goal and my dream. I'm not going to stray for it."
A previous version of this story incorrectly identified Korey Dupree as a sous chef. He's a line cook.