Both gastronomes and fans of inner-city revitalization have cause for happiness. That’s because by the time you read this, ground will be broken on a new multimillion-dollar culinary school and teaching restaurant on Asher Avenue in Little Rock.
With an estimated construction cost of $4.8 million, backers of the school say the new complex will give Asher a shot in the arm while helping make sure Arkansas’s best restaurants have a well of talent to draw from for years to come.
It’s not a new school. The Arkansas Culinary School of Apprentice-ship is 10 years old. But directors hope the new 11,300-square-foot space will help them grow into a nationally recognized school. Todd Gold is president of the ACSA. He said recent years have seen enrollment and progress limited by space concerns (for the last five years, the school has shared space with Quality Foods/Performance Food Group in the upper floor of their warehouse on Asher Avenue). With only four small classrooms, an office, a kitchen and 45 students, Gold said space is tight enough that first-year students attend classes on one night and the second- and third-year students attend classes the next.
The new facility will include four large classrooms, an auditorium, conference rooms, office space and a library. An additional 6,900-square-foot structure to be built nearby will house the school’s student-staffed restaurant. The school will bear the name of Quality Foods founder Don Kirkpatrick, who died in September 2003. Kirkpatrick’s family donated the land for the school, which adjoins the Quality Foods/PFG warehouse. Gold said they hope the new room will let the ACSA increase enrollment to around 150 students, plus accomplish long-term goals like linking the program to a local university or community college, offer weekend and evening courses for the home chef, and start a television cooking show. In addition, Gold said the school might do for Asher Avenue what new development has done for other parts of the city. “Our hope is that bringing a project that’s four and a half to five million dollars in that area will maybe spark interest,” Gold said. “We just watched them do it in the River Market. There’s no reason why five minutes down the road we can’t do the same thing.”
Gold said Arkansas is set to capture some of the culinary acclaim that has gone to other states in recent years. “There are new restaurants popping up left and right,” Gold said. “We just opened the presidential library, and those tourist dollars are going to keep coming in. I think you’re going to see no stop to it.”
Students in the program pay around $8,000 for the three-year course. They spend one day a week in class — learning subjects like culinary math, menu planning and, of course, how to prepare numerous dishes and styles of cuisine — then another 40 hours per week working as an apprentice to a school-approved chef. They must complete 6,000 hours of on-the-job training before they graduate. Chef Paul Novicky, now executive chef and co-owner of Nu Cuisine Lounge, was once an instructor for the ACSA. He employs four apprentices from the school at Nu. He said that the school will not only benefit the restaurant community by supplying apprentices, but also by bringing in new chefs to the city to serve as instructors. While conceding that every student of the ACSA won’t end up a Wolfgang Puck, Novicky said the new school will benefit all facets of food preparation in Arkansas. “If you just keep in perspective that from every mom and pop shop, all the way up to something like what we do here [at Nu], people have to get trained.”
James Botwright, the executive director of the ACSA, shares Gold’s vision. Formerly the executive chef for the 12th Air Force, Botwright is a fourth- generation chef, and has cooked for two presidents. He said he came to Little Rock to head the ACSA because he believes in the potential of the restaurant scene. While Arkansas is known mostly for down-home cooking, Botwright believes there is a demand for better cuisine here that largely hasn’t been satisfied. To that end, Botwright said the school will be listening closely to local restaurant operators to find the right curriculum.
Now that ground is broken, Gold hopes the work of raising the nearly $5 million in construction costs should be completed by late next year. The school is offering naming rights to everything from the auditorium to the plaque attached to the flag pole out front (looking for the perfect Christmas gift? For $250,000 you can have generations of young chefs dishing up in a kitchen named for that most special cook in your life). Gold hopes the investment will eventually add to more than the city’s cholesterol count.
“I think Little Rock’s ready,” Gold said. “Someday, our state could be looked to for culinary inspiration and we’ll be known as trendsetters… You hear about the great chefs of Louisiana or in New York City. Who ever said you couldn’t hear about the great chefs in Arkansas?”
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