Chef Donnie Ferneau, an imposing fellow with a large grin, confesses to being a little cocky. But why wouldn’t he be, considering where he’s come in five years?
When he arrived in Little Rock Jan. 4, 2001, following his brother Jeff, who followed his parents here, Donnie Ferneau says he went to nearly every restaurant in town looking for a job.
Today, he is executive chef of his eponymous Hillcrest restaurant, which was voted by Arkansas Times readers as the best new restaurant in 2005.
The 30-year-old Ferneau also has been voted the best overall chef at the past two Arkansas Hospitality Association conventions, as well as winning the Kidney Foundation’s best overall chef competition three years in a row.
Five years ago, the Rockford, Ill., native just wanted a job. He’d learned cooking in Rockford under Philippe Forcioli, chef on the Orient Express before moving to the United States. After following his family to Little Rock (his father works for Union Pacific), Ferneau took a job at Shorty Smalls. It last a day; he then joined Paul Novicky at Spaule. The move added Ferneau to the family tree that Restaurant Jacques and Suzanne spawned, whose branches can be seen throughout the Little Rock cooking establishment: Novicky was trained by Denis Seyer. “He honed me into what Little Rock was about, taught me about the city and what they eat,” Ferneau said.
Then, after four months with Novicky, Ferneau spent the next several months in a variety of jobs: at Satellite Cafe, the River Market cubicle of Kathy Webb’s Lilly’s Dim Sum Then Sum, grill chef at Michael Selig’s then-just-opened Vermillion Water Grille. It appeared he had settled down over the next year and half as the executive chef of Ciao Baci.
Owning his own establishment was always in the back of Ferneau’s mind, though. The idea started becoming a reality in October 2004 when Ferneau took a space in the Ice House Revival on Kavanaugh, where Andre’s and before that, Chops, were located. With Rodney Thomason and Joel Studt as investors, it took only two months to have the restaurant ready for customers, and after a soft opening around Christmas, Ferneau says he was urged to open for New Year’s Eve. “We were filled that first night,” he said. “We were drawing crowds and not advertising.”
The restaurant seats 87 inside, and al fresco dining was added — the original front glass wall was pulled back off the sidewalk — to the front and sides of the space to seat an additional 50.
Randy Murray is Ferneau’s sous chef, and brother Jeff Ferneau runs the bar. Lauren Bernstein is the office manager.
The restaurant isn’t cheap. Donnie Ferneau says prices run higher because the fish is flown in daily from Hawaii, not one or two times a week. The beef is top of the line. He spends more on other ingredients. All of this shows on the plate. For appetizers, the calamari is as fresh and cooked as well as anywhere in town. Salads are daring, and a meal in themselves. “I don’t believe in making small salads,” he said.
There’s barely a local chef he doesn’t mention by name in an interview. He has immense respect for his cohorts, including Seyer: “He’s a bad-ass. I’ve had his cuisine, I’ve seen his menu. He knows classical French, and when you do it right like he does, it’s fabulous.” And: “I could do a lot of fish, and Peter Brave, he’s known for fish. I’m pretty honored to be associated with him.”
Donnie Ferneau recommends this menu:
“Sashimi for an appetizer, then a pan-seared beef tenderloin with a demi-glace, and sauteed spinach with garlic and lemon, and also a grilled tomato.” Ferneau’s impressive wine list would have any number of medium to hearty reds to complement the entree.