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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.

“I get a message on my telephone and an alarm in my office if I've got refrigeration that's failing,” he said. “My ovens tell me what they're cooking and how long it's being cooked for.”

Some of the other interesting equipment in Richardson's new kitchen includes a large main cooking suite. Made in France to Richardson's specifications, the suite features built-in pasta cookers which circulate and filter boiling water, ovens that can cook, steam, or any combination of the two, and induction range tops that use a magnetic field to heat only the pans while the cooking surface itself stays cool to the touch. Another innovation, possibly unique to Richardson's kitchen, is what he calls an “environmental chamber” in which internal humidity and temperature can be precisely controlled. Custom built by a laboratory equipment company after an extensive search failed to find what Richardson had in mind, the chamber is the size of a large refrigerator, and will be used to age ducks, cheeses, sausages, steaks and other items.

“I could tie this environmental box up to the information coming from Italy, and I could age a prosciutto ham in the exact environment that they're doing it in Italy,” Richardson said. “This is the one piece that it's fair to say there probably isn't another chef in the world that has one.”

When not working on the kitchens, much of Richardson's down time has been spent searching for Arkansas's homegrown treasures. In the past year, he has discovered in-state suppliers for homemade cheddar cheese, old variety “Arkansas Black” apples, stone ground flour and meal from War Eagle Mill, and heirloom pork from a supplier near Petit Jean Mountain. The availability and quality of local produce has figured heavily into Richardson's thinking on new dishes for Ashley's, which will feature four rotating menus, each reflecting the local fare of the season in which it will appear. The summer months will have a lighter menu, with lots of cheese, fruits and salads. Meanwhile, a peek at a proposed fall menu finds items like sweet potato bisque, rack of lamb with sweet onion gratin, beef tenderloin with Arkansas Black apples and spicy pumpkin jam, and pasta with jerk spinach. For the more adventurous diner, private “wine cellar” dinners will feature courses selected and cooked by Chef Richardson himself.

It all leads, Richardson said, to cooking “Arkansas” — taking traditional favorites to the next level through interesting preparation, enhanced flavor, and unique and innovative ingredients. A member of the Southern Foodways Alliance who said his grandmother is still the best cook he's ever seen, Richardson has watched as Southern cuisine has become the hot thing in recent years. He says it's time for Arkansas food — an assortment of influences from Texas, Louisiana, the Mississippi Delta, and the lower Midwest — to have its time in the spotlight.

“People want something that they know,” Richardson said. “That's good, because I started with culture and tradition and I'm going from there.”

Since coming to Little Rock, Richardson has been trying out his ideas at a weekly luncheon for Stephens Inc. executives. (The hotel is a property of the Stephens financial empire.) On the menu in recent weeks: Richardson's unique take on pimento cheese with homemade saltine crackers; pork knuckles, turnip greens and black eyed peas (they came back for thirds, Richardson said); liver and onions (which, in Richardson's kitchen, translates to foie gras and caramelized shallots), barbecued pork belly, and Moon Pies with scratch-built graham crackers, homemade marshmallow cream, and fresh dark chocolate.

Warren Stephens, CEO of Stephens Inc., has been a regular at Richardson's Thursday luncheons. He said that while there were some raised eyebrows when he and other executives heard Richardson would be serving a number of uniquely Southern dishes, everyone who has tried his food has found it to be great. “They have always been really delicious,” Stephens said. “They're innovative in a way, and they definitely have a little bit of Southern flavor to them. I've really been pleased. I think everybody who goes there is going to be excited about having a great new chef and staff there to serve in a refinished and redone Ashley's.”

The secret, Richardson said, is in the familiarity of the food he is preparing, which leads to a certain amount of trust, even among diners who might believe traditional Southern cuisine to be lowbrow. If he can get a plate in front of them, Richardson promises he can win over even the most persnickety eater.

“Once you've got a little bit of trust, you can hit the ground running,” he said. “It's not a battle I'm going to win verbally. But if I can find my way to your belly, the argument is going to stop.”

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