Looking for chefs with culinary credentials? You don't need to look far.
Five Little Rock-grown men - all Central High graduates, all in their early 30s, all trained at top cooking schools - are making their mark locally and nationally.
For this year's Readers Choice restaurant awards issue, the Arkansas Times focuses on Brian Deloney, Patrick Herron, Robbie Lewis, Scott McGehee and Roger Runnells.
Only three years apart in age, Deloney, Herron and McGehee grew up blocks apart in Hillcrest. Runnells and Lewis called the Southwest Little Rock neighborhood Meadowcliff home. (Lewis' father lived in Hillcrest, so Lewis spent time on the sidewalks of Kavanaugh Boulevard, too.)
Lewis, chef de cuisine at San Francisco's Jardiniere restaurant, recently received high praise from San Francisco Chronicle restaurant critic Michael Bauer, who besides giving the restaurant three and a half stars, wrote that Lewis "really knows how to cook."
Deloney is also out West, serving as executive sous chef at TV chef Emeril Lagasse's Delmonico steakhouse in the Venetian Hotel Casino in Las Vegas.
Here at home, McGehee and Runnells created the popular Boulevard Bread Company, which now has three locations under McGehee's leadership. Runnells left Boulevard and hopes to open a bakery of his own.
Herron, back in his old 'hood, has transformed Little Rock institution La Scala into the popular Beechwood Grill, a best new restaurant runner-up in this year's Times poll.
A look at the five guys and the careers they've cooked up:
Brian Deloney, 31
Executive sous chef, Emeril's Delmonico Steakhouse
Venetian Hotel and Casino
Las Vegas, Nev.
At 31, Brian Deloney is the youngest of the group. He grew up on Crystal Court, across the street from Scott McGehee, and knew Patrick Herron and Robbie Lewis through his older brother.
Deloney said he began cooking as a little kid.
"I was a picky eater and discovered it was just easier to cook for myself," he said in a telephone interview. "Mom would go to Junior League meetings and Dad would make fish sticks twice a week."
Like the others, Deloney went to college but didn't finish. "I knew what I wanted to do," he said. He quit school and worked in the kitchen at Cafe Prego with Herron.
"He could really move," Herron said of Deloney. "The confidence in what he could do was there."
Deloney also worked for a while at La Scala restaurant before leaving to attend the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY. He spent two years there, working at a "small, quaint" Connecticut bed-and-breakfast during his training.
After graduation, he moved to Austin, Texas, where he worked at a Caribbean seafood restaurant for a couple of years. On a lark, he went to New Orleans, where he stayed for the next five years. "I didn't plan on it, but I really liked the atmosphere," he said. Almost immediately, he landed a job at Nola, one of Emeril Lagasse's three restaurants in the Crescent City.
Deloney soon came in contact with the big man himself. "I worked at the flagship restaurant for two weeks once," he said. "Emeril's still very hands-on." If you make a mistake, "he will tear you up," Deloney said, laughing. Deloney quickly moved through the ranks at Nola, working his way from a line cook to executive sous chef within a year and a half. After five years at Nola, he was sent to Las Vegas, where he's been for a year.
Deloney said Delmonico is the busiest restaurant in Lagasse's empire.
"We'll do 650 covers a weekend," he said. Celebrities like comedian Kevin James and musicians Lenny Kravitz and Billy Joel have dined there, where an appetizer of Beluga caviar with traditional garnish runs $1,800.
Though Delmonico's a steakhouse, Deloney said the chefs have the freedom to "play around and cook for people, keep ourselves fresh."
A special feature at the restaurant is the "kitchen table" - a six-course tasting menu served in the kitchen. Deloney cooks for kitchen table five times a week.
He said being one of Lagasse's chefs makes him a minor celebrity. "I get asked for autographs," he said. "People will ask us to sign menus or take pictures." Deloney said the next step is running his own Emeril restaurant, but he'd like to get back to Little Rock eventually and open a place.
Will he use a certain catchphrase when he does? "I never say 'Bam!'" he laughed.
Back on Kavanaugh
Patrick Herron, 34
Owner, Beechwood Grill
Patrick Herron has worked in restaurants since he was 14 years old, but for the longest he had no idea he and his friends would end up chefs. "We were probably all shocked when we found out," he said. Herron lived on Colonial Court in Hillcrest, just up the street from Scott McGehee and Brian Deloney.
He said he had a hard time figuring out a major in college. "I took a semester off and it ended up being the rest of my life," he said. After he left school, he took a job at La Scala and discovered a passion for cooking. "I had worked at sandwich shops before, but at La Scala, I could see the level it could go to," he said. Owner Wally Gieringer also taught him the business side of running a restaurant.
After a year at La Scala, Herron attended the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y.
"It was extremely competitive - probably one of the roughest environments to work in because everyone is so intense," he said. During cooking classes, classmates would put salt on someone else's food so they'd have to start all over again. "I just kept my head down," he said.
After graduation, Herron worked at the Chanticleer, a French restaurant in Nantucket, Mass., where he discovered an interest in seafood. He recalls casting for fish that would be served in the restaurant later that night. "You understand fresh because you've dealt with it first hand," he said.
For the next two years, he split his time between Nantucket and Boca Grande, Fla., as a seasonal worker. In 1995, he returned to Little Rock to help owner Louis Petit relocate Cafe Prego. After a couple of years in California, including a disastrous six months spent working in Napa Valley ("I cleared 37 cents a week after the bills were paid," he said), Herron returned to Florida, where he helped open a gourmet ice cream shop and cafe.
With 2001's terrorist attacks and the anthrax scare in Florida, Herron decided it was time to be closer to family. He became general manager of La Scala in 2001 and eventually bought the business, along with the adjoining The Afterthought nightclub, last year and transformed the restaurant into the Beechwood Grill, which calls itself an urban eatery with an eclectic menu. It's nice, but not fancy, the food ranging from ambitious to comforting sandwiches.
Now this newlywed is trying to adjust to life as a business owner. Chefs, he said, are people who want to multi-task. "It's juggling bombs - just don't drop the nuclear one," he said.
Robbie Lewis, 34
Chef de cuisine, Jardiniere
San Francisco, Calif.
After graduating from Central in 1987 with best friend Roger Runnells, Lewis attended the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. He soon discovered college wasn't for him, dropped out and started waiting tables at Andre's.
Now he was interested. "I was fascinated by the chefs," Lewis said in a telephone interview. He later worked in the kitchen at Denis Seyer's Alouette's for a couple of years, and then headed on to San Francisco to join up with Runnells and Scott McGehee at the California Culinary Academy. (Lewis knew McGehee through mutual friends at Central.)
The apartment the three shared in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district was "definitely a bachelor pad," he said.
"It was tremendous fun and every day was a learning experience," he said. "I was pretty damn pleased to be out here."
While still in school, Lewis met chef Traci Des Jardins at a wine auction, where Lewis said they "clicked and chatted." Des Jardins offered him a job at Rubicon, the restaurant owned by Robert De Niro, Robin Williams and Francis Ford Coppola. Lewis decided to quit school and work for Des Jardins full-time. He's also cooked in other popular San Francisco restaurants 42 Degrees, the Village Pub and the Acme Chophouse. Between jobs, he traveled in Europe.
"I have a travel fetish," he said. "I run away to Europe to cook and hang out. What's great about being a chef is that kind of existence isn't looked down upon."
Lewis said his position as chef de cuisine (the chef who oversees the kitchen staff and menu) at Jardiniere is his first true management job. "The best thing to do is to take your time while you work your way up," he said. "Once you get into management, the learning curve should be done."
Lewis believes in using sustainable organic produce in restaurants. "I'm very attentive to how this whole food business is run," he said.
Lewis is also concerned that Americans are losing their "food compass." He lamented that people have lost interest in cooking and healthy, well-prepared food, and are opting instead for frozen or fast.
"What concerns me is that food is the whole basis of a lot of our lives, like family get-togethers," he said. "It isn't happening anymore. Important parts of life are being forgotten about."
Lewis' own family is growing - he and his wife have welcomed their first child, a boy.
Eventually, he'd like to have his own place, but the biggest obstacle is money. Fine dining restaurants, unless they're well established, aren't doing well these days, especially in San Francisco, he said.
One dream is to open a restaurant in Little Rock comparable to Jacques and Suzanne in its heyday, he said.
"A 60-seat jewel box with a high level of service," he said. "A fine-dining, special occasion restaurant."
But for now, he said, being boss of a $4 million restaurant is enough.
Scott McGehee, 33
Owner, Boulevard Bread Company
Scott McGehee graduated from Central in 1988 and tried college, but "it really didn't inspire me," he said. "By that time I had been moonlighting in different restaurants and knew I loved to cook, and one day it kind of dawned on me, 'Hey, I can do this for a living.'"
McGehee said he read in Gourmet magazine that San Francisco's Chez Panisse was the number one place for up and coming chefs to educate themselves. Chez Panisse is owned by Alice Waters, whom McGehee called the "mother of California cuisine." Waters emphasizes using fresh, in-season ingredients from local purveyors.
At the time, he was chef at Blue Mesa Grill. He asked friend and Blue Mesa kitchen manager Roger Runnells to come with him to California and attend culinary school.
The two loaded up McGehee's Mazda and drove to San Francisco. Robbie Lewis joined them six months later.
McGehee said he literally begged Chez Panisse owner Waters for a job. "I told them I would work for free washing dishes for as long as it took to prove my work ethic," he said. "She told me to show up the next morning with my knives. Of course, I didn't own any knives."
He bought some knives and worked a week for free before he was hired. He worked part time while attending classes at the California Culinary Academy.
After school, he was hired full-time. "I had assumed I was hired, and after I got out of school, they told me I was to cook a lunch for Alice and 11 of her friends to try out for the job," he said. "I completely lucked out. I didn't know what I was doing."
After working for Waters at Chez Panisse for the next six and a half years (with a few months spent in Europe), McGehee's father asked him to come back and help revive a failing Juanita's.
"Juanita's was a real challenge," he said. "The recipes were sound, but the facilities were old." He spent the next two years renovating the kitchen and training the staff. He and his wife, then pregnant with their first child, started discussing opening a restaurant. Plans were drawn up for a full-service restaurant on Main Street when Jimily's, a gourmet takeout shop in the Heights, went out of business. He and Runnells liked the space and decided to open Boulevard Bread Company there instead.
McGehee bought Runnells' share of the business in 2002, when Runnells wanted to move back to California.
McGehee said there are no plans for a fourth Boulevard location or a full-service restaurant, though you can be served the takeout dinner of the day each evening at one of Boulevard's few tables, along with a glass of wine or beer. He said he enjoys being able to close the shop at 7 p.m. and see his wife and their two toddler sons. "It's too much fun," he said. "I don't see it ending."
Visions of sugarplums?
Roger Runnells, 34
Former co-owner, Boulevard Bread Company
While Roger Runnells and Scott McGehee didn't hang in high school, the two discovered a mutual passion for cooking while working at the Blue Mesa Grill.
Runnells - like all five Little Rock chefs written about here - was a college dropout. He came to Blue Mesa after a stint at the University of Texas at Austin, where he "partied too much." He said he and McGehee toyed with the idea of going to the Culinary Institute of America in New York, but McGehee suggested they check out California.
Runnells' first job in San Francisco was at the Zen Buddhist bakery Tassajara.
"It was strange because I felt I had all this kitchen experience, managing Blue Mesa Grill," he said. "What an eye-opener when I got to San Francisco. I couldn't get a job frying pork at the Pork Store," which, he added, is one of the world's best breakfast places.
Runnells didn't even start out as a cook at the Buddhist bakery. He'd never baked a loaf of bread; he got a job scrubbing muffin tins instead. Four years later, he was head baker.
Another four years were spent helping a friend open and run a bakery. By that time, Runnells felt ready to branch out.
"Our main goal when we got to California was to work with the best, no matter what we had to do," he said. He approached Craig Ponsford, owner of Artisan Bakers in Sonoma, Calif.
"To me, he's probably hands-down one of the best bread bakers in the world," Runnells said. Ponsford took him on and he made the hour-and-a-half commute from San Francisco to Sonoma for 16 months. While working at Artisan, Runnells competed in qualifying events for the World Cup of Baking, an international baking tournament. Runnells was runner-up in national competition in 1998 and served as an alternate on the 1999 U.S. national team, which took first place overall for the first time.
Runnells said he and McGehee had talked about returning to Little Rock eventually to "give back to the community." McGehee went on ahead in 1998 and e-mailed him two years later, telling him the time was right to open their own place in Little Rock.
Runnells admits that he didn't want to leave California at first. "But then we found out my wife was pregnant and we wanted to be near grandparents," he said.
Days that began at midnight and ended at 3 p.m. to help get Boulevard off the ground took their toll, however; Runnells asked McGehee to buy him out last year shortly after Boulevard's second location in the Cox Building downtown opened.
"I was getting burned out, I wanted a break from the baking regimen," he said. "I also realized I wanted to go back to California."
Runnells was planning to open a bakery in Berkeley, Calif., until local restaurateur Jerry Barakat asked him to set up the baking operation at Sesame's, Barakat's new restaurant on Rahling Road.
He's finished his work at Sesame's and is looking for investors to open a small neighborhood patisserie and bakery in Little Rock. The concept would be similar to Boulevard's but with more emphasis on pastries. "I want to bring people in on something they know and turn them on to something new," he said.