Video: Capital Hotel's New Chef Joël Antunes Cooking for Growth

by Kate Knable  on Monday, Jan. 7, 2013 12:00 am  

Joël Antunes arrived in Little Rock in mid-December, sans chef uniform and other possessions moving with him from London.

Antunes’ December cross-ocean trip brought him to Arkansas to take up temporary residence at the Capital Hotel and take permanent leadership of the hotel’s two restaurants, Ashley’s and the Capital Bar & Grill. His baggage, though, was delayed. (Hence the track suit in the video.)

Antunes came from a job as consulting chef at the Embassy Mayfair in London. At the Capital, he replaced Lee Richardson, the popular executive chef from New Orleans who helped design the hotel’s current kitchens and was chef when the hotel reopened in 2007 after at least $24 million in renovations. Richardson resigned and left the historic hotel last June and has not yet announced any new endeavors.

Antunes plans to learn the hotel, get to know Little Rock and, in Ashley’s kitchen, improve on what he finds. The hotel’s taxable receipts, which include restaurant sales, totaled $7.23 million from January through November 2012. About $3.15 million of the total was food sales.

Antunes, 49, learned to cook in France, where he was raised and attended culinary school. He’s from the small town of Volvic. French is, indeed, his first language. France is also where he worked under world-renowned French chefs Michel Troisgros and Paul Bocuse.

However, Antunes’ 34-year career has been an international one, and cooking Southern food at the Capital won’t be his first attempt at cooking in the American South. He’s adapted his cookery style for local tastes in Thailand and Japan, but he also spent more than a decade in Atlanta. Atlanta’s Southern cuisine isn’t much different from Arkansas’, he said.

And Antunes has won awards along the way, including a 2005 James Beard Best Chef of the Southeast Award.

Growing Ashley’s

Antunes expects to change the Ashley’s menu, but he doesn’t plan to make the fare incompatible with what Richardson and his team have done in the past, he said.

“I think, you know, when you move somewhere, you have to know about the people, the city. You have to know about the supplier, local farmer,” Antunes said. “And when you understand all these things, I can cook for the local people. Because Little Rock is not going to change for me. I have to change for Little Rock, you know, to give what they want to eat.”

At Ashley’s, however, Antunes does plan to draw on his tastes and experiences while trying to improve business. “Bar & Grill, I don’t want to touch anything because it’s busy, works very well,” Antunes said. “But in Ashley’s, we’re going to change a lot of things.”

Antunes said he’d like to incorporate a variety of international flavors into new Ashley’s offerings, once he gets organized in a few months.



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