Chef Joël Antunes Stresses ‘Friendly' Food at Ashley's

by Jan Cottingham  on Monday, Jan. 6, 2014 12:00 am  

Chef Joël Antunes is a methodical man. He has spent a year figuring out what he wants to do as executive chef at the Capital Hotel in Little Rock, and what he wants to do is build a team, which he’s done, and build a home, which he plans.

Antunes also wants to change public perception about Ashley’s, the fine dining restaurant at the Capital. That has meant a new menu with more offerings, including dishes at a variety of price points. The effort to change perception also will mean within the next few months a redesign of Ashley’s, to be led by Harriet Stephens, wife of Warren Stephens, CEO of Stephens Inc. and owner of the Capital.

Antunes, who was raised in France, moved to Arkansas from London, arriving in Little Rock in December 2012 and replacing Lee Richardson as the Capital’s executive chef. Richardson had overseen the hotel’s two restaurants, Ashley’s and the more casual Capital Bar & Grill, since the hotel reopened in 2007 after a $24 million-plus renovation.

Antunes, who will turn 52 on Jan. 11, has been cooking professionally since he was 15 and has worked with many of the culinary world’s most renowned chefs, among them Joël Robuchon, Paul Bocuse and Pierre Troisgros. His cuisine at his Joël restaurant in Atlanta earned him the James Beard Best Chef of the Southeast Award in 2005. He has worked at high-profile restaurants throughout the world, from London to New York to Bangkok, Singapore and Tokyo.

And after a rocky start in Little Rock, Antunes is hoping to spend a little less time in the kitchen and a little more time with Arkansas diners.

“At the beginning it was very difficult because when I started it was like no more bodies in the kitchen. Everyone left. I had to work very, very hard,” Antunes told Arkansas Business in an interview last month. “Now I’ve found my way, and when we have the new design — I think in February or March — I’d like every night to see the customer and say, ‘Thank you. I hope everything was OK.’”

Part of finding his way was assembling a team in the kitchen. His executive sous chef, Marc Guizol, worked with Antunes in London and also in the United States at the Ritz-Carlton Buckhead in Atlanta. Guizol came to Little Rock from Montana, where he had operated a restaurant in Bigfork.

And though a number of staff left with the changing of the guard more than a year ago, Antunes retained two “very nice people,” Vince Fazi, the chef for the fish station, and Cody Mayfield, the chef tournant, or relief chef.

As for the pastry chef, that’s a job that Antunes, who is particular about his pastry, also performs. Antunes does not like overly sweet desserts and said that making pastry is “100 percent different” from making wedding cakes.

“I have a great team, you know, and very nice people,” he said. “You need to have a good team to do a good job.”

In addition to teamwork, Antunes emphasized the importance of consistency, organization and discipline. The biggest changes in the kitchen under his direction have been in organization and in discipline, he said.

Antunes began his professional apprenticeship at 15. “When I was a kid, I worked many years for Troisgros and Bocuse and Robuchon, all those people, for 10 years,” he said. “I learned the discipline. They are disciplined.”



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