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

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

So his challenge at the Capital, Antunes said, was instilling some of that rigor and discipline. He sought “to teach the guys in the kitchen that if they want to be chef they have to love what they’re doing because you never do less than 10, 12 hours a day. If you don’t love [it], you’re never going to make it. I think it was my biggest challenge when I came here.”

Antunes maintained that he’s not, however, “one of those crazy guys that yells at people all day.”

Another challenge was finding distributors of the best meat, fish and vegetables, and for some of his provisions he has had to venture outside the state. Antunes is as particular about his fish as about his pastry, and the Capital Hotel now receives fish three times a week from what he called “the best supplier in America.” That is Pierless Fish of Brooklyn, a wholesaler that supplies the top-tier New York restaurants Le Bernardin and Daniel.

Antunes buys “the best of what we can get in Little Rock,” but the city has limitations. “I love the city. It’s a beautiful city. But you don’t have butcher guys and fish guys for the restaurant,” he said, and he has had to find the butcher guys and the fish guys outside the area.

Antunes doesn’t like to use an intermediary when buying meat. He wants his beef supplier to know where his beef is from and he wants to determine the precise cuts because choosing the right cut is essential.

“If I buy vegetables, I like to know the guy who grows the vegetable, which kind of technique he uses, whether it’s organic or natural,” he said.

Surprising Curiosity

What has surprised Antunes most about diners in Little Rock is their curiosity and their willingness to experiment. They appear to have embraced the Asian influences that the chef likes to incorporate into his creations.

But first, he said, he had to learn what they liked. Although Antunes is an award-winning chef, a willingness to learn and a certain flexibility are more important than accolades. “When you go somewhere you have to learn what the people want to eat,” he said.

The chef, from near Montpellier in the south of France, is the grandson of farmers and, spending summers with his grandparents, he learned to cook in his grandmother’s kitchen.

“My grandmom, she was a very, very good cook,” said Antunes, who speaks in heavily accented English that he patiently repeats when asked. “My brother spent more time on the John Deere, the tractor, with my grandfather. And I spent more time in the kitchen with my grandmother.”

He believes in simplicity, in both meal preparation and dining room décor. And his goal is to change the perception of Ashley’s as only a special occasion restaurant to one that more Arkansans can see themselves visiting more than once a year. To do that Antunes has expanded the menu to offer starters under $10 and main courses under $20.



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