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

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

“I’d like to give this message to the people, to show the people it’s not [just] a special-event restaurant. It’s open every day.”

This Ashley’s, Antunes’ Ashley’s, is and will be “more relaxed, [with a] very high quality of food, but the food more friendly. People have to understand what they’re going to eat.”

Chuck Magill, the director of marketing at the Capital, said Antunes understood what was needed from the start.

“He was the one who told everybody when he came here, he said, ‘That’s the problem. Restaurants like this are special-event restaurants and they can barely make it [even in] Manhattan, a great big city with lots of people. And you come to Little Rock? It can’t be done,” Magill said. “And I’m thinking, ‘You know, he’s right.’”

“Friendlier” food will soon be paired with a redecorated, more relaxed, “more fun” dining room, one that will incorporate a new bar and a tapas menu. That change is scheduled for later this winter, and Antunes assured patrons that the restaurant will still be beautiful, still luxurious. “But simplicity can be also very luxurious,” he said.

“To me it’s the most important thing, is simplicity, in the food, in life, in everything.”

Antunes appreciates the support, financial and otherwise, he has from Stephens. “Of course, we are lucky to have Mr. Stephens, because you can see the quality of everything in this restaurant and hotel. And when you have an owner like him — I’m sure he knows all the best restaurants in the world.”

Antunes’ wife, Ellen Austin (father American, mother from Norway), is a physical therapist, and the couple is planning to build a house in Little Rock. He sounds like a man ready to settle down for a while after the peripatetic life of an internationally known chef. He sounds like a man who knows what he wants.

“The quality of life you have here — you know, it takes me four minutes to go home at night. When I was in Tokyo, in New York or London, it took me one and a half hours and I don’t want to deal with that anymore.”

Antunes said that in the year that he’s been executive chef at Ashley’s, the number of diners has increased by 25 percent. “When the restaurant is busy, for me I feel very good because I say, ‘OK, something is right.’ I don’t cook for my ego. I cook to make this business very successful.”



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