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.”

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.

“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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