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A Visit With James Beard Nominee Matt McClure of The Hive and Joël Antunes of One Eleven

4 min read

An Arkansas restaurant and an Arkansas chef recently gained national recognition of the best kind: being named semifinalists for the James Beard Foundation Awards. The awards are among the most prestigious in the restaurant world.

Matt McClure, chef at The Hive restaurant in Bentonville, was named a semifinalist for best chef in the South. One Eleven at the Capital, whose chef is Joël Antunes, was named a semifinalist in the best new restaurant category.

What’s particularly intriguing about McClure and The Hive is that the restaurant is among the top-selling restaurants in northwest Arkansas, earning at least $2.4 million in 2014 to place it at No. 15 on Arkansas Business’ list of biggest earners in the region. That showing put it between Red Lobster in Fayetteville (No. 14) and Rick’s Bakery (No. 16), also in Fayetteville.

As those who follow the industry know, chains dominate the top-selling restaurants in Arkansas, but The Hive is definitely an upscale enterprise.

The nomination is the second for McClure, who was raised in Little Rock and worked as sous-chef under Lee Richardson when One Eleven was still Ashley’s.

Asked what he does that places The Hive on that top-selling list, McClure said that “setting yourself apart and doing something different at a high level is the most important thing,” along with having an “accessible” menu. He tries to keep the menu “balanced in a way that it’s not too ‘chefy’ or it’s not too sophisticated but all of the refinement, all of the attention to detail is there.”

The menu at The Hive, which is located in the 21c Museum Hotel, reflects that balance. “Chickpea panisse,” a vegetarian dish, is offered alongside grilled beef ribeye. Nor are its prices stratospheric. The chickpea dish is $19; the ribeye $29.

“I want to cook food that I’m proud of, No. 1,” McClure said. “But realistically, this is still a business. This is not a nonprofit. You’ve got to do those things that people are going to enjoy.”

McClure, who has been at The Hive since July 2012, called the management team at 21c supportive and understanding. “They wanted somebody like me,” he said. “They wanted somebody who has an identity, has a personality, has a style with food, has a good background.”

McClure paid tribute to his talented team: four sous-chefs and about 20 cooks and stewards. As a restaurant in a hotel, “We serve breakfast, lunch and dinner seven days a week, plus banquets,” he said, helping to explain its revenue figure. “I do not cook every omelet. I have a team of very talented individuals who help me pull this off at a high level.”

McClure guesses that The Hive attracts about equal parts travelers and locals. Of course, a lot of diners are in town to do business with Wal-Mart. Others are visiting Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.

And that Wal-Mart contingent is important. “That’s a big part of our business,” he said. “Most of these people are coming from bigger markets and are used to eating food at the level that we’re cooking it here.”

One Eleven and Joël Antunes

Joël Antunes heads a kitchen staff of 12 at One Eleven, which closed in May as Ashley’s and reopened in August with a new name, look and menu. Antunes, who was raised in France, is himself a 2005 winner of the James Beard Best Chef of the Southeast Award.

One Eleven’s status as a semifinalist in the best new restaurant category, Antunes said, is very important because “for me, it’s the most recognized award by the professional people.” His staff comes from all over the world, “and everyone was so happy when we got the nomination. I’m happy for my team first.”

Antunes said business had been good since One Eleven’s opening. Diners are “happy and now the restaurant is busy every day, lunch and dinner,” he said. Having owned his own business, Antunes said, he recognizes the importance of popularity. “For me the most successful you can be as a restaurant is when your restaurant is busy. If you don’t win any awards, but you’re busy every day, it’s because people love your food. At the end, it’s a business.” n

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