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For a fifth consecutive year, Matthew McClure, executive chef at the Hive restaurant in 21c Hotel at Bentonville, has been named a semifinalist for a James Beard Foundation Award in the Best Chef in the South category. The Beard Awards are to the food industry what the Grammy Awards are to the music industry and the Academy Awards are to the film industry.

McClure, who was raised in Little Rock, studied at the New England Culinary Institute in Vermont before working at restaurants in Boston. He returned to Arkansas to work for chef Lee Richardson at Little Rock's Capital Hotel.

Richardson, who's no longer at the hotel, moved to Arkansas from New Orleans soon after Hurricane Katrina. Granted, there were talented chefs in this state before Richardson arrived. But he's the person who finally convinced us to appreciate what we have here. Owner Warren Stephens had shut down the Capital for a massive renovation. That gave Richardson almost a year to travel around Arkansas, getting to know those who raised the vegetables, apples, peaches, strawberries, pecans, pigs and cattle he would use; the people who produced the milk and cheese; the commercial fishermen who worked the rivers; those who baked the bread.

Richardson later told me that he was amazed that a state of just 3 million people could offer such a rich, varied, bountiful harvest. It's the old story of our inherent inferiority complex--the natives are the last people to truly appreciate what's here. It sometimes takes an outsider to educate us. When it came to Arkansas cuisine, that outsider was Lee Richardson.

The noted food writer John T. Edge, who directs the Southern Foodways Alliance at Ole Miss, once wrote of this state: "For most of us, Arkansas has always just been the place that gave birth to Bill Clinton. It has been that state wedged somehow between Mississippi, Louisiana and Oklahoma. It has been a province without a personality, a place neither here nor there. Such sentiments are unfair and inaccurate, but they're honest reflections of the culinary and cultural zeitgeist. Don't despair, citizens of Arkansas. There's hope for you yet. Soon, your culinary treasures will be trumpeted. Soon, the blogocracy will descend in search of Petit Jean ham and White River paddlefish caviar."

McClure learned under Richardson. He came to appreciate the wonders of this state's food and is now the most high-profile ambassador of Arkansas cuisine. He's active in the Southern Foodways Alliance, spoke at a 2016 Beard Foundation conference titled "Now Trending: The Making of a Food Movement" and was awarded Food & Wine magazine's 2015 People's Best New Chef Award for this region of the country. I wasn't surprised when McClure contacted me recently to ask if I wanted to meet him for lunch at Little Rock's Lassis Inn and have owner Elihue Washington's tasty buffalo ribs. The Lassis Inn was one of the first three restaurants to be inducted into the Arkansas Food Hall of Fame last year.

In 2012, McClure was selected to open the Hive in the hip 21c, which several publications have since ranked among the top hotels in the world. Though the Little Rock food scene has improved exponentially since Richardson came to town more than a decade ago, it's Bentonville that's now the center of Arkansas' culinary scene. Part of that is because of McClure's presence. Part of it is because of Ropeswing Hospitality, a company in which Walton family members have invested. Ropeswing is bringing innovative restaurant concepts to Bentonville. And part of it is because of Brightwater in Bentonville's 8th Street Market (a former Tyson Foods plant), a culinary school that's trying to become one of the best in the country.

Northwest Arkansas Community College had operated an accredited culinary school at the Center for Nonprofits in Rogers for several years. More than $15 million in seed money from the Walton Family Foundation took things to the next level. The Waltons understand that a dynamic food scene is part of what attracts young, talented people to a place.

Too many so-called economic developers in Arkansas don't realize that growth in the knowledge-based economy is no longer about attracting industry. It's all about attracting talent. Business leaders in northwest Arkansas get that, which is why they're leaving Little Rock in the dust when it comes to job growth. The term "thinking outside the box" is overused, but a prime example of that is investing millions of dollars in a culinary school.

In 2013, the Northwest Arkansas Council sponsored an assessment by a New York consulting firm to see if food could play a role in the region's growth. The study recommended that the region establish a food identity, institute a strong farm-to-table approach, and expand the culinary school. Glenn Mack, who had worked with Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in four cities, had been the dean of the At-Sunrice GlobalChef Academy in Singapore, and had chaired the board of the International Association of Culinary Professionals, was brought in to run Brightwater. Mack earned a degree in Russian language and literature from the University of Texas at Austin. He later lived in Moscow and worked for Time magazine.

Mack told Arkansas Life magazine that when he learned of Brightwater, "it seemed too good to be true. I mean, a culinary program 30 miles from where I grew up that was going to be innovative? What they were proposing was not just about doing more of the same."

Karen Minkel, the home region program director for the Walton Family Foundation, says: "By partnering with NorthWest Arkansas Community College to transform its young culinary program into a world-class institution, this was about more than producing a pipeline of highly trained professionals necessary to support our food scene. It was about creating something that had the potential to fundamentally change culinary arts education in the United States."

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Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Editorial on 02/25/2018

Print Headline: Brightwater's promise

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