By Werner Trieschmann ’86
The restaurant industry never sits still.
There are always new movements, new ways to make a
plate into an adventure and turn a night out into an evening of surprise and delight.
Not surprisingly, Hendrix alumni are at the forefront
of satisfying Arkansas’ ever-changing appetite, giving customers a singular dining
experience, whether that be pizza from an Italian built wood-fired oven, authentic
French crepes from a mobile truck or a smorgasboard of local food grown within miles
of the table where it is served.
John Beechboard ’01 majored in history but was lured
away during his last year with classes in the business department.
"It kind of piqued my interest," says Beechboard. "The
rest of my senior year I took all business and finance courses."
While Beechboard, a co-owner of ZAZA Fine Salad and
Wood Oven Pizza Co. with Scott McGehee, enjoyed cooking back in his Hendrix days,
he says, "I never thought it would be my profession."
But business was on his mind, even in high school,
where he started his own record label. After college, he worked for a time for McGehee
at his Boulevard Bread Company in Little Rock’s Heights neighborhood.
"I just started out in front retail," says Beechboard.
"Then I started cooking and became a sous chef. The way that it all started was
that Scott and I both like to sit around and come up with restaurant concepts that
would never see the light of day. These were outlandish ideas. ZAZA was one of those
Outlandish idea or not, ZAZA has been nothing short
of a hit in Little Rock. Raves came almost immediately in the form of long lines.
While the frenzy has died down a bit, ZAZA is consistently earning first-place accolades
in readers’ polls taken in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and Arkansas
Beechboard admits that at the start he and McGehee
were passionate about different aspects of ZAZA’s yet-to-be formulated menu.
"We almost didn’t do it," Beechboard says of his restaurant.
"He thought I was insane for wanting to do salads the way we do them. I thought
making gelato from scratch was too laborious. It was just one of those things. I
had to take him to New York to this one salad place I liked. He took me to a place
in Brooklyn that made gelato. Everything started making sense."
Today Beechboard is overseeing the ZAZA that opened
in the Hendrix Village in October. He is quite high on the location and is especially
proud of the wood-burning pizza oven in the Conway restaurant.
"One of the things that the Little Rock restaurant
can’t touch is that we have this absolutely incredible oven over here," says Beechboard.
"It was shipped over from Italy piece by piece. It is amazing."
Beechboard likes the fact that his restaurant doesn’t
just attract one type of customer. He noticed this on a recent night after coming
back from a catering event.
"There were different age groups all over the place.
This was nine at night. You had thirtysomethings. There were grandparents with kids
and college students. I just looked around and there were all these elements that
had come together. Wow, this is really awesome."
Jack Sundell ’00 won’t likely open his Little Rock
restaurant, The Root Cafe, until May but a website (www.therootcafe.com) is up and
running and anticipation is building.
The Root Cafe, which is taking over an old burger and
ice cream place on Main Street, aims, as the website notes, "to build community
through local food."
The website also touts a quote from Michael Pollan’s
In Defense of Food.
"Food consists not just in piles of chemicals; it also
comprises a set of social and ecological relationships, reaching back to the land
and outward to other people."
Sundell graduated from Hendrix in 2000 and majored
in International Relations and Global Studies. He worked for while in a restaurant
in New York City before eventually joining the Peace Corps. It was while he was
with the Peace Corps in Morocco that he started to see food in a different way.
"It was where I got interested in food systems and
animals," says Sundell. "It seemed like the people doing this kind of work were
doing something productive. There in Morocco having a cow and chickens in the backyard
was a normal part of life."
When Sundell came back to Arkansas, he went to work
for Heifer International and had an internship in livestock. He made connections
with area farmers during his internship. Those connections have come in handy as
he and his wife Corri prepare for opening day at the restaurant.
"I had always had this idea that I would like to someday
own a cafe," says Sundell. "I guess a lot of people have this idea. Just by happenstance
the local food movement had become a big thing around the country and it was something
I wanted to participate in."
Root Cafe will have fans at the ready because Sundell
and his wife have spent the last two years as caterers and holding workshops on
canning and other food-related topics. Sundell says the part about opening a restaurant
that he had not anticipated was the depth of government regulations.
"We met with the health department and had inspections
from the city," says Sundell. "I had to meet with the fire marshall the other day."
But the Root Cafe is slowly coming into view. Sundell
notes that those interested can keep current thanks to the blog on Root Cafe’s website.
"We’ll have breakfast and lunch," says Sundell. "We
are striving to have all our meat from local suppliers. When you come, you’ll have
an experience unlike anywhere else. We want the food to be delicious and want you
to be totally satisfied whether you care about local food or not."
For Sundell, his restaurant and the local food movement
are small parts of a larger idea.
"Food is a good entry point in a conversation about
local as a lifestyle. The dollars stay in Arkansas and increase the tax revenues
we have here and make the place better."
In her post-Hendrix life Paula Jo Chitty Henry ’88 has worked as an actress in Key West and in France, where she
filmed a scene in a cab with Omar Sharif.
But today she can be seen working cast iron skillets
while making French crepes for Crepes Paulette, the mobile trailer restaurant that’s
currently parked in downtown Bentontville.
Crepes Paulette is a partnership Henry shares with
her husband, Frederic, who is a native of Brittney, France. The couple wanted to
open a sit-down restaurant but went another direction when they looked at the numbers.
"We worked a couple years trying to get a brick and
mortar place," says Henry. "We didn’t feel like taking on that much debt. This is
a way to step back from that and see if it works."
Crepes Paulette, which opened alongside the Bentonville
Farmers’ Market, has been a draw from the first day. Henry says that it wasn’t necessarily
part of the plan that she do the cooking.
"We didn’t have any idea what we were doing," says
Henry with a laugh. "I had made 10 crepes in my life. Fred started taking the orders
and he would take all comers. We had people waiting for an hour for their crepes.
Now we only take five orders at a time."
They are still working out issues with what hours they
are going to be open — the winter weather has played havoc with Crepes Paulette’s
schedule — but they try to serve crepes at least two days a week. Henry is trying
to keep fans notified by e-mail and through Facebook.
Crepes Paulette serves authentic French sweet and savory
crepes filled with various fruits and meats. For the winter, French soup was added
to the menu.
"We don’t do any plate service," says Henry. "We have
tables near the trailer."
Henry’s restaurant fits right in with a growing downtown
Bentonville that will get an even bigger boost when the highly-anticipated Crystal
Bridges Museum opens in November 2011. Henry is quite happy to have Crepes Paulette
be part of the scene.
"We enjoy the idea of people strolling around with
the crepes and being casual about it."
Hendrix alumnus Werner Trieschmann is a freelance writer,
playwright and instructor. He lives in Little Rock with his wife and two sons.