"Unlike a bigger market, where your voice might get drowned out, it's much more of a community," the chef of The Hive at 21c Museum Hotel says, as he tells us about the Bentonville Chef Alliance, a food advocacy group he helped start with other local chefs in 2013.
The Little Rock native continues, "It's not like we have classic, regional dishes in Arkansas, like gumbo or clam chowder, but what we do have are these great ingredients, and we're working with the community to get more than just the restaurants and chefs to use these ingredients, but to push food forward."
The keys to gravy
The Chef Alliance, for instance, works with local schools and the Northwest Arkansas Community College's culinary school to educate students and foster upcoming talent; although the state's culinary star has been on the rise for a bit, other chefs like fellow Arkansas native Luke Wetzel of Oven & Tap are also returning to the area and helping to make Bentonville's restaurant scene a thriving one.
McClure himself has been back in his home state for nine years, after culinary school in the Northeast and working under the likes of Barbara Lynch in Boston. It was both the opportunity to spread the culinary knowledge he'd gained—as well as to cook with its agricultural bounty—that brought him back.
"I had to leave to learn how to cook," he says of his time in Boston. "At one point, I was like, 'I'm never going back to Arkansas,' but now I can lend my experience to the next generation of chefs."
Stirring the lard and flour
Although Arkansas is firmly planted in the South, the ingredients grown there defy regionalism: "We can grow anything you can grow anywhere in the U.S., except citrus," McClure says. "There's the best apples, pecans, peaches, asparagus—even the best tomatoes I've ever had. If the growing season's right, we can get three turns of corn, and those sorts of factors play into the flavor of the food."
McClure transforms those fruits and vegetables into dishes that also defy classification at The Hive, although they're described as "refined country cooking": ricotta cavatelli with milled tomato, cured pork, soy beans and hot pepper, for instance, or a wood-fired beef rib eye with oven-roasted turnips, wilted greens and a sweet onion purée. He doesn't shy from Southern classics, though, including a sometimes-on-the-menu breakfast dish of biscuits with silky red-eye gravy made from a ham hock stock (see the recipe).
A final seasoning for the gravy
"The red-eye gravy is a great example of ingredients we have in our pantry that we might use for finer dinners, but this is playful and fun," he says.
As Bentonville's restaurant scene and food advocacy continue to expand, McClure is optimistic about the city (and the state's) future.
He says, "Arkansas has a lot of culinary talent, and there are great things happening. It just needs to be articulated."
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