Vote for Chef Lee

There’s still time to vote for Lee Richardson of Little Rock’s Capital Hotel in a Food & Wine magazine contest titled The People’s Best New Chef.

Lee is running neck and neck with a chef from Minnesota for the title of best chef in the Midwest.

I know. I know.

Arkansas isn’t in the Midwest.

But what do those magazine folks in New York know?

Some of Lee’s fans — and there are many of them — have made it easy for you to vote. Simply go to www.VoteForChefLee.com. All you have to do is scroll down to the bottom and click. There’s no registration required, and it will take you less than 20 seconds.

It appears to be coming down to Richardson and Erik Anderson, the chef at a Minneapolis restaurant known as Sea Change.

Food & Wine will name a best chef from each of 10 regions — Midwest, Pacific, Southwest, Northwest, New England, Southeast, New York area, Great Lakes, Mid-Atlantic and Gulf Coast.

The contest website describes it this way (in text obviously written by PR type rather than a magazine writer): “If there’s one thing our friends at Food & Wine do even better than throwing fabulous festivals all around the country, developing stellar recipes and generally making our lives more appetizing — it’s identifying up-and-coming talent from around the country. Since 1998, the editors of Food & Wine have feasted their way from coast to cost, seeking out 10 innovative chefs, each with a distinctive vision, creating exceptionally delicious food. They’ve bestowed upon these shining stars the title of Best New Chef. This year, the dining public has a say.”

I wouldn’t exactly describe Lee as a new chef, but he deserves the accolades.

In an interview posted on the Viking Range Corp. website, Lee described his culinary roots this way: “I grew up in New Orleans. Wrapped around the influences of Gulf seafood and the general culture of Creole and threads of Cajun tradition, I was blessed to have exposure to not only some of the very best home cooking that can be had but also to the area’s finest restaurants. Combined with early exposure to hunting and fishing, I became a very adventurous eater early in life.

“All celebrations in all cultures are centered upon food and around a table, but for me there were some unique circumstances to my own experiences that have been powerful contributors to my outlook. On one side of my family, my grandfather was a naval air commander — a fighter pilot. My grandmother, who was raised on a kitchen countertop in a French-speaking household in New Orleans by an African-American housekeeper, raised five children virtually on her own as they moved around the country from one naval base to the next.

“This was a tight community and a time where family values were a world away from where we are today. When the pilots returned home, the community gathered. Grills were fired up and the reunion of family was motivated by the separation and the uncertainty of war. Living was about giving, loving and appreciating the precious bounty, companionship and family. This set the stage for our extended family gatherings around the table during my childhood.

“In balance to this, my mother, also raised in New Orleans, was a debutante and surrounded by a family of successful investors and philanthropists. We celebrated all of the same things on this side of the family that we did with the other, only we did it in New Orleans’ finest restaurants.

“So, back to the question, my foundation begins with Creole, which by my definition is predominated by French technique and approach to cuisine. It is a little more unique for a couple of primary reasons. The array of available ingredients is a little different, and there is the mixing of other cultures. Most recognized are Spanish and Italian, though I think African is the most significant contributor to the unique cuisine of New Orleans. The thing that is most obvious but rarely articulated is that it is all peasant food. It’s not fancy, though it is difficult to replicate by the unknowing. This cuisine developed into what it became because it was prepared emotionally, whether to soothe the soul of the cook or the cooked for. This is quite literally the heart of Louisiana food and where my foundation begins.”

Warren Stephens gave our state a gift when he brought Lee Richardson to Arkansas. Not only did he outfit a kitchen that’s as fine as anything in the country, he gave Lee plenty of time before the renovated hotel was reopened. Lee used that time to get to know farmers and other producers across the state.

Using as many Arkansas ingredients as possible, Lee calls his style of cooking New Americana. He says it’s a “celebration of Southern tradition meets genuine Midwestern values. Country ham and sorghum, catfish and pecans, black apples and walnuts in a patchwork quilt. … Not the Southern biscuits and cornbread of today but the stuff from which that nostalgia was derived, unspoiled and natural.”

In a March 2009 feature for the Los Angeles Times, Whitney Friedlander wrote: “The Capital Hotel is a gem of Southern hospitality. Like many other cities’ grand old sites, the Capital’s stardom had tarnished. But it underwent a two-year renovation and reopened in 2007 with all its charms intact. Rooms in the 1872 building were combined and expanded into 94 luxe accommodations.

“But it is Ashley’s, the hotel restaurant, that’s generating the buzz. Chef Lee Richardson left New Orleans’ famed Restaurant August after Hurricane Katrina and came to town shortly after the Capital closed for remodeling. The hotel’s pristine, white-tiled lobby and stained-glass ceiling recall the era of top hats and tails, but the restaurant’s focus is on the latest culinary influences.

“Richardson has revamped Ashley’s menu, using regional ingredients for a high-class take on Southern favorites for such dishes as Arkansas rice grits with tasso and rock shrimp, and sweet potato gnocchi with creme fraiche.”

Here’s how Lee’s official biography on the Capital Hotel website describes his background: “‘What would you like me to prepare for your birthday dinner?’

“‘Where would you like to go to dinner for your birthday?’

“Fairly typical questions for anyone born and raised in New Orleans, those two innocent but contrasting questions from his grandmothers indelibly framed Chef Lee Richardson’s perspective on food. After taking the conventional path of attaining a psychology degree from the University of Colorado, Richardson dashed back to New Orleans to follow his heart into the exotic world of restaurants. Declining the opportunity to attend the Culinary Institute of America, Richardson elected to embark on a traditional apprenticeship as a prep cook in Emeril Lagasse’s French Quarter restaurant NOLA.

“With so many culinarians waiting in line at Emeril’s restaurants, Richardson accepted an invitation to join legendary hotel chef Kevin Graham (the Savoy, the Royal Orleans, the Sagamore and the Windsor Court Hotel) in an avant garde restaurant bearing his name, Graham’s. Ironically, it was during his tenure with Graham that Richardson had his first brush with another budding chef who would be his most important professional influence, John Besh.

“Before their paths crossed again, however, Richardson had the opportunity to round out his veritable who’s who of New Orleans chefs with a stint at Anne Kearney’s award-winning Peristyle and another partnership with Graham before a multiyear sojourn to North Carolina. Ten years later he would finally reunite with John Besh, ultimately becoming chef d’cuisine at Besh’s celebrated Restaurant August.”

Like I said, we’re lucky to have him here.

New Orleans’ loss was Little Rock’s gain.

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3 Responses to “Vote for Chef Lee”

  1. Rob says:

    I voted for Chef Lee and hope he wins the ‘midwest’ region. However, anyone who has dined at Ashley’s or the Capital Hotel Bar knows Richardson’s culinary talents are more southern oriented. He also is featured in a book entitled ‘Wild Abundance’ which shares stories and recipes of feasts and fare from hunting lodges across Mississippi, Louisiana and Arkansas. Some of the best food on the planet is served at these lodges and provides Chef Lee inspiration for his recipes.

  2. rexnelson says:

    “Wild Abundance” is a wonderful book. I have it at my home, though I now have to sneak books into the house under the cover of darkness since my wife thinks I have too many! — Rex

    P.S. There are two of us named Rex who often hunt together at Piney Creek Duck Club. The other Rex is also the chief breakfast cook. So that others do not become confused, they refer to us as the Rex Who Cooks and the Rex Who Eats. You could have guessed which one I am without me telling you.

  3. Carlton Saffa says:

    Thank you so much for bringing attention to the Food & Wine poll. When Lee Richardson wins this, it will bring a tremendous amount of much-deserved attention to the food story of Arkansas, and to our state in general. I’m not sure everyone realizes just how much emphasis is placed on Food & Wine’s chef contest in the food/travel world. So many people discount Arkansas and its offering in comparison to our Southern neighbors. This will represent a major change in other’s perception of our small state.

    I wanted to give some perspective on Lee’s competition in this contest:
    Metro Minneapolis has 3,600,0000
    Metro St Louis has 2,890,000
    Kansas City has 2,100,000
    Little Rock has 862,000

    Despite Lee’s competition having a much larger population base from which to mine votes, Lee’s in the lead. The level of support we provide each other when we’re called to step up to the plate is just one more reason I’m proud to be an Arkansawyer.

    Thanks again for posting on this, Rex.

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