story by Kim Souza
The local food movement is sprouting wings across Northwest Arkansas as world-class culinary experts connect with local farms for produce and protein which are converted into what is called “high south cuisine.”
“It’s a flavor profile all its own,” said Blair Cromwell, communications director at the Bentonville Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Cromwell defines high south cuisine as edible culture of the Ozark region of Arkansas, Oklahoma and Missouri. It’s easily classified as a type of rustic cuisine that utilizes fruits, vegetables, herbs, nuts and grains harvested locally as well as livestock raised using sustainable practices and flavored using only traditional herbs and spices found in the area.
It’s also more than local consumers shopping farmer’s markets for strawberries and fresh eggs, say the advocates of the culture. It’s about eating what is grown locally but pairing the food in interesting ways. Some of the basic recipes local chefs have coined include: Bacon jam, Arkansas black apple butter, Ozark leg of lamb stuffed with black walnut sausage, pickled shitake mushrooms, rye whiskey-glazed pork belly with black apple slaw and fig compote.
It’s also helping local farms be sustainable, a cause that is a passion for Chef Rob Nelson, owner of Tusk &Trotter in Bentonville. Nelson is one of the leaders in the high south cuisine movement. Nelson’s restaurant sources its menu ingredients from dozens of local farms within 150 miles. He said the region is rich and diverse in terms of fruits, vegetables and protein raised locally through sustainable practices.
Having studied in France, Nelson said he witnessed how food drives the culture there and influences everyday life. When he opened Tusk and Trotter, Nelson’s mission was to use locally raised foods in a creative way. He works directly with area farmers creating dishes that connect his restaurant patrons with foods and tastes that belong to this region.
“Consumers today want to know where their food comes from. They care about how it is raised. Using locally-sourced food helps put people back in touch with the family farm,” Nelson said.
With the many visitors who find their way to Bentonville for business or pleasure, they can also taste local flavors at several restaurants in the region. In Bentonville, Nelson is joined in the effort by Matthew McClure, chef at The Hive at 21c, and Case Dighero, culinary director at Crystal Bridges restaurant, Eleven.
Cromwell said McClure, Dighero and Nelson are the trifecta for the high south cuisine food movement in Bentonville. All three chefs took high south cuisine on the road last year as they performed to a sold-out crowd at the James Beard Foundation in New York City.
“The group of gourmets at the James Beard dinner were blown away by the dishes our chefs created using only local foods native to the Ozarks,” Cromwell said. “We hope in time that high south cuisine puts Bentonville on the culinary map.”
She said there is captive audience that visits Crystal Bridges from all over the world and when they eat at Eleven, they also experience Ozark high south cuisine. Dighero’s mission with Eleven, the restaurant at Crystal Bridges, is modern American comfort food with an emphasis on traditions that hail from the “high South and low Midwest” region of the Ozarks.
“Our edible responsibility approach demonstrates our commitment to promoting and celebrating local food culture, featuring fresh ingredients from the Bentonville Farmers’ Market and other food artisans in Northwest Arkansas,” Eleven notes on it website.
Dighero notes the robust cuisine of Eleven not only nourishes, but also tells a story—inspired by the artworks, natural surroundings and regional history connected to the museum.
High south cuisine’s origins might be Bentonville, but there are other area venues that also focus on local food sourcing. Other restaurants in the area that feature local food are Greenhouse Grille, Brickhouse Kitchen and Ella’s Restaurant. All three are in Fayetteville.
Mason Creek Farm in Fayetteville is one of the local pork suppliers to restaurants in Bentonville and Fayetteville as well farmer’s markets in both towns. Having the ability to sell to restaurants is one way the farm owners are able to sustain their living.
“Rob Nelson at Tusk & Trotter is able to create signature dishes from all parts of the pig so he helps us to utilize the pig from ‘nose-to-tail’ instead of just relying on the prime cuts. Many of these cuts come from parts of the pig that has been ignored by high-end restaurants but have remained a staple for we southern country folks,” said Rose Konold, owner of Mason Creek Farm.
She said Nelson doesn’t avoid the shank, for example. He smokes it and uses it in a beans & hamhock dish.
Family farmers involved in the local food movement agree that it takes a knowledge of the art and science of cooking to do what these local chefs are accomplishing. But Konold said the local food movement is also supported by folks like Rob and Adrienne Shaufield, who own The Farmer’s Table eatery in Fayetteville. They have made a commitment to using local products and are creating an entire menu around food that can be sourced locally, according to Konold.
Ryan Craig, of Adams’ Acres of Clear Creek, raises hogs, grass-fed beef and mushrooms on the family farm west of Fayetteville. The family farm is 192 acres with two natural springs. Adam’s Acres sells select pork and beef cuts to Greenhouse Grill in Fayetteville and large slabs of whole pork and beef to The Hive at 21c in Bentonville, and has done so for the past two years. The Hive bought free range chicken last year, but Craig said the brutal winter was not kind to his flock and he has no chicken to sell this year.
“We are working with a new pizza company (Woodstone) soon to open in Fayetteville, by the owners of Greenhouse Grill. We will be supplying our pork products and working on new flavor profiles for our green chorizo and sausages. We have to work with the processors who have to submit those recipes to the USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture) for approval. It’s quite involved,” Craig said. “But the flavor is uniquely local.”
Craig said the flavors of the pork it raises changes seasonally as the feed ingredients are rotated by what is in season.
“In January we feed them certified naturally grown apples, Arkansas black apples, organic Shitake mushrooms which help to convert protein. Later we feed split grains from Ozark Beer Company — primary barley wheat and oats — giving the hogs a way more complex flavor than traditional pork from hogs raised on corn and soybeans. Our hogs grow slower and the muscle is denser. The fat comes from barley which is sweet and doesn’t melt away,” Craig said.
Mary Jo and Mike Green of Ewe Bet Farm in Cave Springs raise lambs which are processed and sold at the Bentonville Farmers Market and to Tusk & Trotter.
“We started selling to Rob Nelson when he was at the River Grill Restaurant before opening Tusk & Trotter. We are a small farm with just 60 lambs or so and we can’t take on multiple restaurants as clients because then we could not serve our individual customers. A few local chefs do come out to the farmer’s market and pick up cuts on occasion,” Mike Green said.
Green said he feels blessed to work with Nelson and doing so has brought more business to his small farm.
“You never know what these amazing chefs are going to do with your product,” he said.