Ella’s chef learned to cook for himself

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 323 views 

A little boy walks through the bazaar in Istanbul, past the ginger, lavender, curry and mangos, heading straight to the street vendor with the fish sandwiches made of fish that were swimming less than an hour before.

After handing over a handful of Turkish lira, he takes a big chunk, savoring the first bite, but gulping the rest down quickly. Monday would be filled with grade school in New Hampshire, so he had to enjoy this for all it was worth.

Decades later, Bill Lyle stands commandingly in his own kitchen at Ella’s restaurant in the Inn at Carnall Hall. His stature demands a presence, but his demeanor is easy-going and he is quick to return a smile.

As executive chef, he finds the most pleasure in recreating the international dishes of his youth. He grew up in New Hampshire, where his mother was based was a flight attendant. She had a knack for languages and learned four of them to further her career with more flight options. Before too long, she was flying to Europe, Africa and Asia, which came with weekend layovers in iconic cities.

About eight times a year, she would surprise Bill and his brother by picking them up from school on Friday, catching a flight that would last all night and arrive Saturday morning to spend the whole day in one of those cities before flying back on Sunday. As a child, he got to see Paris, Madrid, Cairo and Istanbul He spent summers in England and a good deal of time in Germany.

“Since we basically spent the whole weekend in the air, when we were on the ground, we ate,” he said. “We ate when we traveled, that’s what we loved to do. We saw the sights and we learned, but my favorite thing was the food cart vendors, fish straight off the boats. Those nasty boats off of the bazaars,” Lyle laughs incredulously at the memory.

Stateside, he attended a public elementary and high school. His family was part of the hard-working middle class and rarely ate out in restaurants.

“Travelling was our only chance to do that,” he said. “At home, we pinched pennies."

There, Bill learned basic cooking steps: how to peel shrimp, chop vegetables and make enough meals to reliably cook for himself. But he didn’t count that as cooking.

Career as a Chef
Lyle arrived in Fayetteville, having chosen the University of Arkansas for its highly ranked business college, and brought a taste for entrepreneurship. He loved being outdoors and had previously created his own landscaping company. The plan was to earn a business degree with an angle in mind.

“If you’re going to learn a skill, you should understand how you’re going to use it, because it will help you learn it better,” he said.

But something changed his plan.

As a student, he maintained jobs at two restaurants so he could pay for his college courses as he took them.

“I got into restaurant work because I figured it was the easiest way to get a job,” he said. “So I go down to Bordinos and they ask me if I want to be in the back or in the front. If I worked in the front, I get more money because of all the tips, but if I work in the back, I learn a new skill that I can take with me and always have.
“So I chose that.”
Over the years, Lyle worked at Bordinos, Jose’s on Dickson, Uncle Gaylord’s Mountain Cafe, O’Charley’s and other restaurants.

A defining moment
When Bill started working for Joe Fennel at Jose’s in 2003, he had a 24-hour semester, which is well over the average 16-hour load of classes. The chancellor had to personally approve the decision. Not long into that new, stressful schedule, he was thrown into demanding shifts, such as those during the annual Bikes Blues and BBQ festival, which typically keeps most restaurants on Dickson Street busy for four days straight.

“I had a shift where…I didn’t get a single break in 12 hours,” he said. “I hated it at the time.

“So I’m standing there, cooking quesadillas for twelve hours without any breaks and Joe comes up to me and (shouts over the kitchen clatter), ‘Bill, you’ll be in this business for the rest of your life!’”

Fennel meant it as a compliment to this young student who didn’t crack under the pressure of a 24-hour semester and 12-hour work shifts, when one would be more than enough for most people.

But it hit a nerve.

“I was insulted. I took it that way because I was doing it just to get through college and I would do something after. But he was right.”

Fennel became something of a mentor for Bill.

“He taught me how to treat the customer, and he taught me to take pride in your work,” Lyle said.
After awhile, all Bill wanted to do was work — to leave class and get to the kitchen to create.

“I saw it as a way to recreate the foods I had eaten growing up,” he said. “I don’t know what everything tastes like or exactly how to make each dish, but I have a general knowledge.”

From this, he began the Indian Food Buffet, a Tuesday special at Ella’s Restaurant, which became an instant hit and is still a local favorite. After college graduation in 2005, Lyle was made sous chef at the restaurant, then rose to executive chef and manager. Shortly after, he began a separate business, Mammoth Entertainment, which rents out a large inflatable screen and projector for outdoor use.

Going pro
In his first years as a professional chef, he routinely drew up three to four pages of notes, detailing each part of the special events and dinners he was in charge of.

“It took me two years to get comfortable.”

In that time, Lyle was in trial by fire. He paid close attention to detail, striving to please the customer by reaching the next level. This is what he believes earned Ella’s the reputation for best food and presentation.

Lyle started to come into his own, so to speak, when Ella’s event coordinator Heather Miley and the manager of Lambeth Lounge, Ryan Polite, put him in touch with wine distributors and began pairing wine and food to create unique, complimentary meals. He worked with winemakers who would fly into Northwest Arkansas from the West Coast, and it was then, he said, that things changed.

“One night, I did a dinner with Michael Keenan (of Keenan-Honig vineyards),” he said. “I had everything perfectly timed out. I was young, scared, nervous and put a lot of time into it.”

The first evening of that dinner, with the specialty paired courses, they served 80 people, blowing the expectations for attendance out of the water.

“Michael Keenan and I explained each dish as it came out of the kitchen and why we paired it the way we did with each course and each wine,” Lyle said. “People ate it up.”
As eighty people rose out of their seats to give a standing ovation before crowding around to ask him for autographed menus, he thought, “Holy crap, I can do this.”

Maudie Schmitt, chef and owner of Café Rue Orleans, is acquainted with Bill through the local restaurant scene and through their service to the Fayettevlle Advertising and Promotions Commission.

“When Bill’s working, he’s a heads-down guy — all business — but when it’s over, he’s the first to crack a joke,” she said. “He’s down to earth.”

Schmitt insists that Lyle’s strength is his ability to create original dishes.

The next course
In his position on the Fayetteville Advertising & Promotions Commission, he and others assess community events and programs and decide which ones to invest in. The intent is to bring festivals and conferences that will help promote the city as a tourism destination.

 “I got on the Commission for one reason and one reason only,” he said. “To see Fayetteville grow.”

Schmitt has worked with him in this capacity and attests this claim.

“Bill serves the community very well,” she said. “He’s his own man, and has his own opinions, but he listens to everyone.

“If it’s good for Fayetteville, he’ll do it.”

Lyle would like to see Ella’s launch an off-site catering service.
“What I like to do is build a kitchen [on location] where I can make 2,100 plates in an hour. I like the new variables and it’s more of a challenge.”

He’d also like to eventually own a restaurant with locally-sourced cuisine, featuring a large breakfast spot to serve an alternative food options, like smoked trout, as well as “gut-busters,” old favorites.