Often described as the Oscars of the culinary industry, the James Beard Awards returned this year with a few familiar semifinalists from Northwest Arkansas.
The James Beard Foundation announced the semifinalists for the restaurant and chef awards in February. The three from Arkansas comprised Bentonville establishments: The Preacher’s Son, The Hive chef Matthew McClure and Yeyo’s chef Rafael Rios. The Preacher’s Son was one of 20 semifinalists for the outstanding hospitality award. McClure and Rios were among the 20 semifinalists for best chef in the South.
On March 16, the semifinalists in their respective categories were whittled to five nominees, and the winners will be named on June 13. While the Bentonville semifinalists didn’t advance, being a semifinalist is significant.
“It’s very significant,” McClure said. “It puts us on a national platform… talking about Arkansas food and what’s happening in the community on a national level unlike any other award or anything else would. It gives us a lot of credibility.”
A Little Rock native, McClure is a seven-time semifinalist for best chef in the South, including six consecutive years from 2014 to 2019. He noted the rarity of three semifinalists from one city in the same year.
“If you look at Bentonville… this has been a goal the community has been working on for over 10 years, and the fact that we’ve got three nominations coming out of the same small town says a lot about the work of the community.”
Kalene Griffith, president and CEO of Visit Bentonville, the city’s tourism bureau, said she’s unaware of another similar-sized city receiving three nominations in one year.
“For a town of 50,000, we feel very honored and excited, and we’re very fortunate to have some great experiences and some wonderful leaders in the culinary environment,” Griffith said. “It’s enhancing our culinary experiences in Bentonville, Northwest Arkansas and Arkansas.
“I think what people don’t realize [is] it’s a partnership within our community and how our restaurants work together and support each other. We continue to work together to tell the story of our culinary scene.”
In the years leading up to the onset of the pandemic, several James Beard-related events have taken place here, Griffith said. About 10 years ago, the community began partnering with the James Beard Foundation. Several Bentonville chefs traveled to the foundation’s New York headquarters to cook and tell the culinary story of Northwest Arkansas.
“We want to continue that storytelling opportunity by being involved in numerous things outside our area because our job as tourism is to bring people into our community,” Griffith said.
Ashley Wardlow, interim president and CEO of the Greater Bentonville Area Chamber of Commerce, said the Bentonville culinary scene has grown and developed a “tremendous reputation” evident from the recognition it’s received from “premier institutions,” such as the James Beard Foundation. That Bentonville received three nominations in one year reflects “chefs and their vision, but also the hard work of their staff and the smart decisions being made by the restaurant owners,” she said.
Wardlow also highlighted the positive economic impact of the recognition.
“It’s going to put us on the radar of businesses and people who maybe hadn’t been aware of everything Bentonville and our region offers,” she said. “Our message to them is clear: We know what we have here, and we’d love to share it. Come and experience our culinary scene, and while you’re at it, visit the Amazeum. Visit Crystal Bridges and the Momentary. Stroll through the square on a First Friday. Try out our trails. We can’t wait to welcome you.”
Adam Greene, general manager of The Preacher’s Son, said the recognition is meaningful, incredible and the aim for those in the culinary industry.
“It’s good company to be in,” said Greene, citing the other semifinalists. “It’s also meaningful for the city of Bentonville. To have three nominees here brings attention to Northwest Arkansas. It clearly says we’re a destination.”
Asked what led to the nomination, Greene pointed to the nearly 25 staff and how they try to work together as a big family.
“It’s all about the guest experience,” he said. “It’s about what guests feel when they come into this beautiful restaurant. It’s getting warm greetings. It’s getting professional but approachable and somewhat relaxed service that makes people feel comfortable.”
He also noted the high-level food preparation and timely service.
“All those things coming together, that to me is what’s working here and trying hard each day to exceed any guest expectation,” he said.
While the next big goal would be to win the award, he understands the level of talent they are competing against and appreciates the opportunity to compete on that level.
“We’re going to keep doing what we do every day and raise the level of awareness for Bentonville and hope that people continue to come out and join us,” he said.
Rios, a 2020 semifinalist for best chef in the South, said the recognition is an honor considering the restaurant’s humble beginnings and mission to change the perception of Mexican food.
“I think that’s one of the reasons why this is extra important,” Rios said. “We’re being recognized on a national level as people trying to make a difference.”
Yeyo’s started in 2012 with a small Little Flock farm and a food truck on the Bentonville square. It’s since grown to include the flagship restaurant in the 8th Street Market in Bentonville, Yeyo’s Mezcaleria & Taqueria in Rogers, an events and catering business, and two food trucks.
When first named a semifinalist, he recalls pinching himself. He said the nominations have provided the drive to push for winning.
“Hopefully, this is just the beginning of a lot of great things that are going to come for Yeyo’s, specifically, but also our region,” he said. “I want to be an inspiration for local Latinx chefs to make sure they understand that things are possible.”
Rios said the recognition has increased business, and the restaurants have outgrown their locations. He looks to add a commercial kitchen for research and development, support growth and the catering business and wholesaling for retail items.
The 2022 James Beard Awards will be the first in two years after a hiatus during which the awards underwent an audit of policies and procedures, continued the work to remove bias, increased transparency and accessibility, and to be better aligned with the foundation’s mission and values, according to a news release. The James Beard Foundation established the restaurant and chef awards in 1990, and the first awards were given in 1991 as one of five recognition programs of the James Beard Awards.
Since then, Arkansas has tallied 20 semifinalist nominations, four nominees and two winners for the restaurant and chef awards, according to foundation records. The awards voting process includes an open call for recommendations, semifinalists, nominees and winners.
Foundation records show the first Arkansas winner was the owner of an eastern Arkansas barbecue diner: James Jones of Jones Bar-B-Q Diner in Marianna was named the 2012 America’s Classics winner. Lassis Inn in Little Rock was the 2020 America’s Classics winner.
The records show that Little Rock and Bentonville establishments account for all but two of the nominations and awards attributed to Arkansas. Little Rock establishments account for nine semifinalist nominations and one award. Bentonville establishments account for 10 semifinalist nominations and four nominees, which was the closest a Northwest Arkansas restaurant or chef has come to winning.
In 2018, The Preacher’s Son was the subject for an outstanding restaurant design award for restaurants with at least 76 seats. Restaurant designers Jett Butler, Stephanie Leung, Katie Cavallo and Chip Chambers were nominees for the award. The Preacher’s Son, a Walton-backed Ropeswing Hospitality Group project in Bentonville, opened in 2016 in a renovated 20th-century church at 201 N.W. A St.
Before 2014, Northwest Arkansas had one semifinalist, according to foundation records. In 2010, Miles James of James at the Mill in Johnson was a semifinalist for best chef in the South.
Two Arkansas chefs have received 12 of the semifinalist nominations in the state: McClure and Lee Richardson, whom McClure worked under at Ashley’s at the Capital Hotel in Little Rock before joining the opening team of The Hive at 21c Museum Hotel in 2012. Richardson was a semifinalist for best chef in the South for five consecutive years from 2008 to 2012. Also, Ashley’s at the Capital Hotel was named a semifinalist for best new restaurant in 2008.
McClure said the recognition has led to invites to cooking events with other known chefs, building on one’s network and benefiting charities he supports.
He said The Hive is collaborating with Ozark Beer Co. to release a new beer at the end of April. It’s also looking to the future while reflecting on the past.
“When we came to the area almost 10 years ago, we set a pretty high bar,” he said. “Since then, the town has evolved, and there’s a lot of other great options … in terms of food, service, cocktails, design. So we’re looking at the next phase of The Hive.”