Mack of All Trades
How did Glenn Mack, a guy who’s lived in more than a dozen countries, wind up at the helm of Bentonville’s new culinary school? Yeah. We wondered, too
It’s Sunday dinner at the Mack household in a quiet pocket of downtown Bentonville, and the patriarch, Glenn Mack, is MacGyvering a smoking hot Big Green Egg into a backyard tandoor.
He eyeballs the temperature—just about 700 degrees, he reckons. Bingo. With oven-mitted hands, he flips over the charred black grid to make space for the two long skewers of marinated chicken thighs on standby to become an Uzbek-inspired dish in the kitchen. Satisfied, he takes a draft of a bourbon concoction. “OK,” he says. “Let’s go make some dumplings.”
I’ve been shadowing-slash-stalking Glenn—the executive director of Brightwater, Northwest Arkansas Community College’s culinary program—for more than a month now, and this is the first time I’ve seen him sans jacket and tie. This evening, the sleeves are rolled up on his light-blue button-down oxford, and he’s wearing jeans and a bit of a 5 o’clock shadow. He wears his sandy brown hair close-cropped and, inexplicably, has a tan in November. Glenn’s eyes are the most distinguishing thing about his face. Deep set, they’re a piercing dark blue, and behind a pair of navy-rimmed glasses, they take in the world with the intensity of a mind that’s always churning.
Lately, that mind’s been wrapped around the million and one things that need to be done before he can officially open the doors of Brightwater’s new digs. Since becoming executive director of the program back in June 2015, Glenn’s been leading the school’s transformation from a modest affair operating out of a kitchen at the old St. Mary’s hospital in Rogers to an internationally competitive program operating out of a state-of-the-art new facility in downtown Bentonville. Behind the school’s metamorphosis is $15 million in grant money from the Walton Family Foundation and an expectation that Brightwater is going to help take the area’s already burgeoning culinary scene to the proverbial next level. (An oft-repeated expectation around Brightwater is that it will do for the area’s culinary scene “what Crystal Bridges did for the arts and culture scene.”)
After sitting in on various meetings with Glenn and tagging along with him to a slew of different events—an open house, a guest lecture, a bratwurst fundraiser, a community dinner and a couple of hard-hat tours of the new facility—I now have a pretty good sense of the monumental task he’s taken on. But as curious as I am about Brightwater and what it will be, I’m even more intrigued by the man charged with bringing it to life. I’m hungry to know how someone who’s lived in more than a dozen countries and covered the collapse of the Soviet Union for Time magazine, and who magics up Uzbek feasts on random Sunday nights ended up here in town. And I’ve been in the food-writing game long enough to know that if you want a chef to spill the beans—so to speak—you’ve got to get him or her in the kitchen.
Oh, and bourbon. Bourbon helps, too.
We walk back into the Mack house, one of the homes in The Black Apple, Bentonville’s newish downtown “pocket community,” where 11 homes are built on a 1-acre lot around a common space in an effort to foster more neighborly interaction. (Yes, it’s a Walton-family thing.) Immediately, I’m overcome by the smell of cumin and onions. The kitchen is bright and modern—all black marble countertops and white cabinets. Anchoring the space is a large butcher-block island on which a stainless-steel pasta roller is perched. A double-decker dumpling steamer sits at the ready on the stovetop range.
“OK, so the dumplings we’re making—manti—are the large steamed dumplings commonly prepared in Uzbekistan,” Glenn says in his crisp, melodious professor voice. “In Korea, dumplings are called mandoo, which means ‘flower’ in Chinese. And the Turkish manti are different. They’re small, like ravioli, but they have a similar filling to the ones we’re making tonight.”
“Could you spell that?” I ask, head spinning a bit, mind working overtime to plot these places on the geographically challenged map that lives in my brain. Uzbekistan. South of Russia, I think, which I’ve long known is a place where Glenn spent a great deal of time.
“M-a-n-t-i,” he spells, giving me enough time to muster the nerve to ask the question that’s been gnawing at me since I met the man.
“So … ” I say. “Can you tell me about the time you spent in Russia covering the fall of the Soviet Union for Time?”
Speaking as he feeds dough into the pasta maker, Glenn takes me back to 1988. He was 25 and standing on the first floor of a U.S. diplomatic compound in Moscow, a space shared by Time and Newsweek. Relatively fresh out of college and armed with a degree in Russian language and literature from the University of Texas at Austin, Glenn hoped to offer up his services during the upcoming Reagan-Gorbachev Summit. Randomly, he knocked on Time’s door first. A big gruff German photographer opened it.
“And so the guy asked, Do you speak Russian?’’ Glenn says as he begins to cut the banner of dough he’s cranked out into uniform squares. “I said yes. And he said, Well, can you drive, and do you like photography? And I said yes. So that was basically my first job, shuttling photographers around and being a photographer’s assistant for Time.”
From our earlier conversations, I know the path that took Glenn to that first job actually began in Prairie Grove, where he was born. That’s where his mom, who was from Norway, and his dad, who hailed from Boston, had moved after meeting in college to pursue careers in academia. But by the time he’d turned 17, Glenn was ready to leave small-town life behind to explore the wider world, so he moved to Norway to finish up high school. That’s where he first “caught the bug,” he says. From that point on, he knew he wanted to live abroad.
We clink glasses with the second round of cocktails Glenn’s wife, Asele, has proffered. Glenn cuts away from his storytelling to fill both tiers of the giant steamer—a mantovarka, I’m told—with the manti that he and his 14-year-old son, Gregory, have carefully stuffed and folded. Half of the dumplings, which look like miniature hobo bundles, are stuffed with a mixture of butternut squash (a stand-in for a variety of savory pumpkin that grows in Uzbekistan) and onions, and seasoned with cumin, coriander and fenugreek. The second batch is filled with ground lamb, potato and lamb fat, the latter of which Glenn explains is a delicacy in Central Asia. (He chuckles as he recalls spotting the Harps butcher behind the glass carefully removing all the fat from the meat. In a panic, lest such a valuable commodity end up in the trash bin, he’d knocked on the window and talked his way into some free lamb fat.)
As the dumplings begin to steam, I lean against the island while my hosts tidy up the kitchen. Not at all smoothly, I steer the conversation, which has taken a few twists and turns, back to Glenn’s time in Russia. There’s so much more to know: How did he and Asele meet? What was it like to cover the fall of the Soviet Union in the early ’90s? Were they ever, y’know, in danger?
Glenn lobs the answer to the first question to Asele, who explains that the two of them met when Glenn was managing Time’s newly established photo department in Moscow. Glenn had actually gone back to New York City after that first assignment for Time covering the Summit and had been splitting his time between earning a master’s degree in communications and international affairs at Columbia University and working as a photo editor for Time. But when things started to heat up in the Soviet Union, the magazine asked him to return to Moscow to run its photo department. That’s when he met Asele, who worked for a Russian news agency that Glenn’s team depended on for photos of events that American journalists weren’t allowed to attend.
“She had a pretty darn good smile,” Glenn interjects, “and not many Russians were smiling back then.”
“We had our first business lunch at Pizza Hut,” Asele recalls, laughing.
And, yes, after a bit of prodding, both Glenn and Asele admit that there were times when they found themselves in dangerous situations.
“Crime was high,” Asele explains. “There was just a real lack of law and order, and there were gangs and just violence in general. And foreigners were a constant target because the assumption was that they had money.”
“How did you make it through unscathed?” I ask Glenn.
“Luck,” he quips.
“No, that’s not it,” Asele corrects. “Glenn’s great in a crisis. You want Glenn on your team in a crisis. And also, he’s fluent in Russian, and he made a real effort to get to know the culture. People really do appreciate it when you make an effort to learn their culture. This is something Glenn does wherever we live. He always looks for the best things about living in a place and embraces them.”
“Plus, people just like Glenn,” she adds.
“Well, that counts as luck,” Glenn jokes. “And I always carried a supply of vodka and cigarettes for bribing.”
As things began to cool down in Russia, Glenn starte to think about his next move. One evening, he and a few colleagues were sitting around ruminating about where they’d each be in 20 years. When it was time to place Glenn, one of his buddies said he could see him heading up a hospitality empire.
“This surprised me,” Glenn recalls, setting a small bowl of walnuts and raisins in front of me (a common Uzbek nosh, he says). “But then I began to think, Well, if this is how others see me, maybe there’s something to it.”
By then, this buddy of his had been on the receiving end of Glenn’s newfound passion for cooking. “I’d always loved to cook, but in Russia, I was doing it a lot more because that’s what we did for fun. There just wasn’t a lot of entertainment or anything for us expats to do, so we just had dinner parties. And I loved it—the whole experience of it. I loved going to the market and learning about the different dishes.”
Glenn recalls how one day he was reading Food in History, a book that attempted to tell the story of food from prehistoric times to the present. The book almost completely glossed over the food history of Central Asia, a place right smack in the middle of the ancient Silk Road, which had once been a hotbed of trade between East and West.
“I just knew there was an incredible story to tell there,” he says. And that’s when he decided that he was going to be the one to tell it.
The couple had already fallen for the region on the weekend jaunts they’d been able to take while living in Moscow. Soon, they found themselves setting up home base in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, where Asele had relatives, and for the next few years, Glenn, often solo, traversed an area of the globe that most Westerners have never even heard of. Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan—these were among the countries where he made pit stops, charming his way into the locals’ kitchens.
“It was tough for my mother,” Glenn half-jokes. “She’d raised me to be a scholar and approved of my being a Soviet expert. At dinner parties, she liked saying, Oh my son works for Time in Moscow, and at the time, Moscow’s going up in flames, and everyone would ooh and ah. And all of a sudden it’s, Well, my son is in Uzbekistan making shish kebab. It took her five or six years, but she finally came around. She said, OK, I get it now. This is what gives your life light.”
Although Glenn describes this time period as him “bumming around” Central Asia, it was, in truth, anything but. In addition to undertaking writing assignments during his travels, he also earned a couple of degrees, including a degree in culinary arts from the People’s Hospitality University in Tashkent and a degree in hand-pulled Chinese noodles at the Shaanxi New East Cuisine Institute in Xi’an, China.
And there was no shortage of adventure during this new chapter. In the handful of tales I manage to pull out of the couple, a truth serum, a border-crossing convoy of champagne-guzzling tractor-trailer drivers and a suitcase full of knives all play starring roles. “You can imagine seeing some pretty bizarre things in different places in the world that most people have never heard of,” muses Glenn. “We don’t talk about it a lot. Mostly, I just stick to telling folks, I was studying food and culture along the Silk Road.”
It suddenly dawns on me that the meal Glenn and Asele are busily preparing for me is a callback to the time they spent in Uzbekistan while Glenn was traversing the Silk Road, a place where most meals (and even dessert!) are cooked in an actual tandoor oven or over an open fire.
“This dish here,” says Asele, stirring the contents of a blue Cuisinart on the stovetop next to the steamer, “is one my grandmother used to make.” I peer into the elegant medley of butternut squash, cumin, onion and bell pepper. In place of the crushed chilies suspended in oil that her grandmother usually added, she’d swapped in Indonesian chili paste.
Glenn grabs the platter of skewered chicken thighs from the island, assures us that the Big Green tandoor will have them ready in no time at all and takes his leave. Me? I put down my pen and set about freshening up my dinner cocktail. As Glenn had pointed out, bourbon is the perfect substitute for the tea typically served with dinner in Uzbekistan. When in Rome …
“Gregory, dinner’s ready!” Glenn calls up the stairs.
Standing on no ceremony, we each grab a spot at the dining room table and dive into the Uzbek feast laid out before us. As we begin to eat, a silence descends over the table punctuated here and there by an Ohmygod, this is delicious! and an Oh this chicken is so juicy!
Which it is.
Tandoori chicken is a common dish in Uzbekistan, and it’s the incredibly high, indirect heat of the tandoor oven that makes it so freakishly juicy, Glenn explains. But while the dish is typically mildly flavored there in Central Asia, here in Bentonville, our adventure-loving chef couldn’t resist adding a bit of Malaysian flare by marinating the chicken overnight in onion juice—which explains its depth of flavor and a melt-in-your-mouth tenderness, as well as the overwhelming onion scent in the kitchen. He also adds a coating of yogurt for an Indian twist, and gives it a Southern USA flourish by seasoning it with nearly every spice he had in his spice cabinet, including cayenne pepper, paprika, turmeric and the fenugreek and cumin that he used in the manti.
Oh, the manti. As delicious as the chicken is, the dumplings steal the show. With each bite, the delicate outer layer of silky dough yields to the autumnal richness of the filling. I detect a subtle molasses note that Glenn explains is likely the fenugreek. “It’s an unusual spice that takes things in a different direction,” he says, “so you need to use it sparingly.” The dumplings are made all the more decadent by a relish of sorts—ground lamb, onions and potatoes—that you sprinkle on top, along with a dollop of tart yogurt.
After perhaps 15 minutes of an almost hypnotic focus on the food in front of me, I suddenly remember that I’ve got a job to do. It takes all of my self-control to take a break from shoveling the contents of my plate into my mouth to ask another question that’s been very much on my mind.
“So …” I muster. “How exactly did you end up at Brightwater?”
Turns out, Glenn tells me between bites, that after his time exploring the Silk Road came to an end, he and Asele had made their way to the United States in order to raise their family in a tamer environment. And for the next two decades, he built a distinguished career as a culinary educator. In addition to starting a cooking school in Austin, he spent a decade leading culinary colleges with Le Cordon Bleu in Atlanta, Boston, St. Louis and Miami. He also took on leadership roles in a slew of different national and international organizations, such as the International Association of Culinary Professionals.
Back in 2014, Glenn saw the strategic plan for Brightwater when he visited NWACC’s culinary program as the lead evaluator for the American Culinary Federation during an accreditation visit. (One of his extracurricular activities is evaluating culinary programs around the world. Naturally.) A few months prior, he’d moved to Singapore to begin a position as the dean of academic affairs at At-Sunrice Global Chef Academy. Asele and Gregory were in Atlanta preparing to join him on yet another overseas adventure.
“I was excited to be an expat again,” he says.
But he couldn’t shake the idea of what Brightwater could be. “It seemed too good to be true,” he says, helping himself to more manti. “I mean, a culinary program 30 miles from where I grew up that was going to be innovative? What they were proposing was not just about doing more of the same; it was about fundamentally changing culinary arts education.”
At the heart of that change is the fact that Brightwater students aren’t just learning to be cooks—they’ll graduate with the ability to pursue whatever their passions are surrounding food. And the key to the school’s success, he adds, is that Brightwater is going to be more than just a cooking school. It’s going to be a culinary hub where students, the culinary community and the community itself can connect.
The physical location of that hub is a renovated space in the 67,000-square-foot Tyson Foods plant on Southeast Eighth Street in downtown Bentonville’s Market District. About 27,500 square feet of that space will be dedicated to the school, while the remainder will make up the new Eighth Street Market, a collection of artisan food businesses, including a butcher shop run by Brightwater’s oldest faculty member, a German butcher with a knack for curing meats. The other known tenant is Bike Rack Brewery, which is opening a second location there, complete with outdoor biergarten.
When I visited the facility, it smelled of fresh paint and was abuzz with hard-hatted construction workers. Before taking the tour, I’d talked to Glenn at length about the evolution of Brightwater and pored over the plans of the facility he’d shown me, but it wasn’t until that day, walking through that vast, bright space—all windows, concrete and wow factor—that I truly grasped his vision.
I’m nervous for this moment. The moment. The one wherein I present a chocolate cake of my own making to Glenn Mack, possibly the most well traveled and knowledgeable culinary mind I’ve ever known.
“Are you guys … um … ready for dessert?” I ask.
Dessert is my contribution to the meal. Since the pressure was so high, I’d turned to my favorite cake recipe, a Guinness chocolate cake. My heart’s pounding as I cut big slices for everyone—I’d had to resort to making it with ale instead of stout and have no idea what’s happening beneath the cream-cheese frosting. For all its progress, you still can’t buy a six-pack of Guinness in Bentonville on a Sunday.
As we sit around the table eating chocolate cake—which, by the way is delicious, possibly even better for the ale—there’s one last thing that I have to find out.
“So … ,” I say. “Won’t you miss being an expat, now that you’re not only back in the United States, but living back in the place where you grew up?”
“The thing is,” he answers without skipping a beat, “is that Northwest Arkansas does in so many ways have that expat feel to it. There are just so many people that are here in a transitory way or have moved here from someplace else. So there’s still that shared experience of many people coming from other places. Not to mention that it’s practically unrecognizable from what it was 30 years ago.”
“And here I have the true advantage,” he adds, “of being both a native and an outsider.”
Not too long after dessert, lest I overstay my welcome—and I could talk to these two all night—I take my leave full of good food, good conversation and too much chocolate cake. As I make my way home, I breathe a sigh of relief. After all these weeks, I finally feel like I’ve got a complete picture of Glenn Mack. And I have to admit I’m mightily impressed. The guy’s done what many a globetrotting wayfarer has never even contemplated: He’s come back home again. And in doing so, he seems to have taken on the adventure of a lifetime.