“THE MENU IS KIND OF MY STORY, in a way,” chef Matt McClure says, arms crossed and resting on the edge of a round table set for brunch in his Bentonville restaurant, The Hive. “It’s not all Southern; it’s not all Arkansas. It’s influenced by the experiences that I’ve had in my life with other cultures, but it’s rooted in Arkansas ingredients.”
Three years in, the story Matt’s been telling at The Hive seems to be working out well for the chef. At 36, he’s already snagged a James Beard nomination or three—the highest recognition in the culinary world, the Pulitzer of American gastronomy, if you will. (This year, Matt’s a semifinalist in the Best Chef: South category. Winners will be announced at the beginning of May.) Few chefs can say they’ve earned the honor; fewer states can say they’ve bred such chefs.
Born in Little Rock, Matt trained at the Culinary Institute of Vermont and pursued his career in a who’s who of Boston restaurants, including stints at No. 9 Park, Troquet and Harvest. The chef traveled to Little Rock and back for occasional visits until 2007, when he finally decided it was time to stay. At Ashley’s (now One Eleven), he trained with the likes of Lee Richardson (also a previous James Beard nominee), who taught him not only to channel creativity when whipping up a good dish, but to orchestrate breakfast, lunch and dinner menus with equal excellence. And in 2013, when 21C Hotel opened its doors in Bentonville, it needed a chef to spearhead its restaurant. Someone with a solid culinary background. Someone like Matt.
Here, in the wide, airy space of The Hive, Matt seems to have found his place. Here, you can bet that much of what you eat is sourced from a local farm. (You can also bet your waiter will lug over a life-sized, green recycled-plastic penguin to keep vigil over your plate as you wipe it clean—and trust us, you will.) Matt exalts all things local and was doing so long before the locavore movement gained a strong foothold in Arkansas, and long before the expression “farm-to-table” became a way of life for budding restaurateurs in the state’s growing food scene.
“The dirt is different, the air is different [in Arkansas],” he says, sending forks rattling every time he throws his hands in the air and brings them back to the table. “All of those little factors change the way beef is grown, the way local pigs are grown, you know—what they eat and when they eat it. And that changes the flavor of the food without me doing anything.”
You have placed a huge emphasis on everything “local.” That seems to be the trend right now—how do you make your approach different?
Yeah, it is the trend right now. For me, it’s a couple of different things. One is, I want to be a part of the community, and me doing business with my neighbors is a part of that. In my business, my neighbors are farmers. Supporting them is very important to me. I need them to do what they do so that I can do what I do. So I joke that my job—you know, cooking—is to get these great ingredients and just not mess them up. I like to think about, you know, when you go to New Orleans, you’re going to eat New Orleans kind of food. You can get versions of it around the country, but to get the true, real, soulful cooking, you’ve got to go to New Orleans. I wanted people to have that experience in Northwest Arkansas, so when you come here, you get a unique experience. That’s through the way we cook and handle the food, but also the environment [where] the food is grown in locally.
So what is true, soulful Arkansan cuisine, to you, at least?
It’s just very simple food. The history of cooking in Arkansas is simple. Beans and cornbread come up a lot, but it’s the simple preparation of beans and cornbread. Here, I like to take dishes like that and layer in a spice mixture from India or maybe finishing a Frenchier, Italian sort of preparation of that. It’s because I am from Arkansas, but I’ve had these other life experiences, and that’s how I sort of play them together.
Speaking of life experiences, what made you move from Boston to Arkansas?
That’s a good question. You know, I think that I was 27, and we had been just sort of in the rat race on the East Coast for a while, me and my wife. We got one, maybe two weeks a year for vacation, and we ended up just coming to Arkansas because we hadn’t seen our family in a year. And we decided, instead of living in a great city that we don’t necessarily get to enjoy very often and using all of our spare time to come to Arkansas, then why don’t we just live in Arkansas so that when we go on vacation, we can travel to other destinations?
When I was 20 years old, I needed to get out of Arkansas because it didn’t have the restaurant culture or the talent to train me to do what I wanted to do. I had to go outside of the borders. I think now that’s changed. There are plenty of good places where you can learn how to cook.
So would you say that now is the golden age of dining in Arkansas?
I would say that it’s the beginning. These things take a long time to happen. New Orleans didn’t have gumbo 400 years ago, or whenever it was founded. Those dishes take a long time to develop. I don’t know what that is in Arkansas—what our equivalent of gumbo is—but I do think that our traditions are going to be rooted very much in ingredients because so many things grow well here.
Since you started here, how do you think the industry, at least in Bentonville, has changed?
It’s grown at warp speed in a very good way. The concentration of good restaurants in Bentonville—I’d be surprised if there was a similar concentration anywhere in the South. Big markets have great restaurants and probably more of them, but you walk out of one, and you’re getting in your car to drive across town to the nearest one, whereas here, you can just walk across the street.
So you just got nominated for the James Beard award—for the third time! Does it feel different the third time? It is still as exciting as the first?
You know, when I found out, I’m like, This just doesn’t get old. It feels awesome. It feels really awesome. A lot of people I really respect are on that list, and I can’t believe that my name is one of them. I think it’s very important that it’s not just me; it’s the team of The Hive. It’s my name, but it’s a team effort that took us to this level—you know, breakfast, lunch and dinner seven days a week. To come to an area that didn’t have much of a restaurant culture three or four years ago, and [now,] pretty much everyone who’s in my kitchen is from around here—I mean, there’s talent in Northwest Arkansas. Having the right venue and developing the right culture, these people are able to flourish. I feel like another great goal is to train the next generation of chefs in Northwest Arkansas.
Did you inherit your love for cooking from your family? What sparked this passion?
I was always interested in food. My family always loved food. For the most part, they weren’t like refined cooks. Both of my parents are from rural Arkansas, and my dad tells the story of going to his mother’s sister, who lived down in the middle of nowhere and had a huge garden, and they went over there for Thanksgiving, and it was the best food he’s ever eaten. And it wasn’t that they were good cooks but that the ingredients that they were using were just better than what you can get at the supermarket. And those kinds of things kind of stuck with me. We hunted and fished, so we ate a lot of locally grown food. That kind of sparked it. Then when I went to culinary school, I was really lucky to be around a great group of people that were really into cooking and sort of opened my eyes to another dimension, you know, like proper cooking techniques. That sort of evolved into finding the best ingredients. And now it’s evolved into teaching this philosophy about cooking to The Hive kitchen culture.
And you’ve also trained with some great chefs, like Lee Richardson. How did that experience help you grow as a cook?
I was really fortunate that I worked with several really great chefs in Boston. I learned refinement from one and creativity from another, and solid fundamental techniques from another one. Ashley’s at the Capital Hotel was the first hotel that I’ve ever really worked at. That opened my eyes to, like, how you could sort of have this program where breakfast, lunch and dinner all were connected in a way. Being a chef, you know, you have to balance this creativity with this business side. If I want to put something on the menu, I have to figure out how to make it work financially. With a chicken—and I get pastured chickens, which are more expensive—you’ve got a bird. It’s got two breasts, two thighs, two legs. Dinner gets the breast because it’s a little bit more, sort of, high-end. The legs and thighs can go to fried chicken for lunch. You have the opportunity for more of an outlet, and I feel like that’s what [Lee] was really good at—having that vision. And he’s just a hell of a cook.
Where do you see the food scene in Arkansas, say, in 10 years? Or where do you want to see it?
Hopefully, in 10 years, we’ll have a bit more of a voice. Southern food has been hot for several years now. Arkansas is a little bit late to the game. But you know, there’s that saying that when you’re late to the party, you get to choose how you arrive. I feel like we’re in a very unique situation where, with Bentonville [and] the culinary school that’s coming in, we’re going to be a potential culinary powerhouse—not just having great restaurants, but this great food culture and people who want to come and learn how to cook —people who want to become a part of the food scene here. I feel like we’re going to be a big part of that conversation.