With a honeyed voice, Matthew McClure waxes poetic about his food roots and Arkansas fare.
“I remember eating a brown Turkish fig from a farm in Arkansas and it was like I had never had one before,” he says. “And it wasn’t one dish, it was a bit of everything.”
As the head of his own restaurant, The Hive, [which opened in February in the 21c Hotel in Bentonville], he plans to showcase and explore the full range of those tastes. As Crystal Bridges attracts visitors from across the nation and around the globe, The Hive plans to feed their imagination with good old Arkansas nourishment surrounded by 21st century contemporary art.
“I’m excited to have the opportunity to create this from scratch,” the Little Rock native, 31, says. “It’s important that I’m from here. Food-wise, Arkansas has a great story to tell.”
McClure’s storytelling at The Hive will focus on what he knows best: products from around this state, using techniques McClure honed in some of the area’s finest kitchens. “From the Delta to the Northwest — the high South — subsistence farming has been here a long time,” he says. “I want to celebrate our food.”
Both of McClure’s parents worked during his childhood in Little Rock. He admits that their home had good meals, but wasn’t a chef’s training ground: “We definitely had Betty Crocker’s help.” Yet his grandmothers, who lived near Russellville, both used local ingredients and cooked seasonally, canning fruit, jams and jellies. “We’d go to their houses, and I’d see these special little cultural things like poke salad,” he says. “I was always interested in eating good food. My passion came together as I grew up.”
The cooking bug didn’t mark him when he was a kid, but it started nibbling at him during his teenage years. “When I was a teenager, I didn’t know what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I was lucky to work in restaurants that cultivated a passion that I didn’t know I had. It wasn’t so much about the food as it was about the energy and pace,” he says.
At those chain restaurants, the food came “premade in bags.” That intrigued him—he wondered who was actually making those meals. “I was voyeur looking from the outside in,” he says.
That curiosity led to training in Vermont at the New England Culinary Institute. The young Southerner pulled back the curtain and discovered how the finest food was made — and those chefs weren’t putting it in bags and shipping it all over the country in trucks.
His training up north taught him to look locally for the best ingredients. “We built relationships with small farmers, and I learned that a pig is not a pig. They are not all created equal,” he says. “The one cared for with attention from a farmer is night and day from commodity stuff.”
McClure became a quick study on seasonality with Vermont’s short springs and summers. “We would get spring fever when garlic and wild onions started coming out of the ground, exploding with freshness and excitement,” he says. “The earth came alive again. Good food was coming.”
By age 20, McClure was working in Boston restaurants. “I was around people with techniques and passion. I’d had amazing meals when I was younger, but I hadn’t experienced them the way I had experienced food in Boston,” he says. “Cooking became more than just food. It became my passion, too.”
In 2007, McClure’s appetite and skills came home to Arkansas and settled in the kitchens of Little Rock’s Capital Hotel with chef Lee Richardson at Ashley’s. “I came into my own in Boston,” he says, “but when I returned to Arkansas, I was back on okra and field peas and collards.”
On his own in Bentonville, McClure will use all his New England and Little Rock training to bring out pure Arkansas flavor. “My menus will change when the first greens come out of the ground,” he says. “They may change every day based upon on what we can gather. The experience in January will be different than the one in July.”
Of course, McClure will use locally grown vegetables and fruits, especially apples from the Northwest Arkansas region.
He plans to source all his meats – beef, pork, poultry and lamb – from Arkansas farms. Don’t look for big-named meat purveyors from Colorado or New Zealand on his menu. “That’s boring,” he says. “Arkansas lamb is unique.”
“Look for a lamb dish with bread-and-butter cabbage,” he says. “The grasses and natural herbs in the rolling hills of Northwest Arkansas add to lamb flavors.”
But he won’t stop there. McClure feels that chickens are sorely overlooked by chefs, yet they are a mainstay in Arkansas, with many small farms producing pasture-raised birds and eggs. “Arkansas knows quite a bit about chickens, and we will celebrate them,” he says. “My menus will have a strong chicken push: chicken liver mousse, fried chicken livers.”
Look for McClure’s own inventions too, such as pimiento cheese paired with bacon jam, or an Arkansas trail mix — sliced walnuts, fried black-eyed peas, cheese straws and rice. “It’s handmade with deliberate ingredients that celebrate Arkansas,” he says.
Not all flavors will be handcrafted in the kitchens. The Hive will also have a friendly and casual bar that McClure envisions like a beehive, a social gathering spot. They’ll offer Arkansas beers — such as Diamond Bear Brewing, which uses water from Lake Winona and Lake Maumelle to make its IPAs, ales and porters — and spirits and cocktails, such as the hickory-smoked whiskey distilled at Rock Town.
“I’m from here. I’m excited to be here and cook at this level here. I have a pride of place,” he says. “I don’t want just another restaurant. I want it to be unique. I couldn’t replicate this in another state because it’s based on this region. I’m happy it’s here.”
The Hive, 200 NE A Street, in the 21c Hotel, Bentonville; thehivebentonville.com; (479) 286-6575.