Field to Feast

Chef Miles James of James at the Mill takes farm-fresh produce to new levels of deliciousness with a seven-course Ozark feast

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In the heart of one of the most bottle-necked areas in Fayetteville where the frenetic stop-and-go pace of college students running late for life is punctuated by the sight of orange barrels as far as the eye can see, chef Miles James makes an abrupt right turn into a dusty parking lot.

He and his brother, Lyle James, step out of his silver Mercedes SUV with its “Swim Dad” decal and amble down a dirt road toward a shabby, charming barn at Tri Cycle Farms. Bicycle wheels lean against the barn’s peeling, sun-beaten red paint. A couple of flannel shirts have been abandoned nearby on the backs of red Adirondack chairs as if to prove that October in Arkansas requires sleeves in the morning and ventilation by noon.

The farm’s late fall bounty is only visible after rounding the corner of the barn, and could be mistaken for a traditional French Renaissance potager, or kitchen garden. Sunflowers and jalapeños mingle with rarities such as red vein sorrel, Malabar spinach and monstrous cardoon. Miles is meticulous, and has written an outline on a yellow legal pad for a seven-course meal he’s planning for close friends and family. These guests make up the backbone of his business, and they’ll gather to celebrate a good year that included the opening of 28 Springs, his casual dining venture with partners Todd and Shelley Simmons in Siloam Springs. The menu will feature more than 20 herbs and vegetables cultivated by this farm’s cheerful proprietor, Don Bennett, who is bedecked in a wide-brimmed straw hat, red suspenders and T-shirt proclaiming “Lettuce Eat.”

Miles takes the sourcing of local ingredients seriously, and he is constantly seeking unique items that will lend depth of flavor and a bit of drama the plate. His farm-to-table philosophy was indelibly influenced by his time in Paris under legendary French chef Guy Savoy, known for his devotion to the pure flavors of local produce he experienced as a child. Tears well up as Miles describes this seminal experience of his career, where he immersed himself in every nuance of the culinary field in hopes that he would eventually run his own restaurant in Arkansas. Savoy, meanwhile, was curious about the young chef’s experience in American establishments with larger-than-life personalities such as chef David Burke and Robert De Niro, co-owner of Tribeca Grill. They swapped knowledge, and his mentor’s influence is still vivid in his restaurant’s impeccable service, showcasing of local treasures and the kind but firm way he interacts with and elevates staff.

Nearly two decades have passed since Miles and his father-in-law, architect James Lambeth, conceptualized and opened the Inn at the Mill and its award-winning James at the Mill restaurant. His signature upscale Ozark Plateau cuisine contrasts with the decidedly approachable, no-jacket-required atmosphere, which will soon be underscored by the conversion of underutilized downstairs space into a casual gastropub, Bar James.

The chef’s unwavering vision and fastidious attention to detail make it clear why his meals entice your taste buds to turn backflips: It is show-stopping, heart-thumping art. At Tri Cycle Farms, Miles asks questions and takes recommendations on what the farmer suggests for peak flavor, but he is also very clear on what he wants. He clutches hand-selected cayennes, examines towering burgundy okra stalks and inquires about taking the fetching blooms. “I just like them,” he says with a shrug. “They’ll present well on the plate.”

While presentation is integral, his cuisine hasn’t made its name on looks alone. His brother, Lyle, who serves as the executive chef at James at the Mill and studied at the New England Culinary Institute where Miles trained, exemplifies the merits of a farm-fresh focus in his preparation of Malabar spinach. Hours earlier, the merlot-hued plant curled attractively up a fence, and boasted a deeply satisfying, buttery taste when plucked and nibbled straight off the vine, making it difficult to imagine improving it. Lyle wilts it just slightly with a little oil, salt and pepper, and the result is mind-blowing. It would appear the brothers and their crew know a thing or two about how to elevate even the humblest of ingredients.

As the evening’s meal approaches, Miles and Lyle are at the restaurant, bustling around their industrial-grade kitchen. Lyle leans in to reposition a leaf of oregano just so on a gorgeous piece of Scottish salmon while Miles carefully arranges the now-grilled burgundy okra. “I’m the only American who survived working every station in Guy Savoy’s kitchen,” he laughs. He seems to still marvel at this, and attributes it to his willingness to say “I can do that!” to every opportunity to hone his craft, from pastry chef to saucier.

The vibe in the kitchen mirrors the philosophies that seem to define Miles: approachability, zest, good humor, a touch of the magnificent in the everyday and a genuine devotion to gathering people around good food, artfully composed.

Off the clock, he is likely to be found on a Sunday with his wife, Courtney, preparing hors d’oeuvres and a casual amuse-bouche (literally: entertain the mouth), cocktails and—always—plenty of wine paired with Courtney’s hummus and homemade pita chips. “I honestly can’t make it the way she does,” he admits, “but she thinks I just say that!” The hummus also perfectly illustrates his claim that the way he prepares food in the restaurant is on par with his approach to simplicity and flavor at home. It seems appropriate that the evening meal will begin with this tried and true staple.

As he walks down the cobblestone path near the old mill wheel alongside the creek that is the heart and soul of the property with Courtney; their daughter, Paris; his mother, Linda; and Chef Lyle as well as the handful of people who matter most in their lives, Chef Miles isn’t distracted by the thriving inn and restaurant directly behind him. Instead, he’s raising his glass and throwing his head back in boisterous laughter in the setting sun.

Life is good.

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