Photography by Ebony Blevins and Jeremy Smith
The final field of competitors in the 2019 Diamond Chef competition has been set. The event benefits the University of Arkansas – Pulaski Technical College Culinary Arts and Hospitality Management Institute and has become a standout on Little Rock’s social calendar.
“This event literally appeals to everybody,” says Adora Curry, coordinator. “If you’re a tourist coming to Arkansas and you just want to know what the state is about, if you are a big-time foodie, if you’re a supporter of education, it’s for you. There’s something for everybody.”
The finals will be contested April 11 at UA-PTC’s Culinary Institute the college’s Culinary Arts & Hospitality Management Institute, 13000 I-30 Frontage Road between Little Rock and Bryant. In addition to the competition itself, patrons will enjoy tasty fare from food and mixology stations throughout the evening. Tickets can be purchased online at UAPTC.edu/DiamondChef or by calling Curry directly at (501) 812-2771.
AY took the time to sit down with this year’s finalists to learn a little bit about their careers, their introduction to food and the key ingredients that fuel their passion and skill in the kitchen.
KEY INGREDIENTS WITH CHEF JAMIE MCAFEE
What’s your indispensable kitchen tool?
A sharp knife. I think the absolute best knife that I go to every day is a carbon, non-stainless steel. They have the same look as the old-timey ones, you know? But they will hold an edge longer than any steel out there.”
How do you cook 500 steaks at a time?
We mark them on a grill to rare and then we put 35 to a sheet pan and put each one of those pans in the oven depending on how you want it cooked, medium rare to medium. Just years of experience makes them all come out exactly.
What are you most proud of?
I’m most proud of my very stern work ethic. You have 80- to 90-hour weeks. There are days it’s going to be tough where it’s 125 degrees in the kitchen in June, July and August. After a rain, it’s 100 percent humidity. Sometimes you have a lot more unglorified days than you do glorified.
After spending more than two-thirds of his life in the business of cooking for others, it’s tempting to say Chef Jamie McAfee has learned the secret to longevity. But the plain truth is, he brought that with him on his very first day in the business.
“When I teach school at Pulaski Tech part-time, I tell students about my first job in Memphis,” he says. “I interviewed after school five times, and the guy there wouldn’t give me a job. Finally, I said, ‘Would you let me work for free?’ and for a year I worked for nothing.
“If you don’t have enough passion to work for nothing, then you might not have the passion it takes to have the longevity of 42 years.”
Born in Little Rock and raised in McGehee, McAfee earned his first culinary degree from the now-defunct Memphis Culinary Institute. For good measure, he earned a second from UA-Pulaski Tech. The rest he learned through experience and the school of hard knocks.
“As far as the banquet part of this business, it’s very difficult to keep a banquet hall busy, to keep a quality crew,” he says. “You have to learn the numbers. You have to learn that this is a for-profit business. It took me 15 years to learn that.”
His resume is short – his last 34 years have been split between just two locations, Delta Country Club in McGehee and Pine Bluff Country Club – but extremely well-informed.
“My father, James McAfee, was a country club chef. I grew up basically cutting my teeth in his kitchen,” he says. “I’ve worked under and had a tutelage with the great Paul Prudhomme, and I worked a lot with Sam Choy, the great Hawaiian chef.
“I really enjoy the á la carte business, but I would say that I am very strong at banquet cooking for 300 to 600 people. That’s what I tend to enjoy the most.”