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.
Chef Joseph Coleman sits down for an interview with his trusty sous-chef Geovanny Villagran directly to his left. It’s a visible indication of the team-first mentality Coleman brings to his kitchen and the Diamond Chef competition.
“In a kitchen, the worst person that you have, that’s about as good a chef as you are,” Coleman explains. “[Geo] doesn’t have a problem telling me ‘I don’t know about that’ or ‘Let’s try something else.’ He has no issue with that. Most guys that work as a sous are just trying to please even though they feel otherwise.”
Both men bring an international background to their craft. Coleman, a military brat, moved around until his family was stationed at Little Rock Air Force Base, which proved to be for the long haul. He started his culinary training out of state, but returned to Arkansas and finished at UA-Pulaski Tech. An entry level position at the Marriott Hotel beckoned, and he’s been here ever since.
Villagran a native of Mexico, learned to cook at the arm of his grandmother but didn’t pursue it professionally until about four years ago. He joined Coleman’s team in 2018. Neither man has competed in Diamond Chef before, but neither are they letting the pressure of the moment get to them.
“Since the beginning, we work perfectly together,” Villagran says. “Some days [Coleman] brings a new menu or something like that, and I can catch it immediately. It’s like, OK, I have that idea. We are on the same channel.”
“One thing I wanted to bring to the table is that it’s a team effort with me and him,” Coleman says. “If we win, great. If we lose, then we want to go back. This is for us. We’re the underdogs. We have a lot to prove.”
KEY INGREDIENTS WITH CHEF JOSEPH COLEMAN
Who was your biggest influence?
My grandpa in the Philippines. I spent six years there. My grandfather was a chef, and he would wake me up at 5:00 in the morning, and we would go to a local fish market and then the butcher, just to see all these things. It smelled awful, but it was so much fun.
If you really had to impress someone, what dish would you cook?
I probably would go with Ahi tuna. I love that one. It’s one of my favorite dishes. I crust it with fresh herbs and some dijon mustard and sear it from the sides and pour a sauce to make it juicy. I think that’s one of my strongest dishes.
What food trend are you into right now?
One thing I have been getting into is molecular food. It’s probably my go-to thing now, liquid gels, using liquid nitrogen for desserts and flavors and stuff. Food science is a lot of fun.
“I don’t have any faith in you yet. But I will. Because you work really, really hard.”
So goes the most memorable line Chef Jordan Davis’ mentor ever gave him. Today he wears it, like his work ethic, as a badge of honor.
“I was scooping ice cream Thanksgiving morning when he said that to me,” Davis remembers fondly. “I do work very hard. Blue collar. I try not to stay in the office; I like being on the line. I like getting my hands dirty.”
Such qualities seem ill at ease in the highly-refined environment of Chenal Country Club, but don’t let the stately fireplace and sumptuous leather seating fool you. Meeting the discriminating tastes of one of the more exclusive clubs in Arkansas has a pressure all its own.
“That’s the great thing about Chenal Country Club – we have to have the best chicken tenders, and we have to have the best steak,” Davis says. “I’ve got 600 bosses, and you can imagine, I get a lot of emails and phone calls. I’ll get somebody who says, ‘I want lobster on Friday.’ So, I call my guy in the northeast, and we do it.”
Regularly expecting the unexpected has honed Davis and his crew to new levels of creativity – proper training for the Diamond Chef event. At one club function, the team looked for ways to reimagine spaghetti and meatballs.
“We really try to push the envelope,” Davis says. “We did lobster spaghetti and meatballs. We ground up the lobster and used it in meatballs. Then, instead of using eggs in the pasta dough, we used lobster roe. Green noodles, blanched them to orange, tossed them with a little bit of saffron and cream.
“That is the kind of fun stuff we get to play with. We’re about creating experiences for our members.”
KEY INGREDIENTS WITH CHEF JORDAN DAVIS
If you were cooking your last meal, what would be on the plate?
Crispy beef tacos and a really, really nice margarita.
What was your eye-opening moment as a young chef?
It’s just all the little things. You don’t realize you need to order salt and butter and put on all these extraordinary events as well as the á la carte line. All the little things that go into one plate to make it really, really special.
Do you have a saying or tagline you’re known for?
Probably just, ‘Push yourself.’ Gotta get that sense of urgency.
Just a few steps from the entrance of Greenleaf Grill in downtown Little Rock, two massive LED signs flash the day’s menu beckoning, “Come see what Chef Brandon has created today.”
The invitation is apt, given the restaurant’s fare changes daily. Today’s Greek-flavored salad bar and Italian entrée will give way to tomorrow’s Asian stir-fry and Southern comfort food. It’s a prime showplace for the versatility of the Canadian-born, Arkansas-raised chef.
“Greenleaf Grill really keeps me on my toes on any given day,” he says. “I could have three to four different varieties of food on the menu from different regions of the world. It’s also a challenge to provide healthier eating options, you know, how can we do that and still keep it interesting.”
It’s not just time on the job that’s honed Douglas’ versatility – he’s been a chef for more than a decade – his very roots in cooking trend toward the broader spectrum of food.
“I grew up in Mena, and my grandma was an excellent cook. Mom was a good cook, too,” he says. “I vividly remember helping them in the kitchen over the holidays. I was just playing around then; I had really no idea I would want to make this a career. I just really enjoyed it.”
While attending Henderson State University, from which he graduated with a communications degree in 2000, Douglas regularly cooked for friends and discovered a knack for turning out one great meal after another no matter what the genre. He also had an untiring work ethic by the time he completed his culinary apprenticeship in Little Rock (the forerunner to UA-Pulaski Tech) he’d already landed a job as an executive chef.
His advice to aspiring chefs mirrors his mantra heading into the Diamond Chef competition.
“Practice, practice, practice, man” he says. “I’m just excited to have the opportunity.””
KEY INGREDIENTS WITH CHEF BRANDON DOUGLAS
What’s your go-to make and model of knife?
I like a 9-inch chef’s knife that’s sharp. My favorite knife is a new one. I actually have one that I’ve only used one time that I’m saving to use for Diamond Chef.
Is there a cooking region you haven’t explored yet?
I’d like to learn more about Hawaiian food. I recently did a cooking class where the whole theme was Hawaii. I was 100 percent intrigued by how much variety there is in that little island chain.
If you knew it was your last meal, what’s on the menu?
Chicken fried steak comes to mind right away. I don’t eat it often, but I love good old-fashioned chicken fried steak, mashed potatoes, the whole thing. Sounds simple, but I love it.
Hailing from Riverside, Calif., you’d have expected Chef Amanda Ivy to have been the agent provocateur in Little Rock’s food scene. But what you might not have anticipated was that her palette was the best-loved foods of the Southerner’s experience upon which she creates something new and fresh.
“Food is community,” she says. “Whether you cook well or not, or cook elaborately or simply, it’s something people can commune around and come together.”
Once Ivy landed in Little Rock, she enrolled in culinary school at UA-Pulaski Tech and also set about integrating herself into the food scene here. In her career, she’s worked in some of the most recognized eateries in town including The Southern Gourmasian, Heights Taco and Tamale Co., and Old Mill Bread Company. She’s also had a hand in menu items for The Fold and Raduno Brick Oven and Barroom. Most recently, she was executive chef at Sauce(d) before diving full time into Low Ivy.
Ivy may have come here from the left coast, but her roots run deep in southern soil. Her father, Bill Lowry, is a native of Clarksdale, Miss., and an accomplished amateur cook.
“Informally, I learned to cook from my father who probably would have been a chef had it been the thing to do back then,” Ivy says. “But he had a family and chefs don’t make crazy money.”
What Lowry did do was pass along a love of his native South to his daughter in the kitchen, thanks to a lifetime of experience and a stack of Southern Living cookbooks. Years later, upon moving to Arkansas, she tapped into those recipes for hosting Sunday dinners, returning to her roots.
“It’s something that made me feel very at home when I moved here,” she says. “I think food has the ability to do that for a lot of people.”
KEY INGREDIENTS WITH CHEF AMANDA IVY
What’s your father’s signature dish?
His fried chicken was really outrageous; it was pretty much the old-school flour and Crisco kind of way, you know? He made amazing biscuits, cornbread. And a lot of it was jams and canning and pickling, too.
Have you equaled anything of his?
I do the biscuits and the cornbread pretty well. I’ve played around with that a lot, taking recipes and thinning it out for a waffle or a pancake for an hors d’oeuvres.
What is Southern food to you?
I think the thing about Southern food is it’s simple food done well. Just that’s it, right there.
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.”
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.
If Chef Izaak Winter’s grandmother had had a better cable TV package, he might not be where he is today.
“I was maybe eight or nine, and I used to spend summers at Grandma and Grandpa’s house,” he says. “Food Network had just come out, and my grandma was obsessed with Emeril Lagasse. I didn’t care for him all that much; I thought he was kind of corny. But I loved Iron Chef; I was just fascinated by it.”
Winter came home after a month of watching cooking shows and told his mother he’d found his calling.
“My mom, bless her heart, is not a great cook, but she helped foster my willingness to learn how to cook,” he says. “First thing she taught me how to make was biscuits and gravy, and that is where it started. Every Sunday, I made biscuits and gravy.”
That humble dish led to more elaborate recipes culled from his week’s Food Network viewing (“Some of those dinners weren’t very good,” he concedes) and his first job in the industry at age 15 as a fry cook at the local Dairy Queen. It wasn’t sophisticated fare, but it fed his ambition to cook for a living.
While completing his culinary training at the Kansas City Art Institute, he landed a gig at Yaya’s there and the restaurant has been integral to his career ever since. He came to Little Rock’s location as Executive Chef in 2016.
“Moving here, I had this idea in my head, ‘They’re just gonna put gravy on everything.’ But it’s not like that at all,” he says. “I have pushed the envelope a couple of times where it was a big swing and miss, but overall, our guests are OK with eating something outside their comfort zone. You just have to communicate it to them in a way that makes it familiar.”
KEY INGREDIENTS WITH CHEF IZAAK WINTER
Do you have anything in the kitchen that borders on superstition?
I have to have my towels folded a certain way, and they have to be perfectly stacked. I don’t know why. Also, I have to have my container of spoons of various sizes for plating. Have to have a pan of plastic spoons for tasting a lot of stuff.
Biggest influence in your career?
A British chef I worked under, Martin Woods. He’s got that Gordon Ramsay-esque attitude about things. He ran a militant-style kitchen, and he was tough to work for. But I could take it because I grew up wrestling, and I wrestled in college, so I was used to being coached and pushed really hard. It translated really well to my training in the kitchen.
What do you do when you’re not in the kitchen?
My main thing outside of work is to get outdoors, hike around, look for mushrooms. Anything to get me outside, just totally removed, phone in the car. I’ll walk a couple of miles to a place where there’s nobody else around and just soak in the quiet.
Donnie Ferneau is an acclaimed chef creating culinary classics in Little Rock. After winning Diamond Chef in 2011 and 2016, his passion has been to create Southern-style food for central Arkansans.
“After working in the fine dining industry for years and years, my love for Southern food kind of grew and grew by just traveling and picking up different techniques,” Ferneau says. “As a chef, you have an ego, and you want to cook for everybody what you feel they want.”
Ferneau says Diamond Chef serves as a significant fundraiser for UT – Pulaski Tech, as well as a great social gathering for him to connect with the participants and others involved allowing him to grow as a chef.
“It gives me an opportunity to get to work with, hang out and reconnect with some of the chefs that I admire and look up to,” says Ferneau.
Ferneau has become a very accomplished chef over the last several years, having catered for the filming of the HBO original series show True Detective, appearing on Food Network’s The Great Food Truck Race and opening his own restaurant Cathead Diner in June 2018.
2016 Diamond Chef finalist Chef Bonner Cameron has been in the restaurant industry since 1997. After graduating culinary school and working in Houston, Texas, for many years, he decided to bring his culinary skills to central Arkansas.
“I never really had time for competitions or anything like that. I didn’t get into any competitions until I moved here to Little Rock eight years ago,” says Cameron. “They asked us to be in it, and lo and behold, we made it to the finals.”
In 2013, Cameron opened Bistro Catering in Bryant with his partner Crystal Dear. After running the business for five years, he decided it was time to move on.
“I didn’t like the location I was in, so I was kind of in limbo for a couple of months,” says Cameron.
After closing his catering business in 2018, Cameron got a call to join Allsopp & Chapple as executive chef.
“The owners at Allsopp & Chapple couldn’t have called at a better time,” says Cameron. “It’s an awesome, awesome place. I couldn’t be happier. I really like working downtown on Main Street.”
Cameron says his goal is to make Allsopp & Chapple one of the premier restaurants in Little Rock.