he pinnacle of activity at Petit Jean typically takes place at Winthrop Rockefeller Institute – an inviting place that fosters collaboration and learning. “Ideas that shape our future rarely come from lone minds” as its website states. “They take shape from the combination of diverse thought and experience. Our aim is to provide a special place atop the broad plateau of Arkansas’ Petit Jean Mountain where today’s thinkers, scholars, leaders and innovators convene to share the ideas from which tomorrow’s solutions will rise.”
Aside from providing a keen place for meetings of the minds, WRI offers intellectually stimulating programs to the public. Of its many classes, covering topics ranging from agriculture to health and arts and humanities to economic development, WRI’s culinary events are a popular attraction.
Chef Robert Hall was hired six years ago to develop WRI’s culinary programs. He is the first in-house chef. When the Institute was created in 2005, its culinary program was coordinated with outside chefs.
He especially has enjoyed the creative freedom available to him, Hall said. Janet Harris, WRI director of programs, compliments his ingenuity. “Chef Hall’s creativity is evident in the variety of culinary classes and experiences he has developed here at the Institute. His passion for cooking and finding new ways to serve our customers is a great asset to the Institute.”
Table for Two is one of Hall’s creations – an idea he got from good friend Mike Campbell, food services director at University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. It offers couples and close friends a relaxing evening while they learn how to make a delicious meal for two. Taking place in a lecture-style room with a kitchen where a teacher’s blackboard typically would be, Hall welcomes eager guests to share his culinary expertise.
In October 2011 during the trial run before the event officially rolled out in January 2012, Hall said participants prepared all four courses. “We were here till midnight. That was the first and only time that happened,” he said, chuckling. Since then Hall, with the help of culinary assistant Shane Engebrecht, has been teaching participants how to cook the main course and he prepares the other three.
After a demonstration on how to cook the night’s entrée, participants step up to the stove together and practice their newfound skills. They then enjoy the meal they’ve prepared together at a candlelit table for two.
The event, usually held on a Friday or Saturday night, includes overnight accommodations and a continental breakfast the following morning. Cost is $125 per person. Private sessions, with four people minimum, are available based on Hall’s schedule, he noted.
Table for Two is open to six couples. “We could expand it, but it’s just like a good restaurant in a small space,” Hall said. “Typically, when they move to a larger location, it doesn’t do as well. There’s a charm about staying booked. It creates a buzz and gets people interested in what we’re doing.”
Hall’s teaching philosophy is focused on sharing all aspects of food, from where it comes from to the history of how it becomes a popular item to cook. Hall studied music at the University of Central Arkansas but found his passion in the culinary world when he started working at A Place to Eat (now Mike’s Place). He’s been in the industry for 26 years. “I stay stuck with food because I like to learn,” he said. “It’s not just about cooking food, it’s math, arts and humanities, botany, physiology, history.”
“I stay stuck with food because I like to learn. It’s just not about cooking food, it’s math, arts and humanities, botany physiology and history”. – Chef Robert Hall
Casey and Andrew Cheffins of Little Rock have learned a lot from Hall. The couple heard about Table for Two from her brother, who knew how much they liked to cook, Casey said. “We were about to have our daughter and decided to do a little get-a-way. We fell in love with Chef Hall’s humor and knowledge of food (as well as Chef Shane!),” she noted.
Casey, a pre-k teacher at Small Blessings Learning Academy, said she was surprised at the tips she learned. “You learn specific strategies to use in the kitchen, along with random knowledge you never knew you were missing. I’ve also taken a few of the skills classes (soup and knife), which I loved as well.”
She added that she and Andrew, COO of 10 Fitness, have a “blast every time, no matter what is on the menu.” A bonus is bonding with classmates, Casey said.
“On one of our visits, we stayed up after class and sat outside on the patio just chatting and enjoying the company of new friendships. Since then, we have talked multiple friends into joining us and try to go as often as possible. Another activity we enjoy is exploring the property. The land that it is located on is beautiful. I recommend exploring the area either before or the day after class.”
Fred Fisher, a retiree from Conway, was looking for the perfect anniversary gift for his wife, Cathy, when he read about Table for Two in the newspaper. “We both enjoy giving each other memories rather than gifts that are soon overlooked and forgotten, and we both enjoy cooking and eating good foods. What better gift for her?”
After their first visit, Fred said they were “hooked.” “Watching Chef Hall and seeing his passion for food and its preparation was a learning experience and he made the endeavor fun.”
Since that first visit three years ago, Fred, with Cathy in attendance sometimes, has attended more than 100 cooking classes. “Cooking has become a very enjoyable hobby,” he said. “Preparing meals for friends and family and then enjoying their company has been very rewarding. I have Chef Hall, his staff and the culinary program at the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute to thank for that.”
Patricia and Tim Parmley, who live in the St. Vincent community north of Morrilton, are Table for Two regulars. Tim is a retired obstetrics and gynecology professor and Patricia still works as a pediatrician. Like Fred he discovered the cooking program at WRI by reading an article in the paper.
“He signed up for Cooking 101 and came home telling me things about cooking that I had never heard, and I had been cooking for more than 40 years,” Patricia said. “I signed up for the next round of classes, which was Baking 101 in the evenings. We were hooked. We tried one of the Table for Twos, just to see if we would like it. We loved it.”
Information about other culinary programs, such as the Made from Scratch series and special events be found online at rockefellerinstitute.org
By Jillian Mcgehee :: Photography by Cindy Momchilov
Photo: Chef Robert Hall teaches at a recent Table For Two event, where guests learn culinary skills and then enjoy their creations.