El Dorado native, Chef Titus Holly, 33, sees his work with two of Little Rock’s hottest restaurants as a natural transition from a full-blown food lover as a child to creator of great food to a food master. He uses his culinary skills at The Pantry and The Pantry Crest, offering Czech- and German-inspired cuisine. A confessed workaholic with a Zen-like demeanor, Holly took a break to talk about his lifelong passion … food.
How would you describe your chef journey?
I’ve been cooking professionally for 12 years. I went to the culinary school in Little Rock that preceded Pulaski Tech’s. I’ve actually done more of an apprenticeship of on-the-job training, learning needed skills in real time. I started professionally at Simply The Best Catering, then the Embassy Suites Hotel and as sous chef at SO Restaurant and Bar, where I met The Pantry and The Pantry Crest founder Tomas Bohm. I’ve been here for eight years.
Why did you want to be a chef?
I think it was my calling as a child. I loved to eat then; I still love to eat. I was always in the kitchen with my aunt Jacqueline from as young as I can remember. I was her official taste tester. I was always observing her cooking; she knew she could count on me to be there to taste, so I’ve grown up around food. I just knew I enjoyed cooking and eating. Everyone who knows me knows that all of my life stories revolve around food.
What appeals to you about working at The Pantry?
My favorite thing is just being in a good working environment. All day long, we’re joking and enjoying each other. They’re just good wholesome people. When I started, I didn’t know about cooking Czech or German foods, it’s been a learning curve that Tomas showed me, and I took it from there.
At the time, Tomas was general manager at So Bar and Restaurant. He saw how hard I worked and what a strong work ethic I had. I was just a little over a year out of culinary school and most of my work at that time was in fine dining. Tomas showed me what his expectations were and here we are today.
What do you like to cook?
I’m still deep down a country boy. I like to cook smothered pork chops, macaroni and cheese, greens and purple hull peas. On my personal time, I like to smoke meats at home. I find it very relaxing, sitting on the patio with my smoker. It’s my peace of mind. It’s relaxing because it’s totally different than what I do here.
Do you try and bring a bit of that country cooking to The Pantry and The Pantry Crest?
I’ve tired to but I’ve realized over the years most cuisines have similar ingredients, the preparation is just a little different. My favorite dish here is the roasted pork shoulder. I love pork! You can take the boy out of the country but I’m country through and through. I would compare that to pork chops. It’s roasted and we serve it with cabbage and potato dumplings. The dumplings would be similar to having cornbread.
So, what’s the issue with diners and food with bones?
It sounds crazy, but people don’t want bones in their meat or fish! When I do specials, people are real picky about meat with a bone in it. If I do a chef’s bowl and it has a bone in it (a chop, chicken, fish) and the bone comes back clean, that makes me feel incredible and humbled. You know now everything comes boneless, skinless. What’s crazy is we serve fresh salmon, and people are stunned there may be an occasional bone in it. They’re real animals and real fish with bones! (Laughing) People are stuck on wanting this boneless, skinless thing. I don’t get it, because when a bone is in meat or fish the taste is better. There’s a difference in the taste of a catfish fillet and a catfish steak because the bone in the steak causes the catfish to be much more flavorful. Try it.
Is it difficult for you to slow down?
Yes! When you’re working in restaurants everything is hurried and timed – cooking food, getting food to guests, clearing tables, etc. I even eat faster because of the sense of urgency that’s part of this business. It takes balance, especially as a manager and chef. I try not to take my work home. It took me a long time to learn to keep family and work time separate.
What do you cook at home?
It’s difficult for me to cook at home because it’s typically late when I get there and I intentionally keep few cooking supplies at home. So, if I want to cook I have to go to the store. My wife and I are constantly saying ‘What do you want for dinner?’ and neither one of us ever know. (Laughing)
So, I go into the grocery store and literally walk around for 30 minutes trying to figure out what inspires me. I usually end up making tacos or something simple.
Do you listen to music while cooking?
I do listen to music at home. The music I listen to just depends on what mood I’m in at the time. It can range from Two Chains to my Al Green channel on Pandora. That channel relaxes me. It’s upbeat with a nice balance of music.
What excites you?
When someone comes into our restaurants and I can make their life better, especially if they had a bad day; it’s instant gratification for me. Knowing they had a good time, enjoyed their favorite glass of wine or beer; they got great food; great service . . . and if the plate comes back to the kitchen empty that’s great!
Do you get to meet your diners often?
One of the funniest things to me is every now and then I visit guests and introduce myself, “Hi, I’m Titus and I’m the chef.” The look on their faces is priceless. You know being the country boy from El Dorado that I am, I’m not what they’re expecting.
What makes your restaurants unique?
We’re consistent. Tomas has nailed that in my brain. There are places were people visit a restaurant and the food tastes three different ways depending on who’s cooking. Aside from the fact that each location has it’s own personality, I’ve had people say the The Pantry is like coming home and The Pantry Crest is like being in New York or Chicago.
You’re opened until midnight which is all but unheard of in Arkansas. Why?
I had no decision in staying open that late! (Laughing) But, it’s awesome. It’s hard to find good food after 10 p.m.
Can you eat out and actually enjoy your meal?
When I travel, I’ll spend half an hour googling or search Trip Advisor to find a place. I want to make sure the food is good so I’m reading reviews. My wife, Disheker, will ask, “On a scale of 1-10 rate it.” And, if I’m at a restaurant with an open kitchen, I have to sit with my back away from it; otherwise I’m virtually managing. (Laughing)
By Brigette Williams :: Photography by Jamison Mosley.
Photo: Chef Holly relaxes at the end of a long day at The Pantry Crest in Hillcrest with a little Crow Royal ‘neat.’