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Iron Chef 2015 at the Arkansas Hospitality Association Convention

17 Sep
Final plate by Chef Casey Copeland

Final winning plate by Chef Casey Copeland of SO Restaurant & Bar in Little Rock.

Iron Chef Arkansas! One of the coolest competitions all year. It’s time for some food photos and feats of culinary strength. If you’re unfamiliar, this competition takes place on the floor of the annual  Arkansas Hospitality Association Vendor Showcase and Convention. Eight chefs of AHA member restaurants, clubs or catering operations from across the state are invited to compete. Through 40-minute heats over two days, the chefs must use the ingredients of a mystery basket and show their skills and creativity.

But first, a mea culpa…

I admit it, I haven’t blogged much lately. The blogging experts always say not to acknowledge it or apologize for it, but it’s just true. Things are going well for, and I’ve spent my time and energy there. (Plus there’s a whole burnout thing with food blogging for so many years.)

All that to say, I’m sitting right now at the Arkansas Hospitality Association Vendor Showcase and Convention, as I have for many years now. The first day of the show, yesterday, I spent my time at the booth helping candidates and employers get registered on our site. Today, I need to get back to my first love! Some of the chefs yesterday even asked me about the blog. One even said his wife and friends usually follow my live coverage each year (ouch).

As the day goes on, I will update this post with yesterday’s winners, photos of dishes, and the details of today’s competition. Stay tuned, and watch on Instagram or Twitter at @arfoodie.

Wednesday, Sept. 16

Heat 1:

  • Chef Gilbert Alaquinez, Sous Chef at Clinton Presidential Center
  • Chef Shane Curley, Sous Chef at Tusk & Trotter
  • Chef Jason Knapp, Executive Chef at Sysco Arkansas
  • Chef Brian Kumrow, Sous Chef at Southland Park Gaming & Racing

Mystery Basket: 1855 Ribeye, Figs, Masa, Cauliflower.
Chef Shane Curley was eliminated.

Heat 2: 

  • Chef Jeff Caruso, Executive Chef at Little Rock Marriott
  • Chef Casey Copeland, Executive Chef at SO Restaurant & Bar
  • Chef Justus Moll, Executive Chef at River Grille Steakhouse
  • Chef Breck Hatcher, Executive Chef at YaYa’s Eurobistro

Mystery Basket: Trout, Baby Kale, Cucumber, Grapefruit.
Chef Breck Hatcher was eliminated.

Heat 3: 

  • Chef Justus Moll, Executive Chef at River Grille Steakhouse
  • Chef Gilbert Alaquinez, Sous Chef at Clinton Presidential Center
  • Chef Jason Knapp, Executive Chef at Sysco Arkansas

Mystery Basket: Crystal Lake Farms Chicken, Duck Bacon, Mushrooms, Beets.
Chef Justus Moll was eliminated.

Heat 4: 

  • Chef Casey Copeland, Executive Chef at SO Restaurant & Bar
  • Chef Jeff Caruso, Executive Chef at Little Rock Marriott
  • Chef Brian Kumrow, Sous Chef at Southland Park Gaming & Racing

Mystery Basket: 1885 Strip, Butternut Squash, Horseradish Root, Asparagus.
Chef Brian Kumrow was eliminated.

Thursday, Sept. 17

Heat 5: 

  • Chef Casey Copeland, Executive Chef at SO Restaurant & Bar
  • Chef Jeff Caruso, Executive Chef at Little Rock Marriott

Mystery Basket: Arborio Rice, Muscadine Juice, Jicama, 1885 Skirt Steak
Chef Jeff Caruso was eliminated. Chef Copeland will move forward to the final heat.

Heat 6: 

  • Chef Gilbert Alaquinez, Sous Chef at Clinton Presidential Center
  • Chef Jason Knapp, Executive Chef at Sysco Arkansas

Mystery Basket: Salmon, Dragonfruit, Rambutan, Rice, Stick Pasta, Watermelon
Chef Jason Knapp was eliminated. Chef Gilbert Alaquinez will move forward to the final heat.


  • Chef Gilbert Alaquinez, Sous Chef at Clinton Presidential Center vs.
  • Chef Casey Copeland, Executive Chef at SO Restaurant & Bar

Mystery Basket: Whole Duck, Canned Truffles, Yukon Gold Potatoes, Arugula

WINNER: Chef Casey Copeland, Executive Chef at SO Restaurant & Bar

Watch the winner announcement here.


Gluten Free Options at the Greek Food Festival

13 May

When I think of the Greek Food Festival, I think of my wedding day.

Of course, I had absolutely no intention of attending the festival that year, which began the day before our nuptials. A girl can’t be bothered when she’s got to rest up, get her hair done and spend the rest of the day at the church-house getting ready to marry her best bud. Then, we’d be off to our honeymoon; no time for a stop-off.

My husband-to-be, however, couldn’t stay away. The siren call of baklava and (unironically) wedding cookies was too much to handle. The morning of our wedding, while my bridesmaids and I fretted and prepared, he hauled down to the Greek Orthodox Church in search of goodies. He loves to tell the story: He walked up and asked if he could buy some things, despite the fact that they weren’t quite open yet. A couple sweet, older Greek ladies started to tell him no, but he told them (with a super-cute face, I’m sure) that it was his wedding day. They oohed, awed, and relented. That white paper bag of awesome fueled much of our honeymoon.

Some years later, I found out that I wasn’t supposed to eat gluten anymore, so baklava and cookies were off-limits. We still attend the festival and find other things for me to eat, and there are always plenty of activities and shows to keep our whole family busy.

This year, the Greek Food Festival folks tell me that there are a few items that are safe for gluten-intolerant folks like myself, given you aren’t exceedingly sensitive to cross-contamination. Fellow GF’ers, I present to you your weekend to-eat list:

These side dishes take center stage for GF patrons prepared with proper crackers or raw veggies.

These side dishes take center stage for GF patrons prepared with proper crackers or raw veggies.

Hummus dip (without the pita bread, obvs) and tabbouleh salad from the Jerusalem Café. Let’s face it, Greek folks know how to do hummus. With a little foresight, you can enjoy this right alongside your gluten-eating family. Just swing by Dempsey or your favorite grocer to pick up some GF crackers, and you’re all set. (I prefer Dempsey’s cracker bread, BTW. It’s so good, my whole family eats it.)

Tender lamb, savory potatoes and more. Just minus the pita, please.

Tender lamb, savory potatoes and more. Just minus the pita, please.

Roast lamb dinner—Sliced roasted lambserved with Greek-style vegetables and oven-roasted potatoes. Again, this is generally served with pita, so be sure to tell the server not to put it on your plate. You’ll have plenty of other yummy options on it. If you need bread to sop up all that goodness, bring some GF something-or-other in your bag. I won’t tell anyone.

Amazing hunks of meat love. Just ask them to leave off the pita.

Amazing hunks of meat love. Just ask them to leave off the pita.

Greek souvlaki/kabobs—Your choice of tender chicken or pork tenderloin, marinated in olive oil and a blend of Greek seasonings, grilled and served on a skewer. Again, be sure to tell the server not to include the usually-mandatory pita on your plate. I think this will be my first choice this weekend. Then again, I may hit all three.

Are you sad about leaving off the pita bread? I mean, it is pretty amazing. Don’t fret, friend! Just make a batch of this gluten free naan I wrote about a while back. Sure, it’s Indian, but honestly naan and pita are pretty close to the same thing. Sneak these into the festival with you and you’re golden.
Are you going to the Greek Food Festival? What are you planning to buy, GF or not?
2015 International Greek Food Festival
Friday, May 15 (11 a.m. – 9 p.m.) through Sunday, May 17 (11 a.m. – 3 p.m.)
Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church
1100 Napa Valley Drive, Little Rock

#ArkansasGives: Give Some, Eat Some for Charity

2 Apr

ArkansasgivesToday the Arkansas Community Foundation is rallying Arkansans, who are traditionally pretty charitable anyways, to commit the day to giving extra to nonprofits who do good work right here in our state.

ArkansasGives is a 12-hour online fundraising event happening today from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Arkansas Community Foundation is challenging all Arkansans to make a donation to their favorite charity on a single day, and they are adding bonus dollars and prizes on top of the money that comes in from the public. More than 350 nonprofits are participating, and they’re all driving their donors to give via, where the ACF will be tallying the donations in real-time and posting them on leaderboards.

So, what does this have to do with food? Well, for one, many food-related charities are benefiting. My favorite, the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance, manages all the No Kid Hungry / Cooking Matters programs in the state, of which I have taught more than a few. Whichever food-related charity you’re drawn to, today is a great day to ensure their operations.

Need more motivation? How about food trucks?

The ArkansasGives event headquarters are at AT&T’s building at 1111 W. Capital, and they have given permission to have four food trucks set up out front during lunch (11 – 1:30). Each of the trucks has chosen a participating ArkansasGives charity they will support with 10% of their proceeds from the day.

Participating trucks will include Southern Salt, Loblolly Ice Cream, Hot Rod Wieners and Katmandu Momo.

So, donate, rally supporters of your favorite charity, and come on out for a lunch that gives!

Diamond Chef growing right along with Arkansas’ food scene

23 Mar

The kind folks at the Arkansas Times (hat tip to fellow foodie and new full-time food editor Michael Roberts) allowed me to do a writeup in the venerable Eat Arkansas blog today, talking a bit about Pulaski Technical College’s Diamond Chef competition.

Diamond Chef is important to our local food scene for lots of reasons, including some you may not know. ::Cough community college funding cough:: I hope you’ll read all about it.

Check it out!

Competitors Announced for 2015 Diamond Chef Arkansas

28 Jan

Diamond ChefArkansas’ biggest culinary competition is gearing up for its 2015 season: Diamond Chef Arkansas.

This annual event is a fundraiser for the Pulaski Technical College Foundation and is tied closely with the college’s Culinary Arts and Hospitality Management Institute, which will host the preliminary competition on Tuesday, March 31, 2 – 8 p.m.

The preliminary event whittles down a large field of contenders in double-elimination style, with a full docket of the state’s best culinary talent (see below). That day’s winner will compete one-on-one against 2014 Diamond Chef winner Marc Guizol of the Capital Hotel in the finale, held Tuesday, June 2 at the Statehouse Convention Center.

Competitors in this year’s preliminaries include:

  • Billy Ginocchio, Faculty, PTC Culinary Arts and Hospitality Management Institute
  • Payne Harding, Executive Chef, Cache
  • Elliot Jones, Executive Chef, YaYa’s Euro Bistro
  • Angela Nardi, Executive Chef, Superior Bath House Brewery & Distillery
  • Justin Patterson, Executive Chef, Southern Gourmasian
  • Jason Knapp, Executive Chef, The Green Leaf Grill

The preliminary event is casual, open to anyone, and free to attend, which I highly recommend if you have even the slightest love for fine food and friendly (albeit heated) competition. Just drop in anytime from 2 to 8 p.m. at the culinary school on March 31.


Diamond Chef Arkansas Preliminary Competition
Pulaski Technical College – Culinary Arts and Hospitality Management Institute
13000 Interstate 30, Little Rock
Tuesday, March 31, 2 – 8 p.m.
FREE admission, drop in anytime
(501) 812-2860

Pulaski Tech hosts Food Day to discuss community, health and economy

22 Oct

Food DayPulaski Technical College’s Culinary Arts and Hospitality Management Institute will host a Food Day panel discussion and food demonstrations with chefs, farmers and doctors on Oct. 23 to discuss how food choices affect the community, environment, economy, and public health.

The discussion begins at 11 a.m. Thursday, Oct. 23, in the Celebrity Chef Theatre at the Culinary Arts and Hospitality Institute, 13000 Interstate 30.

The panelists are Jack Sundell, chef/owner of The Root Café; Jody Hardin, a farmer for St. Joseph Farm and Farm and Food Innovation Center; Dr. Meenakshi Budhraja, gastroenterologist and nutrition educator; and Chef Suzanne Campbell, a culinary instructor at Pulaski Technical College.

The discussion will focus on food safety, health, seasonal cooking, and food preservation. Questions will be accepted from the audience, and the panelists will provide a cooking demonstration using locally grown products.

The event is being held in conjunction with Food Day, a nationwide celebration and a movement for healthy, affordable, and sustainable food. The event is free and open to the public. To reserve a seat, contact Kendal Haycook (501) 812-2860 or email

Matt Cooper of Cache wins 2014 Iron Chef Competition

18 Sep

Iron Chef wordsUPDATE: Chef Matt Cooper of Cache has won the 2014 Iron Chef Competition.

I saw from my search terms that some of you are wondering where in the world my Iron Chef coverage might be. I’ve been working at the trade show mainly on behalf of, but I had to at least attend the final round of competition for Iron Chef. I’m excited to participate in the last and best round!

The finalists are Chef Matt Cooper of Cache and Chef Marc Guizol, both of whom are Iron Chef alumni. Guizol is the winner of the Iron Chef competition in 2013.

The final mystery basket contains:

  • Pumpkin
  • Molasses
  • Farro
  • Almonds
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Pork Brisket

The chefs have 40 minutes to create a dish with these ingredients. See photos and plate descriptions below.

Final dish by Matt Cooper of Cache

Final dish by Matt Cooper of Cache

Matt Cooper’s dish:

Risotto style pumpkin farro
Marinated pork with chiles, fennel, paprika, molasses
Pumpkin and fennel moustarda
Pumpkin seed and almond gremolata

Final dish by Marc Guizol of Capital Hotel

Final dish by Marc Guizol of Capital Hotel

Marc Guizol’s dish:

Pork two ways, BBQ and Asian
Potato chips and pumpkin chips
Brussels sprouts with truffle oil
Farro with shiitake mushrooms, orange, cinnamon and almond

WINNER: Matt Cooper of Cache.

Capital Hotel’s Guizol wins Diamond Chef 2014 (Updated)

3 Jun
Diamond Chef 2014 winner Marc Guizol (center) with sous Patrick Kelly and Adrienne Rogers.

Diamond Chef 2014 winner Marc Guizol (center) with sous Zachary Pullam and Adrienne Rogers.

Chef Marc Guizol, sous chef at the Capital Hotel, has won the 2014 Diamond Chef final competition. His competitor was Chef Dan Capello of the Chenal Country Club.

This year’s secret ingredient was lobster, and Guizol and Capello did not disappoint with their variations on the theme. However, before the ingredient was revealed, an even bigger twist: Each chef had to trade one sous chef to the opposing team. Chenal’s Patrick Kelly ended up working with Guizol, and Capital Hotel’s Zachary Pullam switched over to Capello.

Each team was given 20 minutes to prepare each course, which was then presented to the team of judges.

1st Course CollageFirst Course

Chef Capello’s team presented a lobster spring roll with a lemon sour cream sauce. Guizol’s team presented lobster tartare with a peanut butter sauce.

2nd Course Collage

Second Course

Capello presented an in-shell lobster tail with a slaw of microgreens and guacamole, and a fried zucchini flower stuffed with goat cheese. Guizol offered a coconut-milk based soup with a lobster tail and lobster mousseline, garnished with lobster roe, and a roe-garnished crisp. (Many thanks to Lennon Parker of Pulaski Tech for sharing his photos of this course.)

3rd Course CollageThird Course

Capello presented a crab claw and knuckle ragu with mushroom, tomato and bacon; a corn and lobster flan; and a celeriac, French truffle and quail egg yolk ravioli with a celeriac truffle crumble, garnished with thyme, celery and borage flowers.

Guizol presented a smoked lobster claw with roe presented caviar style, a fresh winter Australian truffle ravioli with foie gras, and porcini mushroom garnish.

Finale Diamond Chef Arkansas Score SlideScoring

Guizol won with a final total score of 83.8 out of a possible 100 points, compared to Capello’s 78.67 points.

I got to overhear some of the judges’ conversations while taking photos and getting plate descriptions, and the competition was tight. It seemed to come down to a few minor technical errors on Capello’s part and more well-executed dishes on Guizol’s side.

I don’t envy the chefs or their sous at all. This is an extremely high-pressure event, and I certainly would not want to pick apart each dish like the judges must. They are presented with near-perfect dishes from Arkansas’ best chefs, and they are forced to find what little things may have been wrong.

Once again, Diamond Chef has shown us just what amazing culinary talent we have right here in Arkansas, all benefiting Pulaski Technical College’s Culinary Arts and Hospitality Management Institute so they can keep adding more talent to our market.

PHOTOS: See below for candid shots and more from the event. Please do not republish without permission.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Diamond Chef 2014 Pits Capello, Guizol this Tuesday

1 Jun

Disclaimer: Although I’ve attended for free for years as a student or volunteer, this year marks the first time I’ll be sitting at a “big kid” table at Diamond Chef. Organizers offered me a ticket in exchange for my normal coverage, so I’m telling you and the FTC powers that be. Sorry for two “sponsored” things in a row, technically.


It’s time once again for that iconic culinary throwdown, the Diamond Chef competition final, this year pitting Executive Chef Daniel Capello of Chenal Country Club against Executive Sous Chef Marc Guizol of the Capital Hotel. The ticketed event will be held this Tuesday, June 3, 6 p.m. at the Statehouse Convention Center. Tickets are still available, $200 each or $2,000 for a table of 10.

Diamond Chef is a fundraising event for the Pulaski Technical College Foundation, specifically for the Culinary Arts and Hospitality Management Institute, or CAHMI (Read: “Cammie”) for short. If you know me at all, you know I’ve got quite the soft spot for CAHMI, being a graduate and now sitting on the advisory board. Every dollar raised at Diamond Chef helps students have the equipment and opportunities they need to be the well-trained workforce that Arkansas deserves.

I’ve had the privilege of covering the Diamond Chef event for several years now (excepting last year, when I was at Disney World — my bad), since my days as a culinary arts student at Pulaski Tech. Since then, the event has become even bigger, better and more fun!

Students and faculty line both sides of the doors while welcoming Diamond Chef guests.

Students and faculty line both sides of the doors while welcoming Diamond Chef guests.

The event starts with a cocktail hour in the lobby, giving attendees a chance to mingle and start bidding on the well-stocked silent auction. Later, attendees are ushered into the ballroom, flanked on both sides by CAHMI students and faculty in their white chef coats. The guests are then seated at round tables for 10 while dining on a multi-course meal. (And because I know you’re wondering, none of these meals are made by the frantically-competing chefs, just by the amazingly talented culinary staff at Statehouse.)

While you watch, the two finalists, each with two sous chefs, are presented with the one secret ingredient that must be used in every dish presented that night, and they have but 60 minutes in which to do it. At least three courses are required, but being the overachievers that they are, we often see more. A panel of expert judges will score the chefs on creativity, taste and presentation, while Chef Andre Poirot of Crowne Plaza Little Rock will serve as a technical judge, scoring the chefs on sanitation and organization. Note: I’ve seen chefs lose by a fraction of a point for sanitation. It matters!

The seated part of the event also includes a live auction, filled with fantasy prizes and trips for foodies. (I swear, one day I’ll bid on a trip to eat at the renowned French Laundry, if that auction item appears again.)

I hear you…”Wasn’t there a Diamond Chef just a few weeks ago?” Well, yes, gentle reader; I’m glad you remember. That was the preliminaries, an exciting, multi-round free event that chooses this year’s challenger to the previous year’s Diamond Chef champion. See, here’s a selfie I took with Chef Guizol just after his big win!

We were having a silly moment. He was pretty happy. He also said his out-of-town friends saw everything on Fancy Pants Foodie!

We were having a silly moment. He was pretty happy. He also said his out-of-town friends saw everything on Fancy Pants Foodie!

At this preliminary event and at other food events around town, I’ve been amazed at Chef Guizol’s skill. It’s a testament to the stacked deck of awesome over at the Capital Hotel that someone of his stature is second in command (to Executive Chef Joel Antunes) and is flanked by tournant (or roundsman, basically a chef who can do anything at any station) Arturo Solis, whose performance at last year’s AHA Culinary Classic was as astounding as any head chef in town.

Guizol came away as the winner of last year’s Arkansas Hospitality Association Iron Chef competition, so he’ll be a formidable competitor at this year’s Diamond Chef.

Meanwhile, Chef Daniel Capello is a Diamond Chef legend. He won the title last year as well as in 2010, and has long been active in culinary competitions and other events such as Wildwood’s Wine and Food Festival, CAHMI’s Chef Ball, and the March of Dimes Signature Chef event.

The main thing that stands out to me about Capello is his generosity to the local food community. If you are a culinary student or up-and-coming chef in Arkansas, chances are you’ve had the chance to visit with him and glean from his experience. His attendance at all the aforementioned events show that he’s not too busy or too good to share the culinary wealth.

I hope you’l join me this Tuesday at the Diamond Chef final event. It’s a great event for a great cause. Our students at CAHMI very much appreciate your support of their education!


Diamond Chef Final
benefiting Pulaski Technical College
Culinary Arts and Hospitality Management Institute
Statehouse Convention Center
6-10 p.m. (Cocktails from 6-7)
$200 each / $2000 for a table of 10

Bake Sale Results, Cheese-Off, and a Helena Pop-Up

9 May

BakeSale_wordmark_alternate_rgb_Domino_CH_horizArkansas Blogger Bake Sale Results

I am happy to report that, as of this writing, we are hovering around the $2,600 mark for this year’s Arkansas Blogger Bake Sale for No Kid Hungry!

While we’re a little shy of our $3,000 goal, it’s still a great haul, and it’s more than we raised last year. Many, many thanks to our committee members, volunteers, bakers, donors and everyone involved!

If you’d still like to help, I’m not closing our sale until next Friday, May 16. You can donate cash directly to No Kid Hungry at this link, and it will credit to our fundraiser. Share with your friends and co-workers!

(One day soon I’ll tell the side-story for that day…short version: I stepped out for a couple hours to hang out with MC Hammer, for business reasons.)

Get Cheesed Off: Pimento Cheese Competition and Tasting 

While at the sale, the PR Maven at Historic Arkansas Museum dropped by to pick up some goodies and tell us about some goings on this weekend. Every year, the day before Mother’s Day, the museum holds an awesome event, the Territorial Fair. (Seriously, if you have kids — or even if you don’t — you have to go!)

This year, they are adding an even more savory element: A pimento cheese competition. Oh my word.

Competitors include Dizzy’s Gypsy Bistro, Hillcrest Artisan Meats and Capital Hotel Bar and Grill. Visitors to the Territorial Fair can sample all the pimento cheese entries from 1 to 4 p.m., voting for a People’s Choice award to be given at the end of the day.

The Territorial Fair and the Pimento Cheese-Off are free. Historic Arkansas Museum is located at 200 E. Third Street in Little Rock.


The original Interstate Grocery, which was the first sponsor of the King Biscuit Time radio show. This storefront will be the location of tomorrow night’s pop-up.

It’s Sold Out, And It’s So Cool: “Interstate Grocery” Pop-Up in Helena

Saturday night, Helena will host what’s likely one of the hottest culinary tickets in the state, a night with Chefs Shane Henderson and Jason Godwin. Henderson is currently a chef with food wholesaler Ben E. Keith (but you probably remember him as the opening chef for Argenta Market), and Godwin has experience in catering and restaurants, best known as the chef proprietor of Dogtown Coffee and Cookery.

They’ll serve four courses of Delta-centric delights at this sold-out event, meant to highlight not only the foods of the region, but also the success a similar permanent restaurant might enjoy in the area. Tickets were $30.

Julia Malinowski, director of the Helena Advertising and Promotion Commission, hopes the event will bring attention to the city’s potential for a “date night” type restaurant.

“Many of our residents are traveling 45 minutes to Greenville (Miss.), where investors have opened up opportunities for several restaurants to open,” she said. “We have some people willing to invest right here in Helena in a great restaurant if just the right person comes along.”

While it’s too late to join the party this Saturday, it’s pretty much a done deal that there will be more. Watch this space for details (with more notice next time, my bad) on future events.