French chef Joël Antunes has more than 30 years of experience under his belt. He has trained under the best (think Michel Troisgros, Pierre Gagnaire and Paul Bocuse), traveled the world and run his own restaurants. After a decade working with these French culinary masters, Antunes moved to Asia to work at Mandarin Oriental, Bangkok’s Le Normandie restaurant. He also spent time at Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star Raffles Singapore. Antunes opened his first restaurant, Les Saveurs, in London in 1991, where he garnered numerous awards. Up next, the chef hopped the pond to Atlanta to take up residence at The Dining Room at Four-Star The Ritz-Carlton, Buckhead. In 2000, Antunes opened his eponymous Atlanta restaurant, Joël, which subsequently closed in 2010. While in Atlanta, Joël Antunes won a James Beard Award for Best Chef: Southeast in 2005. The toque headed back to London to serve as a consulting chef to Brasserie Joël in the Park Plaza Westminster Bridge London and Kitchen Joël Antunes at the Embassy Mayfair. He’s currently the executive chef at the Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star Capital Hotel in Little Rock, Arkansas, where he oversees the kitchen at Ashley’s, Capital Bar & Grill and the hotel’s private dining and catering.
How did you get into the culinary world?
When I was a kid, I lived in Africa [and Asia]. But my grandparents had a beautiful farm back home [in the South of France]. My grandmother was an amazing cook. She used to do all the ham, sausage and fresh butter and ice cream. I used to spend a lot of time with her when we’d go back for the holidays. She used to make amazing food.
What inspires you?
Traveling and seeing different cultures inspires me. When I was young, I worked for Pierre Gagnaire, [Michel] Troisgros and [Jacques] Maximin, and I learned everything. But when I traveled all over the world and saw different cultures, I think that was the most important thing. The first time I went to Japan to see the food 25 years ago, I said, “Wow, it looks great and tastes amazing.”
How do you come up with your menus?
I base it on the seasons. I call my supplier — I buy my fish from Pierless [Fish Corp.] and I think it’s the best fish supplier in the U.S. — and I ask him two or three days in advance what is available for the season. It could be beautiful snapper, scallops, oysters, halibut. I like to make my menu with what’s available right now. I don’t like to have something from summer or spring on the [fall or winter] menu.
What’s your favorite cuisine?
I think Mediterranean-style because I’m from the South of France and my father is originally from Portugal. I like Mediterranean food such as olive oil, basil, red pepper and eggplant.
I like fish a lot such as a good fish cooked simply — grilled with olive oil, lemon juice. I like simple food because when you get older, you come back to the simplicity when you are a chef.
What do you love most about your job?
Creativity. Every day, when you receive your fish and meats, and you have to play with what [works]. In my kitchen, we never have cans or frozen produce or anything like that. For me, in the morning, when I make a menu — I change the menu every day — I say, “OK, what do we have today? What can we do the best today?” It gives me a lot of motivation. If I have to do the same thing for 20 years, I cannot do it.
What do you think makes a successful restaurant?
Honest and hard workers. I think it’s 50/50 for food and service. If you have good service and good ambience, people can love the restaurant. Also, the food has to be good quality. I used to run my own restaurant for 16 years — first in London [Les Saveurs], then Atlanta [Joël]. When I was in Atlanta, I won Five Stars from Mobil Travel Guide (now Forbes Travel Guide) [for The Dining Room at The Ritz-Carlton, Buckhead]. You have to work very hard to get there. You have to be consistent. For me, consistency is the most important thing.
Are you ever inspired by wine to create a dish?
Yes, I think it’s very important. I think in America, you have amazing red wine — it’s very, very good. I’m not crazy about the white wine in America. But when you have a wine with different tastes and powers, you have to be careful which dish you’re going to make for this wine. I know the French wine much better; but if I have a very mineral, buttery wine, you have to serve something to match with that. I like turbot with Jean-Pierre Grossot Chablis or Dugat-Py Charmes-Chambertin because when you cook some turbot with a little olive oil and lemon, the balance between both can be amazing.
How do you order when you go out to a restaurant?
I always ask if they have a special of the day because most of the time when great chefs make a special of the day, they are just getting those ingredients the same day and they are trying to show what they can do with that. It’s usually the most interesting thing on the menu. One that particularly blew me away was the lièvre (hare) à la royale at Roland Durand’s restaurant, Passiflore, in Paris. It was served with Grange des Pères wine.
What are the best things to do in Little Rock?
Cycling. I like going to the north. You have beautiful mountains 25 miles from here. It’s very nice — no traffic, great hills. You can cycle all year, but I like the summer because I can wear my speedo and ride with my friend Alain. I also like to run like Forrest Gump.
What’s your favorite time of year in Little Rock?
[Fall] — blue skies, 65 or 70 degrees every day, it’s perfect. It gets cold during the night sometimes — 45 degrees — but it’s 65 or 70 during the day. [In early November], it was 74 degrees [with a] blue sky. It was very, very nice.
What are your favorite restaurants in Little Rock?
ZAZA [Fine Salad + Wood-Oven Pizza Co.] — they make great pizza. I get the pizza with tomatoes, Parmesan cheese, Parma ham, arugula and olive oil. It’s simple. South on Main does a good job as well. I love the ambience here, and the pig’s trotters are great, too.
What is the food scene like in Little Rock?
It’s very Southern and Cajun. It’s a little bit like New Orleans because it’s very close. People like catfish, crawfish, shrimp, collard greens and spicy foods.
Photo Courtesy of Joël Antunes