Chefs are a funny lot.
They’re often known for being fussy, ill-tempered or demanding. I’ve been around more than a handful, and even the more even-tempered ones often get a little hairy when it’s time to cook.
And then there’s Justin Patterson of Southern Gourmasian.
Working in an unusual setup inside Little Rock Urban Farming’s garage-barn-event room Saturday night, Justin was as calm and cool as a cucumber fresh out of the abundant adjoining gardens.
“You could finish these [ceviche cups],” he asked/directed me. “Each one just needs a couple pieces of pickled watermelon, and then a green onion.”
Task requests toward his own staff were similar. I noted his repeated use of phrases like “you could” or “would you mind.”
The event, a fundraiser for Little Rock Urban Farming’s new non-profit venture, the Southern Center for Agroecology, was equally laid-back, with visitors in t-shirts, suits and sundresses touring the unassuming Hillcrest digs. Our cooking space intertwined with the guests’ buffet of buttermilk fried okra, steamed mussels and fresh, ripe sliced tomatoes, picked just feet away. Open doors allowed a slight breeze with hints of basil from the rows just outside.
Also on the menu was a crispy cheese-and-potato pancake of sorts (a frico, I learned), which Justin had me assemble. I should note that all the hard parts — the lengthy prep of peeling and grating potatoes and slicing beets and carrots, just to start — had already been done. I got the heady honor of putting it all together and serving it to guests, who often wandered a little too close as I flipped them on the cooktop.
The frico dish featured garlic montasio by local cheesemaker Kent Walker, as well as a gorgeous slaw of candy cane beets and carrots grown right there at Little Rock Urban Farming. It was just one of several simple yet brilliantly devised dishes celebrating the local harvest.
And that was just the idea, according to LRUF founder Chris Hiryak, waxing poetic before the event began. “One of the most beautiful things you can do with locally grown produce is put it in the hands of a chef who really transforms it,” he said.
It helps when the chef is a calm, creative genius. More on that and his excellent staff next time.