‘Braising’ the bar: Bentonville’s chefs, hospitality nominated for James Beard Awards


There are Oscars for movie stars, Grammys for musicians and Pulitzers for journalists. And then there are the James Beard Foundation Awards, the highest marks for chefs in America. Nominations are highly selective, and winners rare.

This year, three Arkansas entities earned nominations (alas, not awards, which were announced in June). Chef Rafael Rios of Yeyo’s Mexican Street Food and Chef Matthew McClure of The Hive at 21c Museum Hotel were both nominated for Best Chef South, while The Preacher’s Son received a nod for Best Hospitality. All three of these restaurants are located in Bentonville, which has seen an extraordinary growth and evolution to its culinary scene in the past 10 years.

While other Arkansas chefs have previously received JBF nominations, this is the first time three chefs in Arkansas have been recognized at once, let alone three from the same city.

Chef Rafael Rios, Yeyo’s Mexican Street Food

With his farm-to-table cooking approach, Chef Rafael Rios of Yeyo’s Mexican Street Food in Bentonville is a first-time James Beard Award nominee.

Northwest Arkansas is blessed with a wide array of Mexican restaurants. But there’s nothing quite like the operation Rios has put together with his family. It incorporates authentic flavors from his Michoacán, Mexico, roots with produce from his family farm.

Rios, his parents and siblings moved from Mexico to California when he was 14. In 2006, they collectively sought a more affordable place to live and farm, and The Natural State was a natural choice.

“The cost of living with a good working class — that brought us here,” Rios says, adding Arkansas also offered “peace of mind, the ability to have land that feels like home.”

Rios and his family came to Arkansas after researching the best place to farm in America. “My youngest brother got into real estate,” Rios shares. “He got a house in Bentonville. We sold the house in California, which we purchased for $150,000, for over half a million. With that money, we bought a 16-acre farm and moved here.

“We started producing different kinds of peppers and tomatoes and raised chickens and dairy cows. We started going to the farmer’s market in Rogers in 2008. We were the first nonwhite farmers there ever. It was breaking ground. We met a lot of chefs in the region and started selling to fine dining establishments around here, 16 different varieties of tomatoes, all the root vegetables, all this salad. You just name it, we had it all. They reached out to us.”

Rios joined the Army, and when he retired from the military, he jumped right into culinary school — and into the food truck business.

“We were the first nonwhite food truck, the first Mexican food truck with a farm-to-table approach right in the heart of downtown. It was a blessing that took one year to realize,” he says, adding that city officials and other community members supported them through those early days. “And then the next year, we came back. We had a line out the door, and the farm kept growing and growing.”

As the community helped Rios, he and his family gave back.

“We had our first farm planting party,” he says. “We called all the chefs that were supporting us, and we had them over at the farm, had in some local beers, and we worked hard. That led to a lot of other things — the restaurant in Bentonville, the market, then the mezcaleria in Rogers in 2019 — which was open for a couple of months before having to close for a year.”

The rise of the COVID-19 pandemic meant indoor dining was out. But, through the original food truck business, with its outdoor model and maneuverability, Rios was able to keep the dream alive.

“We sold meals, and members of my family stayed home and made videos with instructions on how to make food,” he says. We did everything — we delivered food, my wife and I, my brothers and sisters, our family coming together.”

Eventually, the pandemic receded, and the Rios family was able to keep going.

“So, we actually have two farms now,” Rios says. “We’re still supporting the farmer’s market and local restaurants. Our farm is run by five of my family members; our food trucks are run by three family members and their employees. The restaurants are run by me and my brother and sister.”

Yeyo’s locations feature facets of art from the Rios family past. Its Eighth Street Market location in Bentonville is fully open, from back of the house through its entire dining room. Its Rogers location is more compact, with masks that adorn the space. Rios explains the photo on the wall by the kitchen in a place of prominence: “Those are the actual hands of my dad. He worked hard. Everything we do is in honor of my dad. He always said you will rest when you die, and when you die, you will rest for so long.”

Yeyo is his father’s nickname, and the inspiration for the name of his restaurant.

“His real name is Hector Rios,” he says. “Ever since I was born, I remember people never called him by name. They always called him Yeyo. And they always have great stories about him. We were raised by my grandma and my grandma’s mom as well. Mom and Dad were seasonal farm workers in California. So, they would leave Michoacán, Mexico, in early March and then be home in November and December, January, February and then leave us again. But they always took care of us.”

Yeyo’s popular street tacos use fresh, local ingredients from Rafael Rios’ family farms and house-made tortillas.

Yeyo’s is influenced by the flavors Rios has encountered in his life, all the way back to childhood.

“I truly believe that the most important thing for me … is to take myself back to the original places where I had some of the most amazing food in Mexico and recreate those by memory.”

One of these memories concerns fish tacos.

“My dad loved greyhound racing, so we’d go and watch the greyhound races and then go and eat fish,” Rios says. “We found this one place by accident, and we’re just starving, and they were so good. That was just one memory I have of the fish tacos. Every time I make fish, I remember that. … Some days people who dine with me say something I made reminded them of something they’ve had somewhere else before, and that allows that conversation. To me, that’s really what it’s all about. That’s my roots and base.”

He adds, “I want to improve the quality of life of people when they eat and see a smile on their face. It also involves the food that nourishes you and that makes you happy. That’s really the main purpose of us existing here.”

That here, being Northwest Arkansas, means Yeyo’s menu is being enjoyed by not only the burgeoning new population base of the area, but by business travelers coming to the area and by tourists who are exploring the region.

“We have an open concept in our kitchen, and it allows people to see what we do,” he says. “It allows people to come on Mondays and watch us make our sauces, our tortillas from scratch. We have a machine that makes 3,000 tortillas an hour, and we run that machine 12 hours per week.”

With crafted sauces, fresh cheeses and vegetables and cooking styles cultivated from a lifetime of memories, Rios and his blossoming enterprises are expanding the lexicon of flavors forming the spectrum of culinary delights in Bentonville.

Chef Neal Gray, The Preacher’s Son

Chef Neal Gray left New York City’s culinary scene for Arkansas. His Bentonville restaurant, The Preacher’s Son, earned a James Beard Award nomination for hospitality.

Returning to Arkansas after a career in New York City wasn’t originally in Neal Gray’s plans, but the pandemic shutdown in 2020 recharted the course of his life.

“My wife and I, we both worked in Manhattan, and we were having a baby when the pandemic hit,” he says. “And, oh, my goodness, my restaurant closed. Her place of work was shut down, and we had a lot of time to sit around with our newborn and think.”

Gray, who was Chef de Cuisine at Simon and the Whale and who has graced tables with his works at the venerated French Laundry in California, Bouchon Bistro in Las Vegas and The Inn at Little Washington in Virginia, looked to an earlier stage in his life for inspiration.

“I was raised in central Arkansas, and my wife and I started thinking about what sort of dramatic changes that we could make in our life, because so much was already changing anyway. That’s when I started looking at Bentonville as an option, because I would often come here to visit my parents.”

Gray spent time connecting with business leaders locally. He was astounded by the growth in the area, and soon started working with Ropeswing, a hospitality group aiming to encourage the growth of regional food and culture in northwest Arkansas.

He says, “The possibilities of working in this emerging market, in a community that was smaller than the communities in New York, a place that could be a little more personable, where we have a great farming community and this sort of burgeoning food culture — I think it was part of the big draw for me.”

Gray had a big role to fill when stepping in at The Preacher’s Son in 2021. The beautifully restored 1907 Christian Church of Bentonville got its name from originating chef Matthew Cooper, a preacher’s son himself. Cooper’s gluten-free menu was brought forth from his celiac disease; he was inspired to create the gluten-free restaurant’s innovative menu from his own personal experiences. The space, beautifully restored by architect Chip Chambers and contractor Brian Soulé, is filled with soft light through gorgeous bird-and-branch, stained-glass work by renowned artist George Dombek. Its concept and innovative use of chapel space, a basement speakeasy and a rooftop deck has rendered the facility a must-visit for hungry visitors from out of town.

While the menu remains gluten-free, Gray doesn’t have a set dish to recommend year-round.

“We don’t have any dishes here that we consider sacred,” he says. “When something comes off the menu, people might clamor over it, but we’re always going to replace it with something that we think is equally delicious or more.

“This serves a lot of purposes. One, it serves the season. Two, we always want to improve upon what we’ve been doing. We should be better now than we were last year. It’s also about challenging ourselves to create things that are better and better, and keeping it really entertaining for the people who come here on a regular basis — because it’s a pretty big menu.”

A culinary twist on a Southern dish, the pimento cheese and potato croquettes, are a popular starter at The Preacher’s Son.

Like Rios, Gray has bought fully into incorporating local produce and proteins into his menus.

“I think the foods that are from this area are definitely the funnest things to work with,” he says. “I get a little more excited when I see our fresh chickens coming in the back door than I do when … the fish comes in from the coast. That really gets our creative juices flowing.

“For me, it’s always about taking something like that and just letting it shine and speak for itself, letting people see the difference between a bird that was raised in a pasture and a bird that was raised among its 1 million other brothers and sisters in a coop.

“Or you know, I think a lot about what Waltina Hanna and their farm down there (Hanna Family Farms) and the beautiful little flock that they have, and we get in lamb now and we make this very, very simple lamb. . … It’s so simple but yet it’s so, so popular and people love it. The lamb is just incredible. It’s so clean. When you smell that lamb roasting in the pan  it’s a very, very unique smell, and it makes my mouth water, so fun.”

Gray aims to keep a focus on accommodating guests — not just those who come for gluten-free dining, but those with other dietary needs.

“The Preacher’s Son is a restaurant for everyone,” Gray shares. “Gluten-free is just one small dietary aspect of many, many dietary restrictions. You have to be ready to accommodate everyone, whether it be peanuts or dairy or gluten or whatever it may be. If (customers want) to have a dish in a particular way, then we look to make it for them, whether it be gluten or any other dietary restriction. We keep descriptions of all of our food in a document that’s accessible to all of our servers: What’s in this? What steps can we take to limit it? … That’s something that we work with our servers on, so the guest can feel comfortable that it’s going to be safe to eat.

“I think that that level of trust is really paramount. And whenever our guests sit down and they order, we have to be in this place of trust. It’s really important just in the kitchen that we don’t break their trust.”

While some restaurants Gray has worked in over the years have been the essence of formal dining, his focus with The Preacher’s Son is far more inviting.

“I think one of the biggest challenges of a restaurant is making people feel like they’re not in such a formal place,” he says. “Our waitstaff is so amazing because they know our guests. We welcome them. And when they’re sitting here, they’re sitting in an extension of their own home, a place where we know their names, and they know our names. We build this rapport. This is your home away from home. To me, that’s sort of the essence of hospitality.”

Chef Matthew McClure, The Hive at 21c Museum Hotel

Nominated seven times for James Beard Awards, Chef Matthew McClure announced he’s leaving The Hive at 21c Museum Hotel.

Since opening The Hive in 2013, Matthew McClure’s mission to pay homage to his Arkansas roots while elevating his native cuisine has received much attention. McClure has received a JBF nomination a whopping seven times in nine years.

In July, McClure announced he’s leaving The Hive after a magnificent run.

Before heading to Bentonville, McClure was part of the team at the remarkable Ashley’s at The Capital under renowned Chef Lee Richardson. Ashley’s was one in a chain of great Arkansas restaurants that served as incubators for the chefs that shaped our food culture. McClure hopes The Hive will become another link in that culinary heritage.

“When I landed back in Arkansas in 2007, there were all these Jacques and Suzanne stories,” McClure shares, referring to the landmark French restaurant that served downtown Little Rock during the late ’70s and early ’80s. “These people came out of those kitchens and opened up restaurants. I want to be that for here. I want to be that person that is effecting positive change on this next generation of chefs and giving them the guidance to help them have the success and career satisfaction that I’ve been able to have.”

Micah Klasky, who has worked with McClure almost all of his tenure at The Hive, will step into the chef’s shoes, with the intent of keeping the emphasis on a menu that showcases the produce from Arkansas gardens and local farmers, cross-pollinated with kitchen traditions from two centuries of home cooks.

“Northwest Arkansas is historically subsistence farmers,” McClure notes. “We don’t have this legacy of great restaurants per se. We’re not in New Orleans. People would have their gardens, put up lots of fruits and vegetables and jams and jellies in the late summer. And that’s what they would survive on through the winter. I think there’s this historical context of building out your pantry. A commercial kitchen lets you have these little touches throughout the year. I feel like that’s where historically we connect, using local farmers to build out our pantry.”

“We have communities that live here now that their ancestors never did. South Indian, Pakistani, Central and South American communities here are now part of the Arkansas food story. I love to combine these parts, be it techniques or spice blends or those sorts of ideas that they bring to food and cooking into some dishes at The Hive. I feel like what we have at The Hive is a good snapshot of incorporating everything, from the statehood era up to now you know, a snapshot of that in our food and cooking.”

McClure’s mark on the Bentonville food scene, his legacy, has certainly cemented here. He takes pride in what he’s leaving behind.

“What I’m proud of as a chef in Arkansas, is setting a better example of what a leader in the kitchen and in the community can be,” he shares, “from supporting local farms to leveraging my platform, raising money for hungry kids and leadership by being on the advisory board for Brightwater (A Center for the Study of Food) and the A&P Commission. I think that chefs have a bigger role to play than just cooking food on the line. It’s about developing a healthy culinary culture in the kitchen, and a healthy restaurant environment for all. These are all things I am incredibly proud of.

“I hope these young chefs out there that see people on Food Network yelling and screaming at each other, know that’s not the way it should work, that’s just made for TV. Just recognizing we’re in the hospitality business and taking care of people in our communities and in our kitchens — it’s all connected.”

Dishes like Chef Matthew McClure’s Lagniappe of Pork Belly at 21c have given Bentonville’s extraordinary food scene the recognition it has garnered.

Bentonville’s extraordinary food scene and the recognition it has garnered continues to build. Though McClure is moving on, expect attention to still be focused on The Hive and the other eateries that have earned the attention of the nation’s top judges.

Arkansas’ America’s Classics Winners

 Two Arkansas restaurants have already received national recognition by the James Beard Foundation for their authentic cuisine and place in culinary history.

In 2012, the Foundation recognized Jones Barbecue Diner of Marianna — the establishment long run by Harold Jones. He began working with his parents in the operation all the way back in 1964, when he was just 14 years old. The diner’s origins go back to at least 1910, and it’s believed to be the nation’s oldest Black-owned business. When you go, go early, because all Jones offers is pork sandwiches with slaw, pork sandwiches without slaw, and pork by the pound — and it sells out each and every day.

In 2020, Little Rock’s famed Lassis Inn received the America’s Classics honor from the James Beard Foundation. The well-known blue building a couple blocks off Roosevelt Road is still run by the Washington family, who offer plates of catfish and buffalo fish with slaw, hush puppies, fries and sweet lemonade. The prominent “No Dancing” signs over the eatery’s blue-painted wooden booths encourage you to contain your joy over a fine fish dinner until you make it down the concrete steps from the front door afterwards.