Scott Thomas McGehee was born in Fayetteville, and raised in Little Rock. As a boy, he was inspired to be a cook by both his great-grandmother Ruby Thomas, (of the Red Apple Inn), and his father, Frank McGehee, (Blue Mesa Grill, Juanita’s). After attending the University of Arkansas, Scott was an honors graduate of the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco, followed by a position as line chef at Alice Waters’s famed Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California.
In 1999, Scott returned to Little Rock and opened Boulevard Bread Company—a gourmet bakery, delicatessen and café that quickly became a beloved Little Rock institution and recognized as one of the city’s top restaurants in the September 2002 issue of Southern Living magazine. Scott opened River Market and UAMS Medical Center locations of Boulevard Bread Company, then proceeded to open ZaZa Fine Salad & Wood Oven Pizza Company in Little Rock, 2007, then ZaZa Conway, Big Orange Burgers, Salads, and Shakes, (West and Midtown Little Rock locations and in Rogers), Local Lime Tacos and Margaritas, (West Little Rock and Rogers locations), Lost 40 Brewing and Heights Taco and Tamale, Little Rock.
What is Arkansas cuisine?
My first experience with true Arkansas cuisine was in the garden with my great-grandparents Ruby Thomas and Herbert L. Thomas. They had founded the Red Apple Inn in 1963 and owned it until the early ‘80s. Ruby was the genius in the kitchen, in the restaurant and with the décor. In Ruby’s home kitchen, the main dish served was a vegetable plate that utilized preserved food, mushrooms, bacon, greens and lots of sweet potatoes in the winter. The summer would include thick-sliced tomatoes, greens, sautéed corn off the cob, pone bread, field peas, green tomato pickle and beans.
My idea of true Arkansas cuisine is about 30-50 rotating vegetables that are just prepared beautifully and simply, with house-made bread, pone bread, cornbread or biscuits, and perfectly prepared small portions of locally raised meats. While cheese dip, barbecue, catfish and chocolate gravy are all wonderful, they don’t make my top 25 foods I consider “Arkansas cuisine,” because of that personal experience growing up in a food family in Arkansas.
What is the role of food in Arkansas’s identity and what are some of the needed next steps to strengthen that culinary brand?
Real Arkansas food identity begins with our history. Championing the people and cultures that came together in an amazing melting pot of food culture – Native American, African, Cajun, Caribbean, Irish, German and other influences. That created our culinary culture which has evolved over the centuries. We have somewhat neglected this legacy, and rediscovering those connections would be a critical step in developing a stronger identity.
Should chefs and restaurateurs play a role in civic leadership? If so, what should that role be? If not, why?
Chefs are influencers, whether we like it or not. Hundreds of young people look up to us as role models. We have a responsibility to help put these young people on a path that teaches honesty, positivity and sobriety, at least. This can make a huge impact with our youth and in our communities.
We also have the unique opportunity to bring people together for critical causes through food. Food knows no political party and helps build bridges to conversation and understanding. Successful chefs and restaurant owners have been given a gift to work in such a rewarding industry and we have a responsibility to give back whenever we can.
What are the brands that fall under Yellow Rocket Concepts? How many people do you employ?
ZAZA Fine Salad and Wood Oven Pizza; Big Orange Burgers, Salads and Shakes; Local Lime Taco and Margaritas; Heights Taco and Tamale; and Lost 40 Brewing and Taproom. We employee about 650 people, so far.
What impact do programs like Brightwater: A Center for the Study of Food and Pulaski Tech’s culinary school have on your business? What kind of training is still needed in Arkansas to support a growing culinary scene?
Those two institutions are unbelievably exceptional. A state the size of Arkansas is extremely lucky to have such impactful and quality institutions. They are attracting more and more inspired, serious and motivated young creative talent to all our benefit in this state.
What do you look for in a location and what role can a city play in making that determination?
While the stars must align, there’s no such thing as the perfect space. A fair lease deal, accessible location with parking, usable fixtures to reduce cost/risk, landlord renovation allowance to further reduce risk when possible, and that little something extra: Does it feel right? Any help from the city is always appreciated. New restaurants often run into unforeseen obstacles. Support from the community and the city to help during the critical construction and opening phase would be a blessing.
What are some recommendations you have to strengthen Arkansas’s culinary scene? How might the various chefs, hospitality companies and restauranteurs work with each other more effectively across the state?
I envision an organization that casts a wide net inclusive not only to locally owned and operated restaurants, but also Arkansas farms and farm families, locally owned retail, artists, writers and creative people in general. I’d love to see a significant “Locally Owned” brand that could effectively communicate the importance of supporting local, because supporting local creates a community that is unique, creative, interesting and attractive to people visiting from out-of-state.
We don’t need Arkansas communities to become a sea of chains and an atmosphere that could be in any vanilla suburb in America. Simply put, that is not a place that people want to visit. When locals aggressively support one another and help get the message out effectively, all our boats rise as one.