It was conception that conceived WunderHaus.
That is, the idea for serving good food produced locally came to Jacqueline Smith when she was pregnant. She and her husband, Jason, were watching food writer Michael Pollan’s films (“Cooked,” “In Defense of Food”) and looking into issues of agriculture. “We really started delving into the works of Wendell Berry,” Smith said. “We were compelled to action. … The way he writes about nature in general and our relationship to other people is so spiritual. And his sense of responsibility, the role of steward.” The Flint water crisis was in the headlines. The Smiths were about to bring a child into the world, an emotional and vulnerable time. “We felt it was an important thing to do to represent a smaller part of the food industry that needs to be a larger portion of the food industry.”
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Jacqueline Smith, though an opera major at UA Little Rock, and her brother, Auguste Forrester, had long been interested in food. “We picked up a tiny bit of passion for cooking when we were small children,” she said. Smith also had restaurant experience, gained with Alexis Jones at the short-lived Natchez Restaurant in downtown Little Rock. Hence, in 2015, along with Hazel Smith (now 5), the WunderBus food truck was born. Its menu was German street food, and the food got rave reviews.
But the Smiths and Forrester always had a brick and mortar place in mind. A vacant storefront at Oak and Locust streets in Conway seemed perfect, and it has proved to be so. WunderHaus opened in September 2017 in the old gas station/burger joint, bringing to Central Arkansas what Jacqueline Smith calls “European soul food.” It’s rich, delicious, endorphin-producing, the kind of fare that will require a stiff cup of coffee to keep you awake on the drive home. “It’s not meant just to feed your belly,” said Smith (who creates the menu), “but to make sure you have a wonderful day.” (WunderHaus has been the setting for a proposal of marriage; it might have been the food.)
With the exception of the pineapple in the fantastically moist carrot cake (and Forrester is considering starting an aquaculture farm to produce exotic fruits in Arkansas, his sister said), a delicious lunch enjoyed by this writer owed its existence mostly to Arkansas gardens, beehives and meat producers. A juicy kielbasa sausage, which I added to my Peter Rabbit salad, came from Rabbit Ridge Farms in Bee Branch. The roasted daikon and watermelon radishes and the butternut squash came from Heifer International, the arugula came from Double B farms just 30 minutes from Conway, the honey was produced by Storm Honey in Mountain View, the egg on top was laid by Drewry Farm hens in Dover.
WunderHaus paraded dishes past the Arkansas Times photographer: a salad with pork cheeks and Arkansas apples, a baked brie, Parisian-style gnocchi (made from pâte à choux and dropped), risotto made with Ralston Family Farms purple rice, a chocolate torte, bread pudding, “Pop’s Carrot Cake,” from a family recipe brought to WunderHaus by employee Jake Watt. All were plated beautifully, thanks to Watt, with such touches as dots of mustard sauce decorating the edge of the sunny-side-up egg and dressings dripped in star shapes. The food tastes like it comes from a kitchen of pros of decades, rather than years. Smith says that’s because the ingredients are so fresh: “You don’t have to do much to them!”
Smith, her husband and her brother have more up their apron sleeves: Forrester wants to farm on 10 acres he owns. Smith, Treci Buchanan of Conway EcoFest and Faulkner County JP Tyler Pearson are in the process of incorporating a nonprofit Smith says will contribute to the “greening of Conway”: WunderLand, which operates the WunderMarket of artisanal food and crafts and promotes walkability. “It’s given us a way to feel like we’re contributing to the local economy,” Smith said. “I am so lucky to be about to feed the people that I love and that I am yet to love,” she said.
The WunderHaus group is also working with the Petit Jean Farmers Market on a June 19-20 event at Camp Mitchell that will include a seven-course farm-to-table dinner, an artisanal market and an option to spend the night in the Episcopal Diocese-run camp’s cabins. Staying put after a farmers market meal: wunderful idea.