Brian Chilson
‘INTO THE DETAILS OF A DISH’: Just like the delights coming out of the YGFBF Kitchen, MaryAnn Strange built her culinary career from scratch.

What do you do when love is in the air and you’re trying to impress your date with a home-cooked meal, but your kitchen skills are forgettable? Call up MaryAnn Strange, apparently. So goes the story behind YGFBF Kitchen & Catering’s name, coined “Your Girlfriend Best Friend Kitchen” after Strange’s best friend passed off Strange’s cooking as her own. “We all have that one friend that can burn a house down if they were just boiling water,” Strange told me. The secret eventually got out on that romantic meal scheme and, four years of booming business later, it’s safe to say the secret’s out on YGFBF Kitchen, too.
Chalk up that success to two things. The first: Maryann herself. With sparkling eyes, a bubbly giggle and a tendency to pepper her Instagram feed with inspirational quotes, the Detroit native is a made-for-TV food personality, seemingly surprised by YGFBF’s continued success despite clear evidence that she’s engineered it with careful calculation and vigilant attention to detail. Reviews of YGFBF include phrases like “I pray this young woman can expand to the East Coast,” and Strange is so beloved by her fellow restaurateurs that when she began considering Little Rock in her 2021 search for an upgraded location, culinary cornerstones like Patti Stobaugh (Stoby’s Restaurant, PattiCakes Bakery) rallied to help keep YGFBF in Conway.


The second key to Strange’s gains? Dishes like YGFBF’s Cajun Alfredo Egg Rolls, a creamy, crunchy exercise in contrast — one that’s almost always sold out by week’s end. Strange has made a point of filling her catering and in-house menus with the dishes she grew up loving — luxurious macaroni and cheese and collard greens simmered with smoked neckbones, for example, additions Strange credits to childhood summers spent in Arkansas with her father, a native of Seaton (Lonoke County). “I grew up in the North, eating Southern food,” Strange said. Less traditional offerings include clever mashups like Cajun Chicken Tacos and Rasta Pasta, corkscrew noodles with a Jamaican-inspired spicy cream sauce. The common denominator — besides that signature alfredo — is an emphasis on the visual. Strange’s greens stay a verdant jade even after being slow-cooked, and she’s careful never to hide a dish’s ingredients in a catering chafer under a blanket of melted cheese. Head to YGFBF’s website gallery, or to the restaurant’s Instagram account, to behold dozens of items that sound chaotic on paper but translate into photos as dinner plate gold. “I’m really big on presentation,” Strange said. “I eat with my eyes first. Most everybody does. People are really into the details of a dish.” Even with something like gumbo — rarely the prettiest dish on the table — Strange is big on visual detail. “They can see the sausage. They can see the chicken. They can see the okra. They can see the veggies. They can tell what’s in the dish, and can tell that it was made with quality stuff.”

Brian Chilson
ACRONYMS AND ALFREDO: YGFBF’s signature alfredo pops up all over the menu.

Keeping up that quality in an era when supply chain bottlenecks are front-of-mind for restaurants has been a challenge, but Strange’s menu has stayed the course. When last year’s cream cheese shortage made headlines, for example, she supplemented her food supply vendor orders with trips to Sam’s Club and Kroger to get the brand she wanted. “Most people’s tastes are acquired,” she said. “If they’ve eaten that dish 700 times, they can tell when you use something different. And I don’t want to be on a review page where they say, ‘Well, it was good two weeks ago, but right now it’s not.’ If I couldn’t find it, I’d take it off the menu completely. I wouldn’t want to damage their view of that dish by using something else.”
That rigor for ingredient integrity might seem like the idealism born in a lab during the first year of an expensive culinary degree, but it’s not. Though Strange grew up around great food, she doesn’t have a restaurant background and didn’t start YGFBF Kitchen until the summer of 2019. It was a food truck then, and represented an intrepid leap of faith in Strange’s self-made passion for cooking.
Here’s why: Before “pivot” was the buzzword of our time, Strange was living it. In 2018, the telecommunications company that had employed Strange for a decade went through a series of employee layoffs, and Strange — then a single mother — was suddenly unemployed. “I just remember crying,” she said, “and at that time, I was a single mother, but I was dating, recently divorced, trying to get on with my life, and dating the man who is now my husband — which is crazy! And I was thinking, ‘How am I gonna take care of my kids?’ ”
Reeling from the uncertainty, she started to think about going into business for herself. “At least I know I won’t lay off myself,” she said. “I know that I am gonna work in order to take care of my responsibilities, and to meet our needs.” Strange’s then-boyfriend, now-husband, encouraged her to think about cooking for a living. “I was like, ‘Well, you know, I just cook for family and friends. I don’t cook for everybody.’ You know, you’re dating somebody, so you think they might be just hyping you up, because you’re dating. But then I started shopping my food around to the barber shops around town, and with a few of my friends, and they were kinda like, ‘Yeah, that tastes really good!’ ”
The rest of Conway’s residents agree, if Strange’s business trajectory is any indication. YGFBF moved from that little food truck to a brick-and-mortar location at 812 Chestnut St. in downtown Conway in 2020, quickly outgrew it and moved to an even larger location at 800 Fouth Ave., formerly Oak Street Bistro. YGFBF employs a staff of 13 now and, Strange said, “We’ve been rockin’ and rollin.’ ”
So much so, she said, that it’s hard for her to slow down when she gets home at the end of the day. “My husband has to remind me to sit down and stop cooking,” she said. As for the kids, “they pretty much eat everything I cook. I think they have a different palate. If I try to serve them something simple, they’re like, ‘Nah, Mom, we want collard greens. We want pastas. And I’m like, ‘Y’all! OK, I got ya.’ ”