Earlier this year, Donnie Ferneau somewhat unexpectedly announced he would be stepping down from his position as executive chef at his once eponymous, now named-after-a-pony Hillcrest restaurant, Rocket 21. The descent of one of central Arkansas’ most revered and established chefs had many scratching their heads; many speculated as to what this meant for such a towering figure, both literally and figuratively, in the Arkansas culinary scene. Since his arrival in Little Rock some twelve years ago, Ferneau has racked up a handful of awards and accolades based on the restaurant’s general success and his personal capabilities as a chef. When the news broke that he was leaving, some felt that this signified Donnie’s exodus from Arkansas, perhaps returning to his native Iowa. But Donnie’s love for the South (and admittedly, southern women), has kept him firmly planted in Little Rock and among the who’s who of Arkansas chefdom.
So what’s Donnie been up to? You’d guess he’s got some kind of restaurant development in the works…he does, but more on that shortly. Over the last few months, die-hard Donnie fans and aspiring chefs have been gifted with instructional cooking classes hosted by The Don himself. The events have been planned and coordinated with the help of local food blogger, Thanh Rasico, the mastermind behind Red Kitchen Recipes. Together, Ferneau and Rasico have hosted a number of intimate and engaging cooking classes, in which attendees are provided with numerous helpful tips and tidbits for the home kitchen. Donnie does the cooking, occasionally soliciting help from the studio audience (I pity the poor girl who was roped into stirring the risotto for an hour at the last meeting), and everyone is served tasting plates in which to sample the fruits of Donnie’s labors. Bellies are well fed, but perhaps even better is the seemingly constant stream of witty, candid, and coolly confident chatter that comes out of Chef Ferneau. The guy’s got a gift for entertaining—chock full of enough humorous and brutally honest sound bites to keep any good food writer or reporter grinding away at their note pads for hours. It’s really what makes the class a joy to be a part of, and it seems unlikely that they’d work nearly as well without such a lively and animated headmaster. At one point, Donnie remarks on television’s The Bachelor, and in regards to this year’s bachelor states, “When I first saw him I thought, ‘Hey, I’m better looking than that guy.’ Then he took his shirt off and I thought, ‘No, I’m not.’ ” The chef makes the experience. The food is good, but even if it weren’t, you’d still be getting your money’s worth.
At Donnie’s most recent class, students and diners were schooled on the intricacies of shellfish, risotto, sautéed salads, and the flammability of alcohol. We started with a light, flavorful salad composed of baby kale and spinach, dressed with bits of pancetta, apple, sunflower seeds, and apple cider vinegar. Along the way, guests are invited to pass the raw ingredients around—tasting, touching, smelling—to gain a clearer understanding of why some techniques work better for certain ingredients than others; here, the baby kale, stiffer and more robust than the thin, soft spinach needing a bit more time in the sauté pan to get the appropriate wilt.