“We’ll be open 27 years in June,” says chef Peter Brave as he smashes the lovely golden flesh of a boiled potato with the underside of a pie pan. “I’ve seen a lot of places come and go.” Brave makes another, more oblique, reference to his longevity in Little Rock’s high-end dining scene as he slips that same potato into a skillet filled with foaming melted butter: “This pan is probably older than some of my employees.”
Watching Brave move around the various prep and cooking areas of his cleverly named Brave New Restaurant, I feel a bit like how I imagine the arcade kids must have when Tommy stepped up and dropped a quarter for some pinball. He calls out directions to his line cooks, supervises the examination and rotation of produce—and still finds time to put together two lovely dishes for photographer Brian Chilson and me to shoot for Arkansas Food & Farm. He’s a mixture of kinetic energy and laid back humor wrapped around a core philosophy that’s determined, focused and exacting in its attention to detail. Peter Brave knows he can cook. And he thinks you deserve something good to eat.
A native of Little Rock, Brave graduated from Central High. Soon after, he moved to San Francisco with plans to attend culinary school—and folks who swear by Brave New Restaurant dishes like sausage-stuffed quail may be surprised to know those plans didn’t come to fruition. Instead, the nascent chef spent time working at restaurants and hotels around the Bay area, learning his trade on the job in one of the country’s most elite dining regions.
Brave returned to Little Rock in 1985 to become the chef at the Capital Hotel, a kitchen in which many of Arkansas’ top chefs have spent time. “My goal with working there was always to one day have my own place,” he says. A few years later, he realized that dream, first in Brave New Restaurant’s original location off Old Cantrell Road, then in a spacious riverfront office park location which provides diners with spectacular views of the Arkansas River.
“It’s still fun,” Brave says of restaurant work, and as his knife reduces whole vegetables to even, uniform slices, it’s clear the chef hasn’t lost his touch after more than three decades in the kitchen. Aside from cooking, Brave talks of his other passions—biking, painting, and most recently, a reclaimed wood-and-metal table project which has occupied much of his free time. He has time for things like that now, although it hasn’t always the case, and he gives gives a lot of credit to the team he has built, starting with his sous-chef Janice and several managers. “They provide the stability and consistency I need to do what we do around here, and that is Brave New Restaurant’s identity,” he says.
As a longtime veteran who has seen food trends come and go, the current “farm to table” boom in Arkansas seems to be a source of both pride and amusement to Brave. “Sometimes, [chefs] act like we’re reinventing the wheel,” he says. “Years ago, before refrigeration or mass transit, everything was local—and people still wanted things to be delicious. If the ingredient is fresh and of a good quality, my job is easy—I just have to treat it right and not overdo it.” Brave New Restaurant has been sourcing many of its ingredients locally for much of its time in business. “How great is it to eat lettuce or radishes that were still in the ground that morning?” he says.
Suddenly, he looks up, cocks his head, and disappears from the prep table where he has been waxing poetic about Victorian dining habits while floating a luxurious strawberry shortcake on a pool of vanilla-flecked crème Anglaise. After a few moments, he reappears, clutching several sprigs of mint in one hand and a bunch of basil leaves in the other. “We grow a lot of herbs right out on the patio,” he says with a smile. “I just thought our shortcake could use a sprig of mint.” And as the sharp fragrance of fresh herbs mixes with the sweet aroma of Arkansas strawberries, it’s clear the chef knows best.
For a more in-depth look at the ingredients Brave New Restaurant sources from local farmers—and for a copy of that shortcake recipe—pick up the Spring Harvest Issue of Arkansas Food & Farm magazine, available May 15.