Talking with Chef Matthew Bell of South on Main (Part 2)

If you missed the first part of this interview, you can check it out here. We now present the second half of our recent discussion with Chef Matthew Bell of South on Main.
Part of what makes talking with chefs so interesting is that many of them are never at a loss for words … or opinions. Matthew Bell is no exception. The outspoken chef has never shied away from giving his opinion on a variety of issues, and so naturally, I wanted to hear his thoughts on Little Rock’s restaurant industry and, for that matter, competition in general.
“I think there’s this inherent view that it’s got to be cutthroat, that there’s only so many people here and you can’t take my people … but I think with the opening of Piro, for example, it just reinforces the fact that’s not it. It’s about creating a community,” says Bell.
He continues, “It’s about creating a place that you can get something that you can’t get anywhere else. I’m really excited about Justin opening up The Southern Gourmasian. It’s close to us, probably eight blocks away. If somebody goes there and has a great experience, they’ve had a great local experience … then they’re going to seek that out again, locally. If somebody has a great experience at Piro, they’re coming back to the neighborhood and checking out everything in the neighborhood. Ultimately, the competition for restaurants comes from the customers, not the from the restauranteurs. There’s so much interest in people focusing back on downtown, and moving closer to the city’s center, and not having that necessity for everything they need to be in that one parking lot. I think these downtown restaurants are going to see great success and they will add success to those of us that are here.” According to Bell, the customer base is beginning to change their appetites in this part of the country. “The general person in Central Arkansas is starting to take notice in local restaurants and where they spend their money.”
Our interview also gave us an opportunity to delve a little deeper into Bell’s involvement with No Kid Hungry, a cause he’s jumped head first into. “No Kid Hungry identifies partners in states that have a need for help with childhood hunger programs, and one of those programs is Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance, which is headed up by Kathy Webb.”
Bell has visited Washington, DC and Baltimore, where he’s participated on tours, as well as advocated for the organization and its mission. “Here in Arkansas, if people are paying attention to me, I can get them to at least know what the program is and understand how it works. The achievements we’ve made in Arkansas are significant. Between 2012-2013, we increased our summer meals served more than any state in the country.”
He also feels a big part of that success is No Kid Hungry’s ability to let the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance decide where that money goes. In turn, the AHRA then identifies partners to help ensure the right places for summer food sites. “You rely on those groups that are already doing this.”
You may remember that back in November, South on Main hosted a huge dinner benefitting No Kid Hungry. The organization then turned over the entire portion of money raised that evening to the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance. Says Bell, “We had 129 people show up and we raised $50,000 between the ticket sales, silent auction and corporate sponsors. It was really encouraging to see. We will do a No Kid Hungry dinner once a year in Arkansas as long as they let me. We’ll bring in more chefs and we’ll get more restaurants involved. Something to note was that the entire staff donated their time. None of the servers or chefs were paid. None of the farmers that gave the food were paid. It was totally an incredible event.”
And what’s next for Bell as it pertains to NKH? He’s got another trip in April to Washington, DC for a chef summit where he’ll be advocating and helping newer chefs understand all the ways they can get involved with No Kid Hungry.
All and all, it’s quite a busy time for Chef Bell, and that’s just the way he likes it.

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