At home in Rome
Chef Jay Baxter dishes on Italian cooking, the first family and his new pizza position in the River Market.
Jay Baxter is a former executive chef at the Governor’s Mansion who recently opened Jay’s Pizza in the River Market in Little Rock. A capital city native, he’s been working with food since age 14, including running his own restaurant, Cafe Pompeii, in Hot Springs from 1998-2003. He classifies himself as a “self-studied cook,” saying he learned first from his grandmother and then from some of the best chefs in Arkansas: Andre Simon, Suzanne and Alain Boscarolo, Michel De Preux and Rosario Patti.
Q: I guess the first and most obvious question is why the change? Entrepreneurship is awesome, but a gig with the governor seems like pretty fancy digs. So what prompted you to hang up that apron and open a booth at the River Market?
A: I just love the hands on opportunity to create and deliver a handmade product without a lot of employees, overhead or bureaucracy. Making the change allows me to do what I do best. A friend once said about me, “He gets itchy.” I guess that could be true.
Q: Your focus now is pizza. It’s been a few years, but I once compared per capita independent pizzerias in Little Rock to other regional cities close to its size, and they weren’t even close. Why do you think we love this dish so much here? By the same token, why enter such a crowded market?
A: I guess I didn’t do my homework. I think pizza is a national past time and something overlooked in the area. Maybe I can’t see the forest for the trees, but pizza is a comfort food for me and those around me, and I thought I could add to what is out there now.
Q: The cover photo on the Jay’s Pizza Facebook page is an Alfa Romeo, I think. You noted it in the pic as one of your “other babies.” I just wanna hear you brag on this car a bit. Also, I’m sensing a trend of Italian infatuation here. True?
A: Ok, yes, a bit infatuated. You did catch me about my love for my 1984 Alfa Romeo Spider Veloce. It’s a beater with chipped paint, but runs like a top. When I drive it, I feel like I’m taking the curves on the Amalfi coast. I’m sure it’s just the feel of the car — mixed with my antidepressants. You would just have to go for a ride with me or drive one yourself.
Q: You’ve been all over Italy, and more than once at that. Can I ask your favorite part of the country? Or, at least, what region has the best food overall, not just pizza?
A: Wow, it’s hard to divide Italy in that way. I’ve never been to a part of it I didn’t completely adore. I go to see a pro tennis tournament in Rome and that is a blast! I love the fried cod and artichokes there. I love Taormina in Sicily — amazing. The seafood and olives are the best. But I love all of Italy and the different food available in its different regions.
Q: Tell me a little about working at the Governor’s Mansion. How does one apply or get picked for that job?
A: A friend told me the Mansion was looking for a chef. This was after I sold my restaurant, and I was cooking for Jack “Steve” Stephens Jr. I just went through the steps like anyone else would. I applied, sent in a résumé, got a call back, then started slinging hash.
Q: And what does the job entail? I mean, the current governor seems like a pretty down to earth guy who would make his own sandwich when he wanted one. Are you making every meal or how does that work exactly?
A: Yes, the first family was and is very down to earth. And, yes, the governor and first lady are capable of making their own meals and often did.
Q: What was the most challenging creation you made for a function there? And, if you got to meet many of the high profile guests, who was the most fun to chat with?
A: I did a lot of work I’m proud of at the Governor’s Mansion. There were so many private dinners held in the State Dining Room and larger functions held in the Grand Hall, so it’s hard to say. We had an event called Dining in the Dark where all of the guests sat in complete darkness and were waited on by a legally blind staff. It was great, lots of broken dishes. You get the picture.
As for the most fun to chat with, there were so many heads of state, dignitaries, celebrities, athletes, you name it. Again, it’s hard to say. I do remember doing a breakfast for Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano and remember the instructions were “NO FRESH FLOWERS!” She was allergic to flowers. I hope this isn’t a national security secret.
Q: Lastly, I wanna go back to pizza for a second. I gotta ask what your favorite kind of pizza is? And I’m talking bottom to top: crust, sauce, toppings, cheeses. Any ingredient, regardless of cost. What’s your ideal pie?
A: I have to say, this is a real challenge for me. It used to be a supreme, then meat lover’s, then spinach and feta, then ham and arugula. I experiment every day, so we shall see. Butternut squash with spiced pecans, coconut and marshmallows?