A page from the Southern cookbook
Chef Matt Bell combines literary and culinary arts with Oxford American restaurant.
There is a quintessentially Southern attachment of food to events, and though not a native son of Dixie, himself, chef Matthew Bell recognizes the connection.
“A lot of [seeing] it is living in the South,” said Bell, who was born in Montana and went to culinary school in Texas — and since has lived in his wife’s home state of Arkansas. “Every event with people has a food component to it. From birth to graduation to death, it’s a casserole fiesta.”
Sure, it happens elsewhere, too, but it’s part and parcel of Southern culture. And that’s why it makes sense that Oxford American, a literary magazine devoted to exploration of the modern South, would have a restaurant associated with it, one that won’t be a stranger to hosting events either. That the place, called South on Main and set to open either late this month or early next, would be Bell’s restaurant makes sense too, though getting there was something of a winding path that started with a place called The Shack.
No, not the legendary Little Rock barbecue joint. Bell’s Shack (home of incredible omelets with breakfast ’til 3 p.m. seven days a week) is in Missoula, Mont., where he started school as a music education major, apprentice glassblower and part-time dishwasher. The plan was to turn glass into a livelihood, but “I fell in love” with the food business, he said.
He also fell in love with the woman he’d later marry, a student of modern dance who today is a partner in the new restaurant. It was after her schooling concluded that Bell opted to train professionally in the culinary arts. He presented a list of 15 cities, and she picked Austin — the choice Bell said he was hoping for — home of the Texas Culinary Academy, a Le Cordon Bleu School.
The catch, so to speak, was that the program ended in an internship. And with so many students seeking work, few local eateries offered paid gigs. So Bell went further abroad, and with an introduction through his wife’s mother, ended up with one of the finest dining establishments in North Little Rock, Ristorante Capeo. In 2008, after three years there and at the (lamentably) short-lived offshoot Argenta Seafood, Bell put in a résumé at the austere Capital Hotel, serving as sous chef at Ashley’s.
The people met, lessons learned and food prepared along the way all added up to being very interested as soon as he heard about the South on Main concept last year. He wasted no time expressing interest to OA publisher Warwick Sabin.
“I called him and had him over for brunch,” Bell said. “The first step, really, was making sure we were on the same page of what it should be.”
That is, he said, a five-day-a-week restaurant that also serves as a place to host the magazine’s events. Food events, sure, like visiting chefs or cookbook authors, farmers or growers. But also literary readings or movie screenings or music events as well, because the space will have a stage. Indeed, Bell said, the ways in which each venue can augment the other is pretty limitless.
“The hope is really that it helps both of us,” he said. “There are really just so many opportunities to cross paths with Oxford while we do this.”
That’s because, Bell said, at their core, the philosophies are the same: present a picture of the South that is comprehensive in its identity but not diluted or confusing despite its diversity. That can be tricky in food terms, because there’s always endless variety.
“Everyone has their own particular vision of what some particular dish should be,” Bell explained. “Like deviled eggs.”
So the trick is to feel complete without feeling frenetic.
In that case, Bell said, the answer is often a matter of simplicity — and not just in food. Sure, the food has to be good, but it doesn’t have to be overwrought. He points to lessons learned from the person who hired him at the Capital, Cassidee Dabney, who he said could do great things with rice grits, granny beans and quail, a refined take on a simple concept. Likewise, though, he said the same of service. It too has to be good, of course, but it doesn’t have to be overdone.
“What we want is the quintessentially Southern hospitality experience, and it doesn’t have to be white glove to be that,” he said. “But if you have that overall service experience, that’s wonderful. If you can capture that on any level of food, then I think you’ve got a shot.”