Beard Foundation Brings the Food Scene to Bentonville, Arkansas

As one of the 'Serving Up James Beard' communities, the Midwest culinary scene is already miles ahead

Tusk and Trotter is one of the culinary leaders of Bentonville, Arkansas.

Think of the foodie capitals of the country: New York, Chicago, Los Angeles. Are you missing one? How about Bentonville, Ark.?

If you scoffed at the Midwestern town of nearly 37,000, you might want to reconsider. Restaurateurs of Bentonville have partnered with the James Beard Foundation to serve JBF-inspired recipes (with proceeds benefitting the JBF Silver Anniversary scholarship fund). The other cities participating in the "Serving Up James Beard" initiative are considerably larger: Louisville, Ky., Miami, and San Francisco. But that doesn't mean the Midwestern city doesn't have its culinary chops.

It all began in 2009, with the new Crystal Bridge Art Museum downtown, said Daniel Hintz, executive director of Bentonville Downtown, Inc. Since it was built, Hintz said his group needed to rethink how to enhance the culinary scene downtown to meet the demands of museum-goers. That sparked a culinary development strategy for the city, which kicked off the success of the local farmers market.

"That's the foundation of our strategy," Hintz said, "how can we deliver fresh, local food to the people."

And the boom of downtown visitors led to a boom in restaurants — from two to eight restaurants in the area. It's part of promoting food entrepeneurs as part of the larger downtown identity, Hintz said. Downtown Bentonville, Inc. also began to offer foodie memberships — one to local restaurants, and one to foodies, who would receive a JBF membership and VIP tickets to local food tastings and events.

The relationship with JBF was a natural one, Hintz says; he was the one to call JBF and requested the opportunity to partner with them. "I have a lot of respect for what they're doing," he says. "Their mission for the promotion of our food scene within our national food heritage very much connects with our mission of growing our culinary scene inside of our larger experience of downtown."

Now it's expanding more, with the "Serving Up James Beard" program. Chef Rob Nelson from Tusk & Trotter is leading the way with JBF recipes. For the upcoming Culinary Festival in June (as part of the art festival), Nelson will be serving beans and cornbread, a Canadian bacon chop, corn-casserole cassoulet and a JBF-inspired drink.

It's no surprise to Hintz that Bentonville is leading the way in the Midwest culinary scene. For residents of Arkansas, fresh and local aren't simply buzzwords — they're a way of life. "I think the history of food in Arkansas has always been fresh and local, because that’s what they could grow themselves," he said. "Arkansas is already starting from a robust history of fresh and local foods, the sky's the limit."

Hintz said he wants Bentonville to help shape local, healthy food scene, much like JBF. "We want to know how we can contribute to the growing food scene," he said. "Because food is a powerful tool — a powerful economic tool, marketing tool, and community development tool."