Art above everything: Chef Adam Hanry rediscovers the fine art of cooking

“I wanted to be an architect when I was younger, but I realized I couldn’t do all that math when I was in high school.”

He decided instead to attend college to become an art teacher — during a widespread teachers strike in the late 1980s. “It wasn’t a good time to be a teacher. It was going to be a rough go.” He promptly changed his major to design, and the hope that he had finally found his calling was quickly abolished. “I hated it because it was all about succeeding in design competitions. I was only interested in the art.”

Only a few credit hours shy of graduation, Hanry met a chef from Ashley’s Restaurant in the Capitol Hotel in Little Rock and was mesmerized by the profession. He filled out an application for a kitchen job at Ashley’s with exactly zero cooking experience, got the job and dropped out of school.

Hanry worked the day shift at the Capitol Hotel for two years while also waiting tables at Juanita’s in Downtown Little Rock, where he met Chef Mark Abernathy. When Abernathy left Juanita’s to open one of Little Rock’s most highly acclaimed restaurants, Loca Luna, Hanry went with him, where he was soon named Chef D’ Cuisine, a position he held for five years before applying for a job at the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute on Petit Jean Mountain near Morrilton.

“I had accepted a job with another restaurant in Little Rock when I got the call from the people on Petit Jean. I visited the place, and I was sold.” He called the Little Rock restaurant the day he was scheduled to begin and told them he wouldn’t be coming in. He served as executive chef at the Rockefeller Institute for more than five years, falling in love with country living along the way.

Despite this newfound love for the peace and quiet, Hanry decided to return to Little Rock and take a position as Chef D’ Cuisine at the Peabody Hotel. It wasn’t long before he remembered why he loved country living — and life outside of the hotel restaurant business in general — so much.

Hanry soon received a phone call from a former colleague from the Winthrop Institute who was in desperate need of help. As it turns out, Hanry needed help too — help re-discovering the art of his profession. Little did he know that the small community of Solgohachia (Conway County) and the Ozark Conference Center would help him reclaim his art.

“When I came here, they needed someone to prepare food for a fundraiser. Their chef had literally walked out in the night.”
Hanry was named executive chef/food and beverage director at the Ozark Conference Center shortly thereafter. As Hanry puts it, he soon “found the art of cooking again.”

Now, he takes pride in creating dishes he calls “unconventionally beautiful.” He focuses on simple foods from the Southern Delta as the basis of many of his dishes. “Anybody can make foie gras beautiful, but when you can make something like a Moon Pie beautiful, that’s art.” Hanry also cooks for seasons now, preparing foods that customers crave at certain times of the year, and he cooks to evoke emotion, whether that emotion comes from enjoying a favorite childhood treat in a new way or being overwhelmed by the flavors of a new food. This is Hanry’s art form.

“Artists are generally miserable people, but when their art is flowing and they are inspired, the rewards are immeasurable.”
The art is definitely flowing in Chef Hanry’s creations, and the awards and recognition are flowing as well. Hanry recently received a first place award at the 2009 Arkansas Hospitality Association Chef’s Challenge for his Standing Ice Cream Cone Sundae, this being only the latest in a long line of awards he has received since coming to the Ozark Conference Center three years ago.

“There has to be a story that is underneath just the food and the plate. It’s art above everything for me.”