Mountain Home Education Foundation honors Nashville chef
MOUNTAIN HOME, Ark. (AP) — To understand professional chef Robert Newton’s career, you start with a base of Mountain Home and throw in a dash of Germany and a pinch of Vermont. Then add in almost two decades’ worth of New York City before topping it off with a bit of Nashville, Tennessee.
Newton, a former New York City restaurateur and the current executive chef for the Gray & Dudley restaurant in the 21c Museum in downtown Nashville, was recently inducted into the Mountain Home Education Foundation Hall of Honor, the Baxter Bulletin reported. He is a 1988 graduate of Mountain Home High School.
Other inductees include Norman and Margaret Mason; Marvin Kunz; John Partipilo; Glenda Small; Paul Ostrowski and Arkansas State University-Mountain Home.
“It’s a little shocking to be celebrated in this manner,” Newton said. “I don’t think anyone sets out with this goal.”
Newton said a culinary career wasn’t really on his mind when he graduated from MHHS. He enlisted in the U.S. Army shortly after graduation. He had visited Germany as an exchange student with the high school’s German-American Partnership Program and was stationed outside of Frankfurt, Germany.
After serving in the Army for three years, Newton decided to leave the service to attend Arkansas State University in Jonesboro. He attended ASU for several years before deciding to make another change.
“I just felt like I wasn’t on the right path, so I took a step back and analyzed what I enjoyed doing and how I could make a living off that,” Newton said. “I just sat down and started putting together a list of what I enjoyed on one side and ways to make a living doing that on the other side.”
Being a chef arose out of that list of interests, he said. He researched the profession by visiting libraries and making telephone calls.
“This was pre-internet, pre-everything. There was no Cooking Channel,” Newton said. “My interpretation of a chef in 1993 was the stereotype of man in a dirty chef’s jacket, maybe or maybe not smoking a cigarette, wearing a dirty apron and maybe or maybe not drunk by noon. That’s the stereotype I had in my mind.”
Newton enrolled in the New England Culinary University in Vermont, graduating in 1997.
“Once I got into it, it really clicked with me,” Newton said. “I had grown up in a very culinary family with a very organic sense of things. We gardened, we fished, we foraged. Making nice food was a focal point of my family’s life. On both sides of my family, gardening was a thing, as was canning and preserving. Those are buzz words now, but they are just things that we did.”
Newton moved to New York City after graduating culinary school.
“I had been around the world with the Army, so I really wasn’t intimidated (with New York) from the cultural aspect,” he said. “But it was intimidating from a professional standpoint of trying to get into a professional kitchen. Navigating that plus navigating New York City itself — one of the busiest cities in the world — was a little overwhelming, but not in a negative way.”
Newton would eventually work in the kitchens of some of New York City’s most respected restaurants, including Le Cirque, Union Square Hospitality Group’s Tabla, Aquavit and the Four Seasons.
“I’m still not entirely sure how it all came together that I got a job (at Le Cirque),” Newton said. “It was a very surreal time and experience that really helped shape my career, those first few jobs in New York City.”
In 2001, the chef returned to Vermont to serve as the executive chef at Simon Pearce Restaurant in Quechee.
“I really like the state,” Newton said of Vermont. “I have an affinity for the people. In a small way, it kind of reminded me of home. Not the accents or the people so much, but the mountainous way it looks felt familiar to me. It’s way, way colder — which I didn’t care for — but it’s an undeniably beautiful place.”
Despite his feelings for the Green Mountain State, Newton said he his career called him back to New York City.
“To be in Vermont — I’m like 30 or 32 years old, in the first decade of my career — it just wasn’t the right place for me to be,” he said.
The chef moved back to the Big Apple in 2003, transitioning to a career as a private chef cooking around the world for celebrities, musicians and business executives.
“It’s a niche category in the chef world,” Newton said of being a private chef. “That only happens in big cities like New York, Los Angeles or Chicago where there are people with the financial ability to pay someone to be their in-home chef. It’s an extreme thing.”
Television legend Mary Tyler Moore was probably the most well-known celebrity that Newton cooked for as a private chef, he said.
“I worked for a couple of billionaires that no one has ever heard of,” he said. “I traveled with them to tropical islands or to their other houses in California on their private planes. It was quite an experience.”
After about six years of serving as a private chef, Newton said he was ready to focus his energies on a more personal project. He opened his own restaurant, Seersucker, in Brooklyn in 2010.
“We were doing modern, refined Southern cuisine,” Newton said. “We had quite a bit of success and I went on to open three other businesses in that same neighborhood over the next four or five years.”
According to his Gray & Dudley biography, Newton opened the restaurants Smith Canteen, Nightingale Nine, Wilma Jean and Wilma Jean in DeKalb Market Hall. He also consulted on Black Walnut in the Brooklyn Hilton and Yellow Magnolia in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.
As building leases expired and Newton ended relationships with former business partners, he said he felt like he should return to the South. He relocated to Nashville earlier this year and now serves as Gray & Dudley’s executive chef.
“It’s a busy city. I can look out of my window right now and see four (construction) cranes. It’s kind of insane the amount of building that is going on here,” he said. “The food scene is really exciting. I’m particularly interested in ethnic food and immigration patterns throughout the South. There’s a lot of that represented in the city as well.”
The chef will also publish his first cookbook, “Searching for the South,” in fall 2019.
“It breaks down the South into five sub regions culinarily,” Newton said. “I’m excited about it and optimistic about the next year.”
Information from: The Baxter Bulletin, http://www.baxterbulletin.com