Magazine November/December 2015

Leading by Example

November/December 2015 Issue

Longtime restaurateur Capi Peck remains a major
player in the Little Rock food scene, while also
guiding the next-generation restaurant owner.

Photography by Jane Colclasure

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Being in the restaurant business for 29 years will propel anyone into the position of mentor. That’s a role that Capi Peck relishes — while she considers herself a matriarch in the central Arkansas independent restaurant scene, she said it also keeps her on her toes.

When Peck and partner Brent Peterson opened Trio’s Restaurant in Little Rock in 1986, it was far ahead of its time. Peck was one of the first chefs to source ingredients locally, the menu featured items not yet seen in the city, and many thought her location in Pavilion in the Park on Cantrell Road to be too far west in Little Rock. Now, she said, it’s practically considered Midtown.

“I truly believe that everything tastes so much better if it doesn’t have to ride on a truck from California to Little Rock,” Peck said. “It takes more time to source those things, and you have lots more vendors than [most restaurants], but I think our customers appreciate it. It’s also a way for us to support the farming community. It’s kind of a give-back thing.”

Because of the dedication to local ingredients, Trio’s menu changes often. However, mainstays like the Peck’s Special Salad, Spicy Spinach Dip, Voodoo Pasta, Chicken Enchiladas and Strawberry Shortcake will always be served, Peck said.

For years, menu design had been Peck’s sole responsibility, but her involvement in so many community activities has led her to begin sharing that role with executive chef Shanna Merriweather, who has been at the restaurant for 14 years. The two “work beautifully together,” Peck said.

Giving back is a quality that Peck said permeates the local restaurant industry, and her work outside the restaurant makes her a fine example. She has leadership roles in the Arkansas Restaurant Association and the Little Rock Advertising and Promotion Commission, and she works with many charities, including as a volunteer cooking instructor at the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance.

Peck learned to cook in the kitchen of the Sam Peck Hotel, owned by her grandparents, by watching and asking questions. She said the hotel was one of Little Rock’s premier places to eat and stay from about World War II until the 1970s.

“In Little Rock, there was not a lot going on [in the food scene] in the 1950s and ’60s, but the hotel had exceptional food,” Peck said. “I grew up with a refined and discerning palate, and that’s what has served me best.”

In college, she began collecting cookbooks, and said she made every recipe in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. She never attended culinary school and never planned to open a restaurant, however.

Mexican food is Peck’s favorite cuisine to cook. Her love of the culture began at age 10 when her parents took a trip to Mexico. In high school, she lived with a family there for a summer, and, in college, spent six months in Mexico honing her Spanish-language skills. She also attended cooking classes in Oaxaca City.
Kevin Shalin, creator of The Mighty Rib, a local food blog, has partnered with Peck for several signature dinners, including an authentic Oaxacan dinner in October 2015. He said Trio’s remains one of the most important restaurants in the city.

“I see Capi and Trio’s continuing to be leaders in the Little Rock food scene,” he said. “Capi is definitely a matriarch in the Little Rock food community. When you’re in her presence, she has this amazing ability of making you feel like the most important person in the world. That’s served her quite well over the years. If I were a younger restaurateur, I’d shadow her for a few weeks and soak up anything she’d be willing to teach me. She’s seen it all, knows how to forge through the rough patches, but also how to enjoy the good times.”

Matriarch is a role that Peck takes to heart. The restaurant business is tough, and success depends on working long hours, maintaining good relationships with both diners and staff, and being prepared to do “everything from clean the toilets and wash the dishes to cut onions and create menus,” she explained.
“A lot of people in the industry look up to me just because of the longevity,” she said. “You have to love it and be passionate about it.”

Peck said the central Arkansas independent restaurant scene has exploded in recent years, with new and exciting options, but also competition. She maintains a good rapport with other restaurateurs and enjoys visiting other restaurants to see what their chefs are creating in the kitchen.

“I think Little Rock — among any city of its size — has more diverse and great independent restaurants,” she said. “I love that, but it keeps me on my toes. I want to stay cutting edge.”

Staying relevant is one of the greatest challenges in the restaurant business, Peck explained, “especially among all of this innovation and creativity” in the industry. But, she said business is still booming.

To celebrate its 29th anniversary, this past summer Trio’s underwent a redesign, including the addition of a new sound system and LED lights, a fresh coat of paint and some new artwork by Arkansas artists. “We spruced things up and contemporized the interior,” Peck said.

Trio’s tagline, “Where Tradition and Innovation Come to Dine,” is a good illustration of the restaurant’s history and what lies ahead. For Peck, that means inspiring the next-generation restaurateur and attracting more women in Arkansas to join the industry.

“The professional kitchen is still a man’s world,” Peck said. “There have been a lot of people knocking on the ceiling, and some have busted through. It takes a woman who is very independent, very strong, with really great people skills, who instructs and delegates. It takes a strong leader.”

These are all qualities that have kept Peck going strong for nearly three decades.

Read more about Arkansas female-owned small businesses.

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