Dec 8, 2023 - News

Investors look to bring a Michelin star to Northwest Arkansas, starting with bento boxes

Animated illustration of three chef hats popping up out of nowhere, one after another.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

Silicon Valley tech-preneurs are using their startup know-how to land Arkansas its first Michelin star.

State of play: Nine investors behind Bentoville — including two chefs who've previously earned stars — are working to open a brick-and-mortar Japanese restaurant in Bentonville late next year.

Why it matters: It's buzzy, adds cultural weight to an area, and everyone likes good food. The culinary scene is usually among the first things people mention when they visit a new city or talk about their home.

Context: The Bentoville concept that exists today — bento boxes to go and pop-up, $300-a-plate, 12-course meals — will have a permanent home and broader offerings, investor and co-founder Phil Libin told Axios.

  • Of note: Libin, who's also CEO of startup studio All Turtles, relocated to NWA from San Francisco during the pandemic.
  • He talks of the restaurant's development like someone building a software product. The current offerings are a test run of sorts to experiment, modify and refine.
  • He's mum on the exact location.

Details: The restaurant is to be as close to authentic Japanese cuisine as possible, chef Billy Kong told Axios.

  • The American palate usually rejects "slimy" food, so there will likely be some modifications or omissions, he said.
  • He's working with local farmers to grow produce and has sourced local beef and chicken.
  • Isbell Farms between England and Stuttgart will plant the type of rice Kong wants to serve.
  • Fish, of course, will still have to come from Japan or San Francisco.

The intrigue: Each of the pop-up events have been sold out, including a lunch ($200) and dinner ($300) kaiseki this weekend, though you can join the wait list.

  • Meals will be prepared by Kong, who previously had a Michelin star but gave it up during the pandemic, and Shinichiro Takagi, who has two stars.

The bottom line: Investors have raised $1.3 million to launch the restaurant and are talking with more potential partners, Libin said.

  • If all goes well, the concept could spread to other markets similar in size and economy to NWA.

Yes, but: Is the goal really to earn a Michelin star?

  • "It's not the goal — it's the plan," Libin said.

Bonus: Chef Billy Kong's scorecard

Chef Billy Kong. Photo: Worth Sparkman/Axios

What does a Michelin-starred chef look for in a sushi restaurant?

  • Kong, who owns three eateries in San Francisco tells how to sniff out a good place:

🍣 Rice, not fish, is the most important ingredient. It has to be the right grain, size and sticky factor. Kong mixes varieties from north and south Japan at some of his restaurants.

🐟 Tuna sets the level of the restaurant. There are several grades of tuna sourced from around the world, so what the chef chooses to serve is key.

🥢 Seaweed should be crisp, not chewy, and have a clean taste.

🐠 Mackerel is important because it must be preserved. If a restaurant chooses to use its own method, how much care is taken to cure it is proof of a thoughtful chef.

🍳Eggs are one of the last things a sushi chef is taught, Kong said. Much can be gleaned about how much attention to detail is given to preparing tamago, a sort of Japanese omelet.

The bottom line: It boils down to attention to the minute details and if the kitchen is focused on executing small stuff exquisitely.

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