“It’s the end of something I’d spent twenty years looking for and had been lucky enough to find.”
I could see that it was hard for Heirloom Chef and Owner Jason Paul to talk about.
He moves with the same precision I’ve witnessed during the height of a busy service here, the music thumping in the background, but softly today. Wrapping stacks of antique china, lifting framed prints and mugs off the shelves, cradling plants dripping with new growth in his arms to consolidate on one table, then back to the china. He doesn’t pause for a second as we talk except to take quick sips of a fresh juice, the ruby liquid brimming a quart container. He works continuously, carefully, deliberately and gently through the space. It seems both rhythmic and sad, to speak about closing his beloved restaurant while I watch him break it down, piece by piece.
“Did you know we weren’t even looking for this place? I moved here to be near my dad and was curious about all the new growth in the area. My friend Brad knew the owners were only serving lunch. He thought I should reach out about doing popups in the evenings and that’s how Heirloom After Dark got started.”
I watch as he moves through the little kitchen, polishing the counter, the stainless steel a direct contrast to the warmth in his voice. “I’d been allowed the opportunity to put out the kind of food I wanted before Heirloom, and I thought that was the most important thing to me creatively. But what I found here is that the food – the quality and it being tasty – was a given. I never expected that curating the experience – the service, lighting, music, the style, the things in the space and how intimate it was – would become my absolute favorite part.”
Chef Jason Paul was born and raised in Phoenix, Arizona. He caught the culinary bug early at the tender age of fourteen as an intern in a restaurant called Mary Elaine’s under Chef Alex Stratta. He stayed on and was hired at sixteen, working there into his early twenties. Following opportunity, he moved to Vegas to work at another Stratta restaurant, Renoir. Then as it happens for many chefs finding their way in the world, he spent years moving from one city to the next; OKC, back to Phoenix, Belfast, Maine, LA, then Northwest Arkansas. In Los Angeles he was Chef de Cuisine for Chef Matthew Kenney at M.A.K.E., and then moved to Maine for a promotion to serve as Head Chef at The Gothic. He cooked his way through traditional French, Mediterranean, high-end plant-based, and fully raw vegan kitchens. He kept grounded playing musical gigs on the side, both solo and with bands – maybe you caught Jason Paul and The New Wine around here. His thorough history of experience and travel paired with his natural gifts, have resulted in a solid voice and style all his own.
Word of Chef Jason’s talent spread fast in the burgeoning NWA culinary scene. And his reputation for innovative cuisine, unique techniques, and artful platings have amassed numerous invites and many subsequent wins at most every chef-centric event in the area. He’s taken home cash prizes and bragging rights (though you’ll never catch him cashing those in) from the Fayetteville Roots Festival each year. He’s cooked on Later with Jason Suel, and most recently even shot a pilot episode with another local chef for the Food Network. He is the brains behind the Waste Not dinner at Crystal Bridges, spreading the message about food waste in the industry and nation-wide. His food is both his livelihood and his art. Just a month ago his work was featured in a collaborative photographic exhibit called “Art of the Plate” with Mashburn Photography at the Arts Center of the Ozarks. Heirloom was just rewarded Best Fine Dining Restaurant, Best Overall Service (2 years running), and Best Romantic Date Spot in Celebrate Arkansas Magazine‘s 2016 Best Of issue. Chef Jason has a proven track-record of being a progressive thinker, thoughtful collaborator, and just all around good person that people are chomping at the bit to work with. It seemed his career as a chef and his “little restaurant that could” were both unstoppable.
Only after about two years as owner/operator of Heirloom, they closed for the month of July to accommodate new building owners’ request for renovations. The hope was it would be in the best interest of both parties, but it became apparent soon afterwards that Heirloom’s time would be limited in the small building where it had first sprouted up on the Rogers downtown square. Because the restaurant is more conceptual than material, made of delicate things – ideas and inspiration – and with Jason as the soul artistic driver, creativity felt stifled in a place where operating the business in line with his values became uncertain. The chef and his co-owner and long-time partner, Danielle Ribaudo, decided it would be best to bow out of the situation.
He told me, “The toughest part about closing is that we’ve become that special place for special occasions for people. We are booked months out, and have guests make reservations as far as a year in advance of their anniversaries, or birthdays. We loved being the place where they wanted to celebrate. And the hope is we can call them back soon with a solid idea of where and when we might be able to serve them again.”
I ask him what’s next.
“Well this is all sudden. We deeply loved our little business as it was. And we closed it without a plan, which is pretty brutal. But new beginnings are always exciting and there are several things I’ve been thinking about. So, I can tell you off the record…”
Before we lose the sun, I snap some photos of the couple in front of their first business just two days before they will say goodbye to it. As the final objects that gave Heirloom its unique panache get put in boxes, each disappearing into cocoons of bubble wrap and newspaper, or swaddled in soft towels; I see that this sweet restaurant isn’t going for good, but going dormant for a time. I do sense the grief. But as it goes, that new beginnings often come from other new beginning’s ends, the promise of Heirloom’s metamorphosis is a mighty beautiful one.