Date: January 4, 2024 | Story: Eileen Beard | Photography: Rett Peek | Styling: Angela Alexander |
With the addition of The Louis, Wilson solidifies its reputation as an essential part of the Arkansas food scene
As executive chef at the Ritz Carlton in Houston, Todd Rogers once fed the likes of Queen Elizabeth II and both Presidents George H. W. and George W. Bush. He has helmed the culinary program at five-star resorts in Pennsylvania and Georgia and overseen more than a dozen restaurants at a time. With a resume like his, Wilson might sound like an odd place for Chef Todd to land, but he jumped at the chance to shape this tiny Arkansas town’s culinary future as its vice president of culinary, farming, and culture. “It’s not me taking over another resort or playbook,” Todd says. “We’re building the playbook here.”
Wilson was once a booming company town, but its population started to dwindle as the farming industry changed over the course of the 20th century. In 2010, The Lawrence Group purchased the town and began revitalization efforts that have created new opportunities for residents and tourists alike. Aside from preserving Wilson’s signature Tudor-style buildings and Cottonwood tree-lined streets, they began that process by opening Wilson Cafe, a sophisticated but friendly eatery with a gourmet take on Southern classics. It was an instant success, attracting visitors from far and wide. Last year, Todd and the team opened a second dining option in town called The Grange at Wilson Gardens. “We wanted to make it completely different,” he says. “There are not a whole lot of restaurants that have a garden out back, and we’re very fortunate to have that.” Visitors to The Grange will find a casual breakfast and lunch menu as well as a bakery and creamery onsite and an art gallery on the second floor. Outside, families can visit the chicken coop or say hello to Bonnie and Clyde, a pair of Berkshire pigs that call The Grange home.
The most recent addition to Wilson’s growing footprint is The Louis, a 16-room boutique hotel with luxury accommodations. “When you check in, we ask what you like to eat and drink,” Todd says. “We stock the pantry with refreshing options for breakfast and lunch, snacks like hummus and pimento cheese, and iced tea and cookies. They’re all complimentary items available to The Louis guests,” he says. Tucked inside the lobby, Staple is a cozy hotel bar that serves elevated snacks, signature cocktails, and an extensive wine list. Plans for Wilson’s future include more delicious food, a luxury automobile museum, and a golf course. “We are still in the infant stages of what we’re doing big-picture,” Todd says. “We’re writing the book, so anything is possible.” Read on for some of Todd’s favorite food and drink pairings from Wilson Cafe, The Grange, and Staple.
Above: Slices of old-fashioned buttermilk pie and chocolate cream pie from the dessert menu at The Grange.
Shake It Off
Todd says the juicy Wilson Burger is made with a mix of brisket, short rib, and ground beef to give it that perfect blend of flavor, moisture, and chew. It can be customized with add-ons like apple-smoked bacon, a fried egg, or avocado and is served here with house-cut fries. Todd recommends pairing this elevated take on a dairy bar classic with the Honey Bourbon Pecan milkshake from The Grange.
Growing up on a 187-acre farm in West Virginia shaped Chef Todd’s approach to cooking with seasonal, regional ingredients. “It’s not just farm-to-table, it’s earth-totable: from compost to seeding to sprouting to nurturing to growing the product to harvest,” he says.
A savory combination of gourmet meats and cheeses, this charcuterie board is perfect for sharing with friends at Staple. “One of my favorite cheeses is the white cheddar made with Guinness,” Todd says. It’s coupled here with a cabernet sauvignon from Heitz Cellars, one of several vineyards owned by the head of The Lawrence Group.
Wilson Cafe’s 1886 Old Fashioned is presented under a smoke-filled glass dome, giving it the campfire treatment. “When you open it at the table you get this aroma, and the glass, ice, and lemon are all smoked,” Todd says. He suggests pairing it with charcuterie to enhance the bold flavors of each.
Deviled eggs are a perfect Southern snack according to Todd, who likes to share a plate with his family before dinner. At Wilson Cafe, different versions are offered every day using fresh, local eggs. This one is topped with pimento cheese and fried green tomato.
Savory & Sour
Wilson Cafe’s jumbo lump crab cake with a panko crust sits atop buttermilk mashed potatoes alongside local, seasonal vegetables. Todd recommends washing it down with the Planter’s Paloma, a frothy pink drink featuring tequila and grapefruit. “Seafood and citrus go really well together,” he says of the pairing.
This hearty ribeye with a red wine reduction is one of Chef Todd’s favorite items on Wilson Cafe’s menu. “I’m a medium rare guy, but I don’t judge people’s orders,” Todd says. “It’s just what I prefer for the moisture and the chew.” A cabernet sauvignon from Ink Grade makes a great companion to the red meat.