On Oct. 15, Pine Bluff Country Club will be the setting for a heavyweight showdown. Matías de Matthaeis, executive chef at Red Oak Steakhouse at Saracen Casino Resort in Pine Bluff, will go head to head with Payne Harding, executive chef and owner of Cache Restaurant in Little Rock, for the title of Delta Diamond Chef. The first annual Delta Diamond Chef Awards Gala and Competition is sponsored by the American Culinary Federation, Arkansas Delta Chef’s Association and Central Arkansas Chef’s Association.


Todd Gold, senior director of hospitality at Saracen, previously ran Arkansas Diamond Chef through the University of Arkansas-Pulaski Technical College Culinary Arts and Hospitality Management Institute in Little Rock for 14 years and expressed his excitement about the new set up through the American Culinary Federation, which combines the competition and awards gala.

Todd Gold
(Photo provided)

“I’m looking forward to this first year back and the discoveries of what goes well and what we can improve for next year,” Gold said. “This is a unique event like no other in our area.” The event chair is Heather Baker, president and publisher at AY Media Group.


The competition portion is bigger than ever in its first battle since the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Eight chefs from the two chapters competed for the title in the preliminaries held in Little Rock in April. Competitors included Jill McDonald, executive chef and owner of the Croissanterie in Little Rock; Brayan McFadden, chef and owner of Brood & Barley in North Little Rock; Jordan Davis, food and beverage director at Chenal Country Club in Little Rock; J. Lance Curtis, faculty member at UA-PTC; Kevin Doroski, executive chef and business review specialist at Draft + Table in the Argenta area of North Little Rock; and Gregory Matthews, executive chef and business review specialist at Performance Foodservice in Little Rock.


From those eight competitors, the field was reduced to four chefs, and those four competed the same day in the semifinals, from which Harding and Matthaeis advanced to the final event.


“I competed in the last Diamond Chef Competition and even made it to the finals,” Matthaeis said. “Unfortunately, due to lack of staff and many reservations at the Alotian Club [in Roland] on that evening, I had to forfeit my chance. Customers always come first, but I always wondered if I could have become the Diamond Chef on that fateful evening.


“The Delta Diamond Chef Competition is an opportunity for redemption. This time I will be there and show what I am capable of.”

delta diamond chef

Matías de Matthaeis, executive chef Red Oak Steakhouse at Saracen Casino Resort

Matthaeis forged an early relationship with cooking by spending time with his grandmother, Esmeralda, but said he did not know it was what he wanted to do with his life until he got into the industry almost by accident. He recalled his journey to the finale fondly.


“It has been a wonderful journey so far,” he said. “Working at Red Oak, an Arkansas Delta restaurant, we put our minds into having Delta touches throughout our menu combined with steakhouse classics and my own personal touch. Every day, I give more meaning to what it means to be a Delta chef.”


Harding echoed Matthaeis’ sentiments about his anticipation of the competition and said he previously competed in Diamond Chef and made appearances in similar contests. This is his first appearance in the finals, but he said the previous competitions taught him valuable lessons.


“I’ve learned that training never ends,” he said. “You have to continue educating yourself any way you can to become a better chef. I’m excited to represent my restaurant on this type of level and to work with my sous chefs and give them this opportunity to do this with me.”


Harding also expressed appreciation for competing against Matthaeis, calling his rival, “one of the best chefs in the state and very talented in cuisine.”


“It’s a pressure test that you put yourself through with these cooking competitions, and winning would give me an unmeasurable confidence boost in my career,” he said. “I have always been interested in food since I was 9 or 10 years old. I started reading cookbooks at a young age. My first job as a line cook was when I was 15 years old. I think cuisine and chefs in Arkansas are special, and I am honored to be a part of the Diamond Chef, representing Cache restaurant.”

Payne Harding, executive chef and owner Cache Restaurant

During the event, patrons will be served a six-course dinner prepared by the six chefs in the competition who did not advance to the final. Gold shared his excitement for crafting the event in that manner.


“This year, guests will be greeted by large banners of the eight competitors in the lobby and an opportunity to enjoy hors d’oeuvres and cocktails before dinner while watching the competition,” he said.


A special feature of the event is Sissy’s Log Cabin sponsoring a diamond that will be auctioned off. The money raised will be allocated to the plan for rehabilitating a building on Main Street in downtown Pine Bluff that will be used as a guest-chef restaurant, community education center, and state-of-the-art kitchen where aspiring chefs, food scientists and entrepreneurs can collaborate in a supportive environment.


Gold said the forthcoming center, to be developed over the next two to five years, will help revitalize downtown Pine Bluff.


“By leveraging the power of food, education and community, we can create a vibrant, inclusive space that will breathe new life into the area, stimulate economic growth, and inspire a sense of pride in our community,” he said.


In addition to the competition, the event will recognize exceptional individuals in the categories of Chef of the Year, Pastry Chef of the Year, Student Chef of the Year, Student Pastry Chef of the Year and Educator from the Arkansas Delta and Central Arkansas chapters.


The sold-out Delta Diamond Chefs competition highlights the Pine Bluff community’s excitement for food. Using the funds from the event to open the door for further growth of the Pine Bluff area is an opportunity Gold and Saracen are passionate about achieving.


“No one will ever experience something quite like this, an original, branded, combined event like no other,” he said.


Photos by Jason Burt.