It’s two hours before the Friday night dinner crowd, and Little Rock’s River Market is quiet. Cold, rain-drizzled sidewalks abut the shining street where passing vehicles gently stir shallow puddles. The low, dark clouds have tricked the electric eyes up and down President Clinton Avenue, awakening neon signs in jolting hues.

 

Inside Cache Restaurant, the overture for the evening is just beginning to build with the heat from oven and grill. Staff scurry to finish their evening prep like stagehands behind a curtain – checking this, stocking that, adjusting just so. Clean metal workspaces gleam, utensils flash, and fines wines appear as if from thin air, only to be stowed just as quickly under the bar.

 

Chef Payne Harding, plump onion in one hand, nimble blade in the other, takes his spot and starts to reduce the vegetable to fragrant shards. Cache Restaurant turns 10 this year – a journey that’s been both personally gratifying and COVID-era terrifying – but arguably never as good as it is right now. Watching him at the helm, buoyed by a staff he loves and respects, he’s right where he’s always wanted to be.

 

 

“We have a really great staff at the restaurant,” he said. “A lot of the people in charge here have been there since the beginning, myself, my sous chef, our two general managers and our lead waitress, who brings a special kind of energy out front.

 

“Really, I feel like as you get older as a chef, you become more organized, and you kind of work a tad bit easier, and you’re kind of more like the maestro in the kitchen. I like to lend more of that leadership role now.”

 

The restaurant business is not for the faint of heart, as every eatery in America walks a thin line between success and disaster from month to month or even shift to shift. Many shuttered during COVID, never to return; others stumbled back and flatlined under rising costs and shrinking available labor.

 

Cache Restaurant, while not immune to these challenges, was one of the lucky ones, making it back on little more than unrelenting hard work and faith in the art of food. But then, hard work has always been the soundtrack for Harding’s career in the kitchen.

 

“I remember one of my chef instructors giving me a hard time one day because I couldn’t figure out how to get a piece of machinery working,” Harding said of his culinary institute days in New York. “He said I wasn’t a natural. I’ve pretty much always been kind of a grinder in my life with athletics and with being a chef. I didn’t have excellent grades in culinary school. It didn’t come easy to me at all.

 

“I think I’ve grown as a chef. I’m very comfortable now being a chef. I’m always trying to continue to learn and improve any way I can. And since Cache has settled in through the 10 years, we’ve really got a system down. We really found out what products do we want to buy and what products do we want to sell.”

 

Linda Harding, Payne’s mother and a professional artist whose eye for design is on ready display throughout the stylish, comfortable dining room, said, “He’s become more focused and more adept with his cooking, and I think he knows more of the vision from beginning to end. I think that helps him move forward in a better and bigger direction toward reaching his goals.”

 

Technically speaking, Cache has been a family affair. Linda and her husband, longtime investment banker and entrepreneur Rush Harding, own the space and are their son’s trusted business advisers. The past decade has taught all three much about running a successful restaurant.

 

Cache

Left to Right: Linda Harding, Payne Harding , Rush Harding

 

“I’m involved in the riskiest businesses on the planet Earth, and they’re all like going to Sunday school class compared to the restaurant business,” Rush said. “The margins are so thin that if something happens, if you make an error — or like in February we had an ice storm — you’re in trouble. We’re not going to make any money in February because that ice storm ruined the first week of the month. It’s nobody’s fault, it just happened.

 

“It’s a fun business overall, but I would say Linda and I wouldn’t be in the restaurant business if it wasn’t for our son, if it wasn’t his passion and his dream. Ten years in, and still there’s plenty to learn about challenges.”

 

Team Harding overcame a major setback last summer when a drainage problem flooded the street-level dining room and forced a 90-day closure while the first floor was rebuilt. Disastrous though that was in the short term, the incident helped birth a unique new feature – a private speakeasy behind a hidden door dubbed The Bayou – offering something new and unique for patrons.

 

“I grew up in the Delta in East Arkansas. I love shiny stuff,” Rush said with a grin. “I wanted Cache to have a little swagger, and [The Bayou] has that.”

 

Such ambiance certainly lends to the restaurant’s reputation as one of the premier fine dining experiences in Arkansas, but would be of little importance without Chef Payne’s exceptional cuisine. The menu features an eclectic mix of influences that elevate familiar ingredients in dishes that are creative yet approachable.

 

“I started revamping the menu five or six or seven years ago because we were kind of unsure about what kind of food we were serving,” he said. “I like to describe what we do now as New American; you take the melting pot of America and fusion it together.

 

“We do a lot of Southern American food, and we do a lot of Cajun and Creole food, which I think is one of our strengths. We have a few different cuts of beef, and they’re chargrilled and served with a special sauce and traditional sides that are excellent. And we implement a little Italian and Asian in places. You wind up with a nice blend of cuisines from different heritages.”

 

Highly recommended by the chef himself is a bone-in short rib and decadent braising jus served over homemade gnocchi topped with crispy fried shallots. Linda and Rush, meanwhile, fairly swoon describing a salmon dish topped with leeks, a perfectly poached egg and dollop of caviar. The dishes are just two examples of Chef Payne’s maturation in his craft.

 

“I’ll never stop learning,” he said. “I think that’s what has helped our food evolve and keep getting better and better. It just takes time and experience and me learning and following other chefs and exploring food trends and just trying to figure out how far I want to take things.”

 

It would be one thing for Harding to have started his restaurant career in an intimate bistro tucked into one of the city’s trendier neighborhoods, where this maturation could occur in relative obscurity. Instead, Cache Restaurant occupies arguably the most visible corner location in the city, where the restaurant’s triumphs and challenges play out in the most public way imaginable.

 

“I was just speaking with [Little Rock restauranteur] Mark Abernathy the other night,” Harding said. “He was telling me a restaurant is like having a big wall in a room, and on that wall is like a thousand screws and you’re trying to tighten each screw, just right. Five hundred screws are all tight, and then you’ve got to look at the bottom half of it and try to get those tight. It’s a lot of just looking at what we’re doing and kind of observing and recognizing what we could be doing better. That’s how you try to keep growing.”

 

This mentality lends a level of pressure to everyone involved on a nightly basis. When things work to ownership’s high standards, Cache Restaurant is the place where Little Rock’s power elite go to see and be seen; on nights it doesn’t, seemingly the whole city knows about it. For that reason, no detail here is too small, from the vintage of the wine to the freshness of the flower bouquets to the flow of the background music, which on this night is classic soul oozing out of unseen overhead speakers.

 

“In the beginning stages of this as a project, we wanted Cache to be first class,” Rush said. “We wanted it to be something we could be proud of. The goal is when people come here to have dinner, we want them to feel comfortable; we want them to feel immersed in beauty when they come here to have a dining experience. We feel like we’ve accomplished that.”

 

It’s the kind of challenge that you’re either up for or you’re not and one that never goes away. But judging by the list of regulars, which includes the city’s leading business executives, city and state government chiefs and local celebrities of all categories, Cache is just hitting its stride 10 years in.

 

“The regulars have always come back, and we’re just so grateful,” Linda said. “We love them, all of them. And if you’re new and you’re here, we try to make you feel special.”

 

Cache

 

The evening’s crew has filled out, and the first guests are just minutes from Cache’s front door. The energy has stepped up as well; like all live art forms, no one really knows what’s about to transpire, reservation lists and advance prep be damned. One thing’s for sure: the stage for whatever is to come is set beautifully as the gloomy weather outside serves to accentuate the restaurant’s vibrant décor. Viewed from outside, the dining room glows like stained glass.

 

From his station, Harding multitasks, prepping, greeting, directing. The patter between himself and his team is direct but muted, totally absent of reality-show chef histrionics. It’s a sign of trust in and respect for the people around him, the team he’s envisioned, and which has taken so long to build.

 

They are the soul of the place, and Harding wants them to get their due for what they’ve come through and the work they do tonight and every lunch hour and dinner crowd to come. More than that, he wants the eatery to be the standard-bearer for a dining renaissance in Little Rock. Cache Restaurant could operate anywhere but it doesn’t, it’s here, front and center as always, in the core neighborhood of his hometown.

 

“I love the city of Little Rock,” Harding said. “I would like to see more dining in Little Rock. I would love to see Little Rock become more of a destination for dining. I would like us to be seen by more national entities like the James Beard people. I would like Little Rock to become a place that’s known on eater websites. There are so many great things to be offered in Little Rock, and I just don’t think we get enough credit for what the city of Little Rock has.

 

“I want to bring more attention to not only what Cache Restaurant is doing, but that there’s a lot of new, exciting restaurants in this city. We need to give more attention to the chefs and the local food scene and what’s happening here. I think Bentonville is stealing a lot of the thunder up there, but I think Little Rock is just as cool. Let’s celebrate it.”   

 

 

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