Chef to Rock Stars Becomes Star of Ouachita Dining Scene
By Josh Williams
Photography by Amanda Shelley Ledbetter
What do Bob Dylan, Mary J. Blige, No Doubt, Bush, Little Feat and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young have in common? One’s response might be “Uh, they ’re musicians–duh.” Which, in another context, would be absolutely correct. However, in this context, it’s not the music that binds these individuals together; but rather the way an apple sangria-braised pork shank or pan seared shrimp and smoked Gouda cheese grits with Tasso gravy binds to your ribs. That’s because all those professional artists have devoured what was just described. Well, they might have eaten a French onion and portobello mushroom burger with Swiss cheese and roasted garlic aioli or Caribbean jerk chicken with mango, pineapple and ginger salsa. The point is, these world-famous artists have had the pleasure of employing Chef Johnna Westerman as their caterer at some point during their respective careers on tour, and the remodeled DeSoto Club in Hot Springs Village is the latest entity to be graced by her presence.
Chef Johnna Daggett Westerman is a native of Marianna, Arkansas and has been in the business of making mouth-watering dishes for the last 34 years. Her seasoned career began at a Little Rock-based company, Renaissance Catering, in 1982. “It’s all I’ve ever done,” Johnna said. “I grew up with Southern cooking women. It’s what I love to do.” Her passion and energy at Renaissance Catering led to her catering gigs for rock stars, and it was a period in her life that she will never forget. “It was so exciting,” Johnna said. “All those different artists, their eccentric personalities, it was something different every single day, and it was always interesting. Never a dull moment.” As exciting as life on the road is, it can also be extremely draining. So when an opportunity to work at a Japanese-French fusion cuisine came along, she took it.
Around the turn of the millennium, The Exchange opened in downtown Hot Springs. Most locals remember The Exchange: It’s hard to forget a place where one could order sushi and foie gras at the same time. It was a Japanese-French fusion cuisine helmed by Chris Rix and Ken Lumpkin situated in a brownstone on Central Avenue. Chef Johnna spent several months at The Exchange, and in the aftermath of September 11, she decided that she wanted to branch out on her own.
Hot Springs Village came-a-calling, and after stops at both Diamanté and Grenada country clubs, she opened her own restaurant and catering business just outside the Village gates. Business blew up. “Pork Shank is my specialty,” Johnna said. “It’s slow braised in Sangria then I drop it in the fryer for just a minute to crisp it up, and it’s presented with a sangria au jus.” Imagine a juicy, tender pork shank with the texture and crispness of fried chicken with a sangria reduction drizzled over the top, careening past the corners of your mouth with every bite. Of course, that’s after you tease your palate with a first course of Mediterranean ricotta dip, roasted garlic, kalamata olives and blistered cherry tomatoes.
After our salivary glands were well satisfied, we questioned her on how she was able to exude so much influence over our appetites. Johnna said, “It’s not called comfort food for nothing. It’s what I do.” But chef Johnna isn’t about the typical comfort food. You can see the international and coastal influence in her dishes. “We go to Nantucket in the summer, the Keys the winter, I’ve spent time in Europe, it’s all about quality and freshness. We take a fresh approach to every single dish, that’s the only way. People deserve eating quality ingredients every meal.” The grilled salmon dusted with chipotle and topped with orange glaze confirms this statement. Or the French onion soup that she incorporates with hearty portobello mushrooms.
Chef Johnna is ecstatic to be back home. “I grew up on Marianna Country Club, and my mom was an avid golfer. She was deep into Arkansas golf,” she said. “I get my love of golf from her. It’s my Sunday afternoon thing to do after brunch when it’s quiet. There’s nothing more relaxing, and we’re lucky to have the quality of golf that we have here in the Village.” But she doesn’t just golf. “The rivers are so great, too. I love to canoe and camp.” “I grew up hunting in eastern Arkansas, trout fishing as a young girl, and I still love to do it now.” Anyone familiar with the Ouachitas knows that Chef Johnna seems to be in her “happy place.” Chef Johnna knows that in order to stay happy she has to keep her customers happy by keeping her offerings varied. “I change the menu once a month, pair them with wines, see what hits and revamp the next month. I have a smoker out back. Ribs and pulled pork on the weekends. We do a pulled pork burger–the Razorback Burger.” Wooooo pig beefy…
It’s been a wild 12 months for the chef/ golfer/hospitality expert. “So much has happened in a year, it’s almost overwhelming,” said the chef. But she knows what’s at stake. “I’m that chef that wants to see that face when you take a bite.” So the next time you hear “Mr. Tambourine Man,” you might be strangely drawn to the DeSoto Club in Hot Springs Village.