The Fayetteville Farmers Market opens for business (left), and chef Ethan Altom is ready to shop (right).

 

A FRESH START AT A CLASSIC MARKET

Chef Ethan Altom begins his career at Bordinos by paying homage to Fayetteville’s rich tradition of local growers

By: Michael Roberts   Photography: Jess Miller-Roberts

It was a clear, cold Ozark morning on the Fayetteville square, and even before the official opening time of 8 a.m., the crowds were already forming to celebrate one of the longest-standing traditions in the state: the opening of the Fayetteville Farmers Market. Folks in Fayetteville are justifiably proud of their city’s market, which has provided local growers a place to sell their wares for over four decades. 

Entire generations have grown up with the market, which opened in 1973, and the granddaddy of all Arkansas farmers markets has not rested on its laurels, instead becoming a shining example of what a diverse, well-run market should be. Even at this early date in the season, the historic downtown Fayetteville square was ringed with vendors selling the first fruits of spring, handmade crafts and an assortment of eggs, cheese and other prepared artisan products.  

The most popular booth on that chilly opening morning was Arsaga’s Coffee, but soon a combination of warm, delicious caffeine and the bright sun had market-goers shaking off the cool morning air. There is something exciting about watching people discover new and delicious things, and the shoppers at this market—regular and new alike—seemed dazzled by the array of fresh produce spread out before us. 

We wanted to experience the market from a local’s perspective, and so we met up with chef Ethan Altom of Bordinos to shop the market, meet some of his favorite vendors, and then take all the wonderful things we purchased back to the Dickson Street mainstay so the chef could turn our fresh Arkansas finds into something truly delicious. Chef Altom was as enthusiastic about opening day as everyone, something that was quite infectious. 

Shoppers enjoy opening day at the Fayetteville Farmers Market. 

Altom is only 25, but he has already worked with names like Joel Antunes and Travis McConnell at the Capital Hotel in Little Rock, Andy Ticer and Michael Hudman of Memphis’ Andrew Michael and Hog and Hominy, and Bill Lyle at Ella’s Restaurant in Fayetteville. He’s only been at Bordinos since February of 2015, and while he admits to some anxiety about running one of the most popular restaurants on Fayetteville’s iconic Dickson Street, what is more evident from watching him work are the skills, smarts and passion that landed him the job in the first place.  

“I do it for other people,” Altom says of his cooking. “I love food, but I want to cook to make a difference.” It’s an attitude that seems to have energized everyone at Bordinos.

As we walked along the square, Altom mentioned that he had baked some quiche shells the night before and suggested we do a classic quiche with a light salad. Given the early hour, that seemed very appropriate, so with our dish decided, the chef began to shop. 

First stop, White River Creamery, where the chef picked up some tasty fromage blanc. The Elkins dairy has developed a reputation for excellence with their Nigerian Dwarf goat milk cheese, and we were sure to hit their booth first before they sold out. We then stopped at a booth called Kat’s Whimsical Menagerie, also from Elkins, where we purchased some lovely duck eggs.  

Altom’s next stop was at a booth he knew well, that of Foothold Farms out of Jasper. “I buy tomatoes, fingerling potatoes and persimmons from Foothold,” says Altom, and on this day he purchased some lovely carrots and a bunch of fresh sorrel that Foothold farmer Dave Moll showed us.

With our ingredients tucked safely away, we journeyed back to Altom’s Dickson Street kitchen where he kept up a lively patter with his sous chef and line cooks as they prepared for the day’s brunch, all while slicing carrots, beating eggs and shredding cheese—and letting us sample a wonderful house-made duck ham that was a perfect savory addition to the quiche.

“I love food, but I want to cook to make a difference.” 

—Ethan Altom

Watching chef Altom in the kitchen proved that he has honed his craft into an art form. As our local quiche came out of the oven, much of the staff gathered round to sample a bite of the rich, savory custard and tangy salad. A simple meal, yes, but that’s all part of Altom’s plan: Keep flavors simple, keep ingredients fresh and utilize the vast local bounty of northwest Arkansas to create a menu that Bordinos regulars and new eaters alike will enjoy. He’s a bright new star on the growing Arkansas food scene, and given his appreciation for the decades-long foundation laid by institutions like the Fayetteville Farmers Market, his success seems guaranteed.