Frenchified Southern

May 1, 2016 | By More

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Robert Mullins’ eyes are locked in a perpetual smile. It’s a knowing smile accented by arching brows and framed with flat-top rectangle glasses. There is a sense of vulpine character in the eyes. It’s as though he knows a secret that he wants to share with you, but he’s not sure you can handle it.

He’s quick and energetic, both physically and mentally. A blur in burnt orange on the night of our interview, darting to stove then to stainless steel preparation counter, he rarely stops to contemplate. It’s an intuition borne of past food-prep experiences and a creative buzz that almost audibly hums. And then there’s that something else, something different about him that even he can’t quite put his finger on. “Yeah, I’m weird,” said Robert, “that’s for sure.”

The words that come to mind are resourceful, clever, efficient — vulpine indeed.

Robert, or Rob, as he’s known to anyone beyond an introduction, and his wife Kim, are the owners of something remarkably and wonderfully new in the River Valley. It’s a Clarksville restaurant called Fox & Fork. But Rob is more than head chef and restauranteur. He is also a modern-day renaissance man, a fellow that at age 40-something — “I am 42… I’m 42? Or I might be 41. I lost track,” said Rob — is blazing his own trail through previously unexplored territory in rural Arkansas. Rob has created a whole new type of cuisine right here in the River Valley. Food and the restaurant scene are, of course, central to the Rob story. But there are some interesting nuggets of Rob’s personal history, outside of the culinary, directly and indirectly related to the creation of Fox & Fork and “Frenchified Southern” food, which is how Rob describes his culinary creations.

The creative process, whether it involves writing, painting, music or cooking is hallmarked by the the curious mind. And Rob’s curious mind was on full display in college. “I did entomology for a while. I was kind of on a premed circuit and then that went to bugs, and that went to pre-dental, and then pre-dental went to business and I finally graduated one credit short of having my biology degree,” said Rob. He wished professional student could have been a career option. “I was really good at that,” said Rob. But simmering in the background of a busy academic life was one passion — cooking. “This is what I did for fun the whole time I was in school,” said Rob. “I cooked food.”

It was the early 90s, and while Rob was in college at Rogers State University he was working at a restaurant in nearby Tulsa called Molly’s Landing. That’s where Rob’s love affair with the restaurant culture blossomed. The culinary scene with its demand for artistic creativity and precision melding of various elements into delectable masterpieces was where he felt most complete. From Molly’s Landing, Rob moved on to Venice Gardens under the tutelage of Oklahoma master chef, Jim Hammett.

All the ingredients for high-end food appreciation and the soon-to-come media behind it were marinating during this time. The craft beer phenomenon was in its infancy. Anthony Bourdain was still a relative unknown but the Food Network was launching. A distinguishing palate, the “foodie culture,” and rockstar chefs to satisfy that culture were just emerging. After years of toiling in relative obscurity, the cooks in the back — those culinary geniuses with singed knuckles and knife-nicked thumbs — were becoming cool. “And what sucked was that’s about the time I exited,” said Rob. “All this artisan stuff just started and I hear this voice in the back of my head saying, ‘You’ve got to go to college. You’ve got to get a degree. You’ve got to make $100,000.’ ”

And so it was off to a “real job” in manufacturing and then back to school as Rob tacked on another two years for a business degree and then a move to Arkansas for his masters in IT. Any creative cooking outlets would be outside the professional realm. Rob started cooking at home.

Kim was the head Mullins cook for the first years of their marriage. But after Rob got his second degree things changed. “Kim would buy all these kitchen gadgets, and I was like, all you need is a knife,” said Rob. “I finally pulled up a trash can and opened up the cabinets and started throwing all that stuff away. I was kind of mad. And Kim said, ‘If you throw all that stuff away I’m not cooking another thing.’ I said, ‘deal.’ It started off funny… and then it got real.”

Necessity is said to be the mother of invention, and a lot of Rob’s creative cooking came from a need to stretch dollars. He would buy pork shoulder, an inexpensive cut of meat, and make pulled pork sandwiches for the kids to munch on through the week. But his own tastebuds also contributed. “I was going to Starbucks sucking down coffee, and we were poor and I couldn’t afford a cookie,” said Rob. “And it was driving me crazy that biscotti, this little cookie, was a buck fifty.” So he went home and made his own biscotti. You know there’s going to be more to the story after someone goes home and makes biscotti from scratch. Normal folks don’t just go home and make biscotti. But nothing dramatic happened for a while. Rob had a business education to attend to.

Kim’s ties to Clarksville are what brought the Mullins to the River Valley, though, the mechanism was unfortunate. Kim’s grandmother passed away in December of 2003 leaving an empty Clarksville house in need of caretakers. Rob graduated with a business degree in May of 2004 in need of a master’s degree. So the couple decided to relocate the family. They moved into Kim’s grandmother’s house while Rob pursued his master’s degree at Arkansas Tech University.

New in town and looking for a place to decompress, Rob and Kim were pining for a coffee shop when they found the KXIO Coffee House nestled in downtown Clarksville. “We scraped together some change to get some coffee, and we sat on a couch and looked around and thought, ‘Man, this would be an awesome restaurant’ ” said Rob. It was another subtle and unspectacular observation, one of those markers along the road of life that we notice only in the rearview mirror.

The years rolled along.

As the Mullins’ son, Grant, hit his teenage years he chose the KXIO Coffeehouse as his hang out spot, drinking coffee — “he’s a coffee snob,” said Rob — and singing karaoke. And one day Rob and Kim thought they ought to check out what their son found so appealing about the little coffee shop/radio station. “So we came up and met Jody [the coffee house owner at the time],” said Kim, “and started talking about the coffee house. He told us his story, and about the business and even took us on a tour in the back. Showed us the kitchen and all.” This was in June of 2015. Another foreshadowing moment lost on all at the time, but this was the big one. This was the catalyst.

“So we get about half way home,” said Rob. “And I say, ‘You know, I just need to blow off steam after work. I need a place to fry something up.’ ” 

Kim was all for it. “I said, ‘Why don’t you ask him [Jody] about taking over the kitchen or just cook on the weekends?’ ” said Kim.

Rob thought that sounded weird, but Kim wasn’t letting him off the hook. “I told him that if he doesn’t do it now he’d never do it.”

They drove back and talked with a puzzled Jody. “So I told him I just needed a place to cook,” said Rob. “But Jody said he didn’t want to do that. He wanted to sell me the place.”

Rob and Kim balked at first, but the simmer had turned to a boil and the Mullins could not find a reason to say no. Fox & Fork opened July 6, 2015.

The opening was also the world’s first introduction to Frenchified Southern cooking. Though it is a product of the region, the sophisticated flavors are quite different from anything served anywhere else statewide. Factoring in the history of Fox & Fork’s physical location — the KXIO/coffee shop/bar — it was quite a shock to Clarksville. So how long did it take for people to like the fancy food? “Uh… they never did,” said Rob. “We had to build a whole new clientele.”

So the Bud Light tap and pizza oven closed permanently. In its place, customers found caprese salad and a meatloaf dish unlike anything you’ve ever known or thought about meatloaf. “We’re educating the palates of the River Valley,” said Rob.

Despite the challenges, Rob thinks this new venture is starting up in exactly the right location. “Clarksville is a very interesting place,” said Rob. “There’s a lot of art and a lot of music. It’s kind of cool to be here right now. I think we’re kind of in our infancy here as far as being known. I think this is the beginning of something.”

But what about the name? How did the words “fox” and “fork” meld in Rob’s mind to somehow mean good food?

“I’ve always been into foxes,” said Rob. “But it all came together with this little… uh… let me go get him.” Rob scurried toward the kitchen as he was talking, but Kim filled us in on “who” Rob was getting.

“Rob found this fox on Etsy,” said Kim. “It was handmade by a woman in Lithuania.”

Rob returned with a scruffy looking stuffed animal. “So every time Kim would ask me what I wanted for Christmas or my birthday I would say I wanted Bandit Fox,” said Rob, holding tight to his much loved Bandit Fox.

Bandit Fox took on his own persona even before he came to live in the Mullins home. “Anytime there was something that kind of exciting happened to us we were like ‘Wooo, Bandit Fox,’” said Rob with dash of drama. “it was kind of stupid, but…”

Rob’s wants came at an unfortunate time, though. “This is when we didn’t have two pennies to rub together,” said Kim, “and Rob wanted this stupid fox, a stuffed animal.” But Kim finally caved and brought Bandit Fox to America. And now Bandit Fox has his own Instagram hashtag and has inspired what could be one of Arkansas’s signature restaurants. ABOUT photographer Liz Chrisman was on hand during Rob’s interview and quickly cut to the chase: “Is Bandit Fox a totem for you?” Rob and Kim responded with a laugh. But neither gave an answer.

The atmosphere, the name and logo, and the stuffed Lithuanian fox all work together to give the restaurant an essence of Old World rustic. “I wanted to capture a theme that says Frenchified Southern with a woodsy feel,” said Rob. “The only thing I would change would be to bring in actual trees. I want you to feel like you’re walking to the outside. I don’t know if we’ll ever get there, but that’s what we want to do.” The menu, unique for the state and exclusive to the River Valley, pushes this theme further with entrees like chicken of the woods and the foxy BLT.

The short term goals at Fox & Fork include more farm to table offerings. “Trying to source local food is very difficult here,” said Rob. “I’m just now making some contacts. Going into spring and summer I’m planning on it being great. I’ve got some tomatoes people are growing for me. If I could find a local source for meat that would be great, and having a USDA butcher would be great, too.” Rob said he’s looking to create a taste of the region by preparing his unique interpretation of locally grown food.

Just last month, Rob quit his day job in IT work at a Clarksville business. Now that Fox & Fork is more than a side, Rob has found his appetite for the place even more insatiable. Even during the hours and days he’s scheduled himself off duty, he just can’t leave. “In spring and summer mornings I’ll be out here on the deck drinking coffee and reading magazines looking for ideas,” said Rob, “just watching the life of Clarksville.”

Life in Clarksville is certainly looking delicious these days.

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