The annual Soup Sunday is a foodie’s heaven.

Benefiting Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, Soup Sunday 2019 is just around the corner, and with it comes another batch of delicious soups. The event is slated for Feb. 24 at the Statehouse Convention Center from 4-7 p.m. Folks are encouraged to bring their own muffin tins so they can test all the soups, breads and desserts prepared by central Arkansas’ favorite chefs. This family-friendly event has activities for the kiddos as well as a silent and live auction, live music and more.

Little Rock native and Ciao Baci executive chef Jeff Owen has been tapped as the 2019 Soup Sunday featured chef. With that honor comes a can’t-miss soup comprised of white beans, mushroom and bacon served with parmesan croutons. Now in his 10th year volunteering with Soup Sunday, Owen says one of his favorite aspects of the event is getting a chance to see all the talented people behind Little Rock’s burgeoning food scene.

We chatted with Owen about his time as a chef in the city and what folks can expect at this year’s Soup Sunday event.

Being from Little Rock, do you think the food scene here impacted your desire to become a chef?

This one is tricky. I will say that, at times, chef-driven, ethnic or original food offerings have had their waves of availability or lack of. That sometimes drives you to do a little digging for adventurous dining experiences or ingredients, and every chef knows you sometimes have to look a little deeper. I think that challenge alone creates a chef mentality of making the most of what is available.


When did you know you wanted to be a chef?

Food and cooking have always sparked my interest. I have fond family food memories stemming from a very young age. I would take my allowance to the grocery store and buy ingredients and cook for my friends. Being involved in Scouting, I quickly picked up the finer points of camp cooking — a well-respected skill not many hungry teen boys could conquer.

I always loved watching the classic cooking shows growing up like “The Galloping Gourmet” and “Great Chefs of the World.” I was kind of a food nerd but had never been introduced to a professional setting.

When I was 15, I had taken a summer job hosting and bussing tables at a high volume Tex-Mex joint. Walking into the back and seeing that kitchen in full swing, the camaraderie between the cooks, the stress and pressure of the busy dinner rush, not to mention the sheer danger of knives and fire, was enough to sell me.


Where did you get your culinary training?

In 2004, I started at the American Culinary School of Apprenticeship here in Little Rock, which over time grew into Pulaski Tech’s outstanding culinary arts program we know today. While I learned the basics of a craft, I cannot compare any of the curriculum to the great chef mentors and countless hours of on-the-job training I have under my belt. There are some skills and lessons that just cannot be taught in the classroom.


What's your favorite part of being a chef?

Building a dish or a menu from the concept up to what you see on the plate is always exciting to me. I take a lot of inspiration when developing our food, and we sometimes pull from the wackiest of places, like the name of a song, a vacation spot, a favorite holiday dish or a guilty pleasure.


What's your favorite menu item right now at Ciao Baci?

My favorite right now is a Nashville-style hot fried chicken but with an Indian influence. Crispy fried buttermilk marinated chicken is the start of the plate. We replace the traditional cayenne pepper with a dusting of tandoori spices, serve on a bed of marinated sliced cucumbers and fresh cheese and finish with mint, sesame and melon glaze. It’s totally hot chicken and pickles, but with an international twist.


How long have you been involved with Soup Sunday?

This will be my 10th year to be a part of Soup Sunday. I can remember the early years when it was still held at Embassy Suites on Financial Parkway.


Tell me about your featured dish for this year's Soup Sunday. What inspired you?

This year we are bringing a white bean, mushroom and bacon soup with parmesan croutons. I always try to prepare something familiar, approachable and comforting, but also something very special and unique. Our house-cured-and-smoked bacon is a staple of the restaurant and something we have been perfecting over the past five years. It appears on our menu in several different applications and has definitely become something special we take pride and excitement in sharing this year.


What makes Soup Sunday such a special event in Little Rock?

Seeing so many people in the same place for a great cause is always heartwarming, but seeing all my favorite food people in one place is the topper for me. It's rare to have this many peers in the same room at the same time. Our industry is demanding and sometimes leaves little time to catch up with friends and family. To be able to taste everyone's creations and share stories or just visit with all the different talented behind-the-scenes people is always such a treat for me.


When you're not busy at Ciao Baci, what do you like to do in your spare time?

Anything I can do to get outside, whether it be camping, fishing, lounging in the hammock or even just working in the yard or garden. I have a wonderful family, a wife and 5-year-old daughter, who keeps my hands full. Obviously cooking at home, listening to music, reading old cookbooks, but mostly dreaming about our next best dish.


Soup Sunday 2019
Feb. 24, 4 p.m. • Statehouse Convention Center
Benefiting: Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families
Tickets + Info: ARAdvocates.org/Events