After a short hiatus from cooking for the people of Hot Springs, The Burger Chef -- Michael Dampier -- plans to open his own beer garden and food truck in May.
Dampier took two months off from his career after managing The Ohio Club for several years and now is set to run Ouachita Bar and Grill at 911 Central Ave. with partners Rob and Tia Koller.
In preparation for St. Patrick's Day, Dampier and his crew set up outside giving away free hot dogs and hamburgers. Using a rotisserie grill provided by Armor Bank, they braved the light midday rain to feed those in need while building some hype for their new eating establishment.
"I've been doing burgers and everything for years down the street," Dampier said. "And have an opportunity to kind of do my own thing, but I have a background of barbecue. I'm getting excited to get back in the kitchen soon."
Not only does Dampier cook the burgers, but he has also created his own seasoning and rub, Chef's Beef Rub, which was sampled at Thursday's event. Also making a return at the restaurant will be his old "Big Al Sauce" rebranded as an "All Purpose Sauce." While being fed, patrons heard music from a live DJ and had the chance to buy St. Patrick's Day merchandise.
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Dampier said the restaurant will offer burgers, sandwiches, brisket, pulled pork, burnt ends, as well as protein bowls and other healthy options for cyclists riding through the area. With the address of 911, he said it's only fitting his restaurant will provide discounts for first responders since the location is close to LifeNet and the Hot Springs Fire Department's Central Fire Station.
Ouachita Bar and Grill will have ample parking for regular cars and first responders, Dampier said, and will feature an outside bar with covering from the weather.
Over the years, Dampier has won over 90 food awards, including 25 Best Burger Awards and seven straight The Sentinel-Record Readers' Choice Best Burger Awards. He's been recognized by the Arkansas Food Hall of Fame 19 times while working as the chef and general manager of the Ohio Club.
He has also been nominated three times for a James Beard Foundation Award and is a certified food sport judge with under 200 events under his belt across the country and a food sport competitor.
"I'm just doing what I love to do, getting back to cooking," he said.
On top of returning to what he loves to do, the location is also special for Dampier and several others involved in the restaurant.
"We're all locals, so we're wanting to get a place for a destination for the locals to come," he said.
According to Dampier, the name Ouachita comes from the hospital that used to stand behind the property on Central Avenue. Ouachita Memorial Hospital was later renamed National Park Medical Center and moved to its current location in 1985.
Dampier, Rob Keller and one of the cooks at Ouachita Bar and Grill were all born at the old hospital on Olive Street.
"It's a lot of history," he said. "It's almost like coming home. And us being locals, we're wanting to really give back to our community. Give back to the place we love, Hot Springs."
Aiming for a May 1 opening date, Dampier said it is likely the restaurant will be open by mid-May with his food trailer and smoker being delivered a month from now.
"The Burger Chef is just excited to get back to doing what I do, and that's cooking for people," he said. "I've missed the past couple of months being able to be feeding people publicly, so I'm just excited for that."