Five years ago, this chef opened his doors to the public, offering locally sourced ingredients with a world fusion flair. People thought he was crazy for opening a farm-to-table restaurant in Iowa in November, but he made it work. Discover how this Des Moines chef transforms ingredients from within a 30-mile radius into works of culinary art. Wochit
It's the late lunch hour at the restaurant on the corner of 5th and Walnut in the East Village. The last table is paying its check. Natural sunlight falls onto polished concrete floors in a space decorated with modern art and rustic textures.
Chef Suman Hoque's face lights up as he looks over an upcoming five-course dinner menu.
"We're getting everything from Iowa," he says. "Butternut squash soup, a winter vegetable salad with spaghetti squash, beet and carrot chips, a simple vinegar slaw; beef tortellini with Milton Creamery quark cheese."
Hoque is gearing up for an anniversary.
For five years, HoQ has been bringing locally sourced food to the East Village neighborhood of Des Moines. To celebrate, the restaurant will offer a five-course anniversary menu, available through Saturday for $50.
Considered a leader by other restaurateurs, Hoque has garnered much respect and admiration for his focus on Iowa ingredients.
"He does a tremendous job with his highly stylish restaurant that offers a farm-to-table concept with quality, freshness and an eye for detail," said Carl Wertzberger, managing partner for Gilroy's Kitchen + Pub + Patio. Wertzberger is a friend and colleague of Hoque who even lived next to him on the south side for several years.
Over the years, Hoque has seen the local food movement transform from a trend to a permanent fixture in Des Moines' food scene.
"Back in the day, you didn't see too many farms on the menu," Hoque said. "But if you go to restaurants now in Des Moines, you'll see a lot of people are using local food. Now you can see that chefs are using this farm or that farm. I think it's great now."
According to the National Association of Restaurants, more than two-thirds of diners say the availability of locally sourced items makes them choose one restaurant over another. Younger people are more apt to choose a restaurant based on the availability of healthy menu options, local ingredients and environmentally friendly food, NAR reported.
Hoque attributes his inspiration to his friend and former co-worker, Sean Cavanaugh. The two met 14 years ago while working at Vail Marriott Mountain Resort in Vail Village, Colorado.
Cavanaugh saved for 20 years to open his own place and invited Hoque to follow him to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where Cavanaugh opened his restaurant, John J. Jeffries.
"I was trying to pick out where in the country to go and Lancaster ended up being, for us, the best spot," Cavanaugh said. "The cost of living was right, the farmers were awesome. There was just so much to offer."
Cavanaugh set out to source as many local ingredients as he could find.
Hoque saw first-hand what it took to open a local food restaurant, seeing all the trials and tribulations Cavanaugh went through, the challenges of changing the menu a few times every week, planning for the seasons and developing partnerships with the farmers.
"He was part of all that here," Cavanaugh said. "He was part of helping us figure all that out. I'm very proud of him."
Hoque hails from Bangladesh, where he lived until he was 15 when he moved to India to study computer science. But computer science wasn't his thing.
"In our culture, being a chef is not the job everybody wanted. Everybody studied to become a computer scientist, a doctor or an engineer," he said. "I didn't like it so I went to culinary school in Europe and I fell in love with food."
After culinary school in Geneva, Switzerland, he took note that that much of the food in all three places he had lived was locally sourced. But when he moved to America, he saw trucks bringing in food from other places around the country and the world.
Hoque is trained in European technique but he uses his Bangladeshi background to influence the spices in his dishes.
"We use ingredients from Iowa and then use flavors from around the world," he noted.
And if he's stuck in a rut for inspiration? "I call my mom for ideas sometimes for what I'm going to do."
Before Lancaster, Hoque had moved on to Jackson, Wyoming, to become sous chef for Jackson Lake Lodge in Grand Teton National Park. That's where he met his wife, Cynthia. In 2010, the Hoques moved from Lancaster to Des Moines.
And then he discovered the Downtown Des Moines Farmers' Market.
"You can find everything you need to open a restaurant," Hoque said. "Cream, milk, butter, meat. Maybe not salt and pepper, lemon and lime." He was amazed that not many restaurants in the area were taking advantage of such local bounty. "If 90 percent of everything there comes from Iowa, why isn't anyone doing it?"
After two years finalizing his business plan, HoQ was born.
Now he gets a wide assortment of local produce throughout the year and his menu changes roughly every six weeks.
On the menu:
- Butternut squash soup with herb oil and toasted seeds
- Winter Salad — winter squash, carrot and onion slaw, and carrot and red beet chips
- Beet tortellini with Milton Creamery quark or
- Acorn pudding with La Quercia chipped ham and microgreens
- Goat kebab with Lucky George Farm grass-fed goat, kalijira rice, apricot jam and wasabi yogurt or
- Wild Alaskan cod, winter vegetables, potatoes, fish broth and herb mayo or
- Organic Greens roasted acorn squash, sage, parsnip, toasted seeds, apple vinegar, brown butter and whipped quark
Location: 303 E. 5th St., Des Moines
Hours: Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 to 10 p.m.; closed Sundays.