Once a dismal landscape of old school Italian restaurants and chains galore, the dining scene in Des Moines has matured in the past decade to embrace interesting cuisines and nuanced flavors worthy of a more sophisticated palate.
Followers of the Des Moines food scene are now watching closely whether it will make the national spotlight when the James Beard Foundation, what Time magazine has called the “Oscars of the food world,” releases its long list of nominations on Wednesday.
Chefs in Des Moines have earned 20 nominations since 2008 without moving on as a finalist, let alone winning a JBF award.
It’s only in the upper echelons of the dining world where chefs dream of winning this coveted medal. Andrew Zimmern, host of “Bizarre Foods” on the Travel Channel, who got his first real recognition as a chef at Cafe Un Deux Trois in Minneapolis, won three JBF awards for his TV show and nine nominations.
"It’s a big honor, and it’s acknowledgement that we have a great thing going on here in Minneapolis,” Zimmern says not only about his own wins, but the Best Chef Midwest honors Minneapolis has earned in five of the past seven years.
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Iowa vies in the Best Chef Midwest category, pitting chefs in the Hawkeye State against others in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Kansas.
Des Moines has gone through a restaurant renaissance in the past decade, bringing in big-hitting food players who think the city should be represented in this year's awards.
“There are plenty of people in the city doing food worthy of a James Beard award,” said George Formaro, the partner at Orchestrate Hospitality and nominee for more JBF awards than any other Iowan with six. He and business partner Paul Rottenberg constitute the godfathers of the Des Moines dining scene, first elevating restaurants in the city with their divergent cuisines when they created Orchestrate Hospitality in 2000.
Proof Executive Chef and owner Sean Wilson talks about his inspiration and why he doesn't miss the east coast restaurant scene.
Lots of nominations, but no award
You can almost pinpoint the moment that the Des Moines dining scene matured to Centro’s opening in 2002. Teams of national reporters on the caucus trail discovered Rottenberg and Formaro’s Western Gateway restaurant and brought their legions of friends through the doors. Formaro earned nominations in 2008, 2009 and 2010 for Best Chef Midwest and then as a semifinalist for Outstanding Restaurateur in 2013 and 2014.
“The news guys get it,” Rottenberg said.
And there have been other nods. Joe Logsden at La Mie earned a nomination for Outstanding Pastry Chef in 2010, and his brother Steve Logsden won a nod for the East Village’s Lucca in 2009, 2011 and 2012.
Ten years ago, Cafe di Scala from Tony Lemmo opened and slowly caught on as an Italian restaurant with a matured approach. His chef, Phil Shires, even earned a nod from the James Beard Foundation in 2014.
Formaro and Paul Rottenberg’s Orchestrate Hospitality went on to open Django, a French bistro that earned a Best New Restaurant nomination in 2009.
Other French fare has caught attention, too. Bistro Montage from Enosh Kelley landed a James Beard Foundation nod in 2009, followed by David Baruthio with his stellar Baru 66 in Windsor Heights in 2011 and 2013.
The East Village’s Alba from Jason Simon brought a new nuance to the dining scene and a nomination in 2011, as did Smith’s other restaurant, Eatery A, where chef Nic Gonwa earned a Rising Star Chef nomination in 2015, after he took charge at a building that was a former Blockbuster on Ingersoll Avenue.
Des Moines’ best bet
But it’s Proof, that gem from Sean Wilson, that elevates Des Moines to national food scene worthiness, according to Rottenberg and Formaro. Wilson takes an almost Alinea approach to a menu at his restaurant in the Western Gateway, which he took over from former JBF nominee for rising star chef Carly Groben in 2010.
Alinea, the Michelin-starred restaurant from Grant Achatz in Chicago, changes its menu quarterly, focusing on a different cuisine each time.
“The culture defines my menu. The food doesn’t define my menu,” Wilson said right before his most recent Second Saturday Supper. “I want people to experience other cultures besides the Wonder Bread culture.”
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Wilson, too, changes his menu to follow his interest du jour. During caucus season, he went with an approachable Italian slant, but expect that to change to a Middle Eastern mezze experience soon.
His Second Saturday Suppers are studies in one discipline that guests go into blind. His recent study in chocolate brought nuances to dishes from salads to scallops, beef to cheese. Just some of the highlights: An ancho chocolate soup, seared Glaucaster scallops with a parmesan dark chocolate bubble sauce and a churro drinking chocolate. In the past, Wilson has curated menus with themes touching on Charles Dickens, Betty Crocker recipes reimagined and Iowa harvest.
How can Des Moines cash in?
“Bizarre Foods” host Zimmern says his adopted home in Minneapolis went through a similar dining renaissance recently.
“The successive financial crashes of the last few decades pushed all the dining, all the good restaurants with the exception of one or two places, out of downtown and into the neighborhoods,” Zimmern said.
Chefs worked with what they had in smaller venues and brought in lunch service. Restaurants such as Piccolo, Tilia, Corner Table and Victory 44, as well as Warehouse District places such as Bar La Grassa and 112 Eatery paved the way for the dining scene to blossom.
“We won several Beard awards for our chefs and restaurants and it fed on the excitement,” Zimmern said.
He points to quality and competition as driving forces in the Minneapolis dining scene. Local cheerleaders such as Zimmern himself, with a show appearing in 80 countries, and “The Splendid Table” host Lynne Rosetto Kasper, help.
“None of this matters, by the way, if you don’t have an engaged dining community,” Zimmern said.
Rottenberg offers this take on where Des Moines stands in relation to other Midwest food towns:
“We’re a much better restaurant town than Kansas City,” he said. “When you go to Kansas City, it’s hard to find six restaurants that stack up to what we have in Des Moines. Minneapolis is better.”
As the insurance capital of the Midwest, Des Moines draws its share of visitors to financial services heavy hitters Wells Fargo and Principal Financial Group, insurance companies Nationwide and Mercer and health-related companies UnityPoint and Wellmark. In recent years, Des Moines has seen an influx of Iowans returning to the state as well, and Rottenberg says they brought back seasoned diners willing to try new cuisines.
Des Moines' special access to ingredients
Rottenberg says one of the most overlooked components on the Des Moines dining scene is access to produce and proteins many times raised and harvested within 60 miles of the city.
Chefs not only talk to the farmers they work with about the crops they want to grow but pick out the seeds and discuss the varieties of, say, okra, they’d like to use in their restaurants. Larry Cleverley, the farmer from Mingo’s 210-acre Cleverley Farms, has been making the rounds to his restaurant customers to see what they need for the coming dining season.
“This is the authentic ground zero to the farmland,” said Chris Diebel, who opens his Southern restaurant Bubba with Orchestrate Hospitality this summer. “Chefs have genuine relationships with farmers and what products they’ll grow for Bubba.”
Wilson has his own plots at Grade A Garden, five acres of organic fruits and vegetables in Johnston. In his kitchen, growing lights help keep growing the local microgreens he uses to dress his dishes.
Even the rise of the brewery has helped Des Moines elevate the dining scene. Exile Brewery, Confluence and Peace Tree locally as well as newcomers such as Reclaimed Rails in Bondurant with former Raccoon River brewmaster Dave Coy conjuring up 11 of his own brews all give an extra oomph to local restaurants.
Even more exciting for Des Moines is that there is a bumper crop of relative newcomers to watch, Rottenberg said.
Zack Gutweiler’s name comes to mind. The chef behind the tiny Hole in the Wall at the Gas Lamp shuttered his molecular gastronomy experience served on plastic plates and plans to have the run of an entire kitchen at Reed’s Hollow when it opens in the former Tally’s space in Beaverdale.
Nickolas Illingworth at Lurra Cocina in Western Gateway finally hung his shingle on a restaurant of his own creation with a daring Spanish menu of tapas and paella.
Sam Auen, the chef behind Tacopocalypse and Krunkwich, opens Piu Piu in the former Kwong Tung space on Ingersoll Avenue in March with his vision of Korean dim sum.
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Derek Eidson at Centro has been experimenting with handmade pastas and cured meats. Monthly dinners he curates with Formaro bring specialty dishes and menus to a group of 50, almost like opening a completely different restaurant within the Italian eatery, Formaro said.
For now, though, Des Moines might want to concentrate on some of the pieces Zimmern says need to be in place before earning national recognition for the dining scene.
“I think it needs a traditional restaurant culture more than one generation old, which for restaurants is 10 to 15 years,” Zimmern said. “It needs a dining populace willing to be experimented at. It needs a culinary point of view that makes it unique, and it needs a cadre of chefs who are supportive of each other and competitive as well. Historical excellence and other attributes are nice to have but not need to have, and of course, there has to be support from farmers and producers. It’s a 360-degree phenomenon, and it helps create stories and narratives about the food scene.”