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Watch as Alba chef Joe Tripp, who has been named a 2016 James Beard Foundation Awards semifinalist for the Midwest region, prepares a tasting menu for customers at the East Village eatery in Des Moines. Michael Zamora/The Register

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Step into Alba, the contemporary American restaurant in the East Village that just joined the upper echelon of restaurants in Des Moines.

Barely 30, executive chef Joe Tripp just received a nomination from the James Beard Foundation for Best Chef Midwest. The long list of chefs includes restaurants in Minneapolis and St. Paul, St. Louis, Kansas City, Milwaukee and Madison, Wis. In March, the foundation whittles its list down to five contenders all vying for the coveted JBF medal, and a chef from Des Moines has never made it that far. Yet.

Tripp didn’t even realize he was nominated until former Datebook Diner Wini Moranville called him. “It didn’t even run through my mind,” Tripp said. “The goal was to win a JBF award when I opened my own restaurant. It would be nice to get one finalized and bring one home. … We’re a pretty well-established restaurant so to be able to go in and get a nomination after eight years of being open and still being recognized in the Des Moines food scene is really rewarding.”

The Des Moines native went to college at the University of Iowa, studying psychology and philosophy before deciding that the kitchen was where he wanted to work. He headed to Denver and landed at Alex Seidel’s Fruition Restaurant, a farm-to-table concept that earned Seidel a top chef nod from Food & Wine in 2010. Seidel convinced Tripp to learn cooking skills in the kitchen rather than at culinary school, so he worked his way through the lines there.

Seidel also gave him an appreciation of working on a farm. Fruition Farms was Colorado’s first artisanal sheep dairy and creamery, and every cook in Seidel’s kitchen spent one day a week working the farm in Road Larkspur, Colo. “What we were really doing was studying sustainability,” Tripp said. “The amount of work that goes into getting a product to your table is amazing.”

The farm not only made cheese, but raised bees for honey and Heritage breed pigs, as well as produce used in the kitchen.

After three years, Tripp packed up his knives and went to work at Jason Simon’s Alba.

“I returned to Des Moines because I have such great pride in the product that we have in this state. We have fantastic soil, fantastic pork, amazing produce. I was seeing it all over the country, seeing it pop up in restaurants in Denver where I worked. I even saw DeBruin Farms rabbits when I was in San Francisco and L.A. To be able to be in the state where that’s actually from and not traveling 500 miles and show Des Moines the great product we already have that’s well-established across the country and is right at our fingertips is one of the things that excites me most about being back in Des Moines.”

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Tripp says his father was a huge influence on his dining palate, exposing him to Wolfgang Puck’s Spago in Los Angeles when he was 4. It was there that he got his first taste of foie gras. Trips to Grace, the New American restaurant in Chicago, followed. “I didn’t realize that was a big deal until two or three years ago.”

His dad also taught him about foraging for mushrooms such as oyster, chicken on the woods, honey and morels. “He was always the cook at home. He’d make something out of Bon Appétit or Food & Wine. We were never a meatloaf Tuesday kind of place.”

That influence helped Tripp discover travel as well. Alba owner Simon sent Tripp to San Francisco for 10 days two years ago to work at Coi, the modern seafood restaurant from Daniel Patterson that earned two Michelin stars. The tasting menu-only restaurant with 36 seats has 12 to 15 prep cooks and taught Tripp about prep work.

He also staged — a term chefs use for an unpaid internship to learn new techniques — at Los Angeles’ modern French restaurant Republique, Hollywood’s modern Alma and Animal. He ended up bringing back new ingredients to use at Alba. “In L.A., I learned it takes more than being a good cook. Being a great chef is about being a great leader. Hopefully you can cook. Not all great cooks are great chefs,” Tripp said.

In April, he heads to Vietnam for nearly three weeks on the same type of culinary adventure, traveling the length of the country from Ho Chi Minh City in the south to Hanoi in the north and backpacking in between. “That was something I had on my bucket list since I was very young,” he said. “Obviously, Alba’s not the type of restaurant that’s going to do Vietnamese cooking but finding ways to use fish sauce, shrimp paste. We can incorporate these ingredients and these flavors into our more American-style cuisine.”

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Guests have been receptive to experimental dishes though. “Right now we have an XO sauce on our menu, which is a really old-school Chinese sauce. It’s really funky for the American palates but when we balance it with the sweetness of pickled grapes and the chewiness of octopus and spiciness of watercress and grilled bitter greens, it all balances out.”

The Alba kitchen invites scrappiness. The restaurant doesn’t have a walk-in cooler, a staple in most restaurants. That enables Tripp to order refrigerated goods frequently. The tiny kitchen, where guests can sit at the four-seat chef’s kitchen and practically help out with their dishes, has no grill, so anything requiring that preparation has to be done ahead of time at owner Simon’s Eatery A on Ingersoll Avenue.

With an eye toward seasonal produce, that might mean Tripp goes through 20 pounds of turnips in two weeks and then switches up the menu because they are no longer in season. “During the season, we like to change our menu as frequently as possible. Some products only have a peak season of two weeks. We only get a small window to show the greatness of each product.”

Tripp also has tasting menus and Focus on the Farm dinners on Sundays during the growing season. Guests get seven courses and three snacks featuring in-season produce, making many of these dinners vegetarian.

“Right now we’re really into our winter cooking. In wintertime in Iowa, we’re limited in the freshness of ingredients so we’re trying a little bit more unctuous food and a little bit more satisfying food. Our butternut squash soup is definitely one of our most popular dishes right now.”

Alba

Find it: 524 E. Sixth St., Des Moines

Info: 515-244-0261, albadsm.com/

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