Locally Grown

The Things The Datebook Diner Should Miss.

Dearest Tens,

Yes, we have been absent again after a big push to start things back up fool time. Full time. BUT DON’T GET SALTY!  The weather blossomed into an early spring which caused me, The Cook, to do my job of cooking again.  Last time we checked in our main subject of honor had announced her retirement from reviewing the restaurants in Our Fair City to pursue her other, more Francophilic, interests.  I, along with my cohorts, have been poring over her increasingly truncated reviews, trying to find something LG-worthy to share.  No luck there, until yesterday.  Last night I fired up my Android (uggg) powered Google Reader application and among my plethora of news items from Cat Fancy and Milk Chugger’s Magazine I found a little post from our beloved DD concerning what she will not be missing upon her leaving the eating scene of the DMZ (Des Moines Zone).

First I would like to state that a person whom after nearly 14 YEARS of writing about a dining scene publishes one of their final articles regarding said scene and chooses only NEGATIVES to outline her nearly 14 YEARS of writing about said dining scene maybe shouldn’t have been writing about our city to begin with.  After all of that time and all those hundreds of reviews all she has to say to the diners, restauranteurs, chefs, cooks, and servers is THREE NEGATIVE STATEMENTS ABOUT WHAT SHE WON’T BE MISSING ABOUT WHAT DES MOINES HAS BEEN DOING WITH FOOD OVER THE LAST NEARLY 14 YEARS.  What will she not miss?  Read Here.  We have all spent a long time reading about her complaints, and I personally think she could have come up with a better list.  (on a little tangent, I can’t help but think when she took the job, nearly 14 years ago, she was in another city with a less French Name and saw an opportunity to live in the “Midwest Riviera” but upon arrival found the dread of gloppy soup, iceberg lettuce, and giant wasteful portions to be so oppressive that she decided that if she has to do this 13 or 14 more times, she is out of here)

Seriously, you serve me gloppy soup 13 or 14 more times, and I am OUT OF HERE! -Datebook Diner

So what do we here at the world’s most dangerous food blog (about Des Moines) think that the list should have included?  First off, it should be a POSITIVE list that doesn’t read like an elementary report card that says “Your kid will never learn, they are hopeless and you should just give up for there is no hope for change.”  Maybe after blah blah blah years said food reviewist could find at least three things to miss about Our Fair City and those whom bring you publicly consumed food?  Here are three-ish things that, after our NEARLY THREE YEARS of writing about the DD, we would expect to see in a list written by her, if she wasn’t being a constant “negative nancy.”  (btw, just because your job title includes the word “critic,” it doesn’t preclude you from making positive statements) So here it is, the….

Three-ish Things We Feel The Datebook Diner Should Miss About DSM Dining

(if she wasn’t being such a negative-pants)

  1. The growing of French cuisine in Des Moines.  Back when DD started out in Des Moines there were very few choices for French dining.  Over the years French has come and French has gone, but our current state of French Dining in the city of the monks finds us a plethora of French-based restaurants.  Bistro Montage, Django, Tartine, La Mie, Baru 66…these are all places that should bring joy to a Francophile’s heart.
  2. The Farmers’ Markets.  The Farmer’s Market isn’t a wholly French concept, but it is French enough for a Francophile to come enjoy.  On Saturday mornings you can walk through the market, sample prepared foods, buy fresh baked breads and locally grown produce and meats, and see some of our more ambitious Chefs of des Moines chatting with local farmers and picking out the freshest goods for their menus.  It is my understanding that the DD never really liked the Farmers Market (at least the Down town iteration) and kept visits to a minimum.  The Farmers Market is the life of our Dining Scene during the summer…but maybe now that her job isn’t reviewing food she will stop down more often.
  3. Watching A City Grow.  You get a job reviewing restaurants in Chicago, New York, LA, SF, any larger city and you get to jump right in to a dining scene which has been thriving for many decades.  If you took a job doing the same thing NEARLY 14 YEARS AGO, you were in a very special position to watch what was once a chain restaurant hell with a few local choices, most of which probably served gloppy soup, to what it is now: A growing community of chefs and restaurateurs whom are constantly working to raise the bar in the dining scene.  We have a respected culinary program just to the north in Ankeny (Iowa Culinary Institute/DMACC) and the students of that program are staying in town with increasing frequency, seeing an opportunity for growth…or even of a fast rise to ownership.  It’s a much different world from the day George Formaro was baking bread on South Union to this day after Chef Formaro and his cohorts at Orchestrate worked for over a decade to change the face of what and how we eat (even if he has been damned for portion size).  Things are much different now, and are growing at an increased rate.  DD had the opportunity to watch all of this from the inside, yet it doesn’t seem to matter in the context of her career in DSM.
  4. Influence.  Maybe she should miss the somewhat misguided influence she wielded over the dining public?  Her words have had noticeable impact on the lives of restaurants.  In fact I have watched a few close with a quickness after a Datebook Diner review (not that a few of those few weren’t warranted).  Whatever.

There are many more, but alas, I am out of time and have to go do my actual job.  Keep following along, there are only two more weeks of our current DD’s reign of terror…then it’s time for to pick on the new guy/gal.

Rep Local.

The Cook.


The Name’s Beard, James Beard (Awards)

Another Monday is upon us, greeting some of us with in warm wash of sunshine on our shoulders (which reportedly makes people happy), and climbing on the backs of others.  Whatever, it’s just Monday (although I hear Tuesday is just as bad), and it will pass.  It’s funny how even though many of us who are employed in the food industry consider ACTUAL Monday as our perceived Saturday or Sunday, Monday still holds in it’s grubby little paws the same lack of appeal and hardships as it does for those of you who are kicking it Monday through Friday style.  It could have something to do with trying to keep up with the weekend festivities that the rest of the “normal” work force are partaking in while also trying to keep our “shit” together as we work the busy, grueling (well, I hope it’s busy and grueling for everyone) Friday and Saturday shifts…and some of you REALLY lucky folks get the benefit of working Sunday Morning duh duh duuuuuuh…..Brunch.   What’s the point?  I forget, honestly.  Something about the Equal Opportunity nature of Monday’s wiles.  Um…lost it.

I heard from a local source that it is again time for The 2011 James Beard Foundation Restaurant and Chef Awards nomination process to begin.  This is an exciting time of the year for Chefs around the country, as getting a JBA is akin to winning an Oscar for your food.  (I was planning on making some kind of beard joke here, but that would be disrespectful to one of the greatest culinarians…ever).  (ok, I am just going to go ahead with the joke).

Although a righteous beard, it is not the kind we are talking about here.


Personally, I don’t get very excited about the James Beard Awards, as I will never be on that level and the chances of a chef from Our Fair City nabbing the Best Chef award from the grips of someone from a larger city in our region (IA, KS, MN, MO, NE, ND, SD, WI) are more than slim.  It’s still fun to watch and speculate.  Kansas City, Minneapolis, Madison, and Milwaukee all have some great chefs, so what do we have?  Here are the guidelines for the award, from the James Beard Foundation web site:

Chefs who have set new or consistent standards of excellence in their respective regions. Candidates may be from any kind of dining establishment and must have been working as a chef for at least five years with the three most recent years spent in the region.

I think two-time Cochon555 winner Matt Steigerwald of Lincoln Cafe in Mount Vernon, Iowa is going to be my first pick.  Chef Steigerwald has decimated the competition at Cochon and managed to get a 5 star review in the Datebook.  He has definitely set both new and consistent standards in our region (especially in Iowa), and meets the time in service constraints.  His staff is knowledgeable, respectful, and super nice.  At Cochon 2008, Chef Steigerwald’s people made me a great vegetarian dinner from the ingredients they were using for the competition dishes.  Great Stuff.

Second Choice, George Formaro.  George has done more to change the face of dining in Des Moines more than any other chef/business owner in the last decade.  He is the drive behind such local favorites as South Union Bread Cafe, Django, Centro,Jorge’s Tacos (at the Downtown Farmer’s Market), and Gateway Market not to mention that his South Union Bakery makes the bread served by most of the better restaurants in central Iowa.  I would really like to see George step back from his enormous machine and take a year to operate ONLY one small (fifty=ish seats) restaurant.  I would wager that it would be quite an experience for diners and Chef Formaro alike.

Those are my choices for this year.  Who are yours?  Discuss.


The Cook

The French Connector/A Tale Of Two Tastings
2010/05/17, 4:39 pm
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Last Wednesday a small group of chef-types took some time off to get out and “Get Frenched.” (Thanks for the rediculous ad campaign, Django). It’s a rare treat to enjoy a great dinner (Especially of this caliber) together with my fellow chefs rather than cook for others, so we made a real night of it.

The Targets: Bistro Montage and Baru66.

The Diners: Three Dudes with Appetites for Deconstruction.

The Goal: Get “Frenched”? (Although those ads are slightly funny, they pretty low-rent)

You are probably expecting me to give some Looooong synopsis on what went down during our outing, but I only offer this:

Cue up “New Kid In Town” by The Eagles

First stop was Baru66. The food was amazing, especially or first course and the Chef’s Amuse Buche offering for the night, Asparagus Creme Brule. The Stuffed Quail was also a standout along with both Pate’s we sampled. The atmosphere was a little cold for my taste and sorely lacking Newly-Crowned Chef Leon, but the food…oh the food. Lovely, precise, spot-on flavors, perfectly executed technique. Great Job, David, Mike, Bri, Nick, and Kelly. Pricing is as you would expect to pay for French Food of this Caliber, and if I had an expense account I would find reasons to review this place twice a month (also, if I was in fact a reviewer-type)

Second Stop, The Alpine to cleanse our palates then on to our Final French Destination:

Bistro Montage was in wind down mode, and we barely caught chef Enosh Kelley before he trotted off for the night (not to be confused with “foffing off”). Our server Ben readied a table as we talked shop with Enosh and verbally assaulted some familiar faces in the kitchen. The place was populated by a few tables of VERY happy people (always a good sign) who were swearing like baseball coaches and enjoying the evening. Enosh joined us and taught a little impromptu class on Sous Vide cooking and its benefits. The food here was also amazing. Sous Vide Pork Belly, super fresh vegetables, amazing pate’s (I was dining with a Pate Hound), great flavors and technique. We stayed a little late while finishing some bottles of wine and chatting with the staff. Overall a very warm, comforting experience that left us all as friends (our server even joined us at Carl’s for the post-game). We left as the patrons before us that night, happy, full, satisfied, and swearing quite a bit.

There has been talk of Baru Vs. Montage buzzing around the food scene since weeks before Baru’s opening and I would like to set the record straight-ish. In the words of one of my dining partners,

“The only losers in this are the people who don’t eat at both places”

Top notch job, everyone. Now go out and get…

Some beautiful french food. You deserve it.

The Cook

“Chef Leon’s” Big Cochon555 Adventure and People Under The Stairs After-Party

As promised, I have a little more Cochon555 coverage for you. Very little. So little, in fact, that it is basically just a silly story and some complaining. Maybe some fashion commentary. I am not sure yet, it hasn’t been written. Read on if the mood strikes you, if not go back to reviewing the 1000 winners of the freshly announced James Beard Foundation Awards (of which DSM nominees got a big fat goose egg. More on that later.) Bon Apertif!

You may remember a few time units back I ran a little piece on Chef vs. Not Chef vs. Total Fraud. Not long after said articled “dropped,” a situation arose which screamed, in the words of that guy on the couch in the movie P.C.U., “That’s my thesis, man…that’s my thesis!” Shortly after the Cochon555 winner Matt Steigerwald (Lincoln Cafe, Mt. Vernon, IA. Back to back wins) was announced and the victory speech was executed, the customary “Post-Game-On-Field Handshake” began. The Lincoln Cafe crew was walking through the crowd congratulating the other competetors on a “Good Game.” They walked past my team…

To Hal Jasa: “hey, great job, Chef. Good stuff.”

To Yours Truly: “nice job, Chef. Plates looked great.”

To Leon: “thank you, Chef…Good job.”

(I really wanted to “annon-o-mize” Leon, but Bathory likes his name and said it would be a shame to insult his parents’ choice of prefered nomenclature.)

Chef Leon was born! I hear that Leon can cook, is a competent server/bartender (Baru 66. Go see him), and now thanks to the power of words, He has been Knighted CHEF LEON.

You see how easy that was? All you need is someone to call you Chef accidentally and there you have it. Now, Leon doesn’t consider himself a chef but we had a good laugh about it at the after party at Racoon River Brewing Company (who kinda dropped the ball IMHO). You don’t even have to make false chef claims when you have others to do it for you. Chef Leon has no plans on continuing along his un-chosen career path as a “chef,” but rumor has it that a few others in that category here in our fair city will be plugging away as Self Proclaimed Chefs while attempting to figure out how to live up to the Title. Thank you to Chef Leon, a man with some dignity.

And now for something completely related,

I heard a rumor that Cochon555 could have used a few more tickets sold this year. True Story. The crowd seemed a little sparse and was made up of mostly attendees from last year’s Cochon event. Not a lot of new faces aside from vendors and competitors. Here are some helpful advices for the future:

1. Advertising. There was practically zero advertising for the event. It wasn’t even listed in the free events sections of our local weekly “magazines.” This IS a travelling event, but maybe should have a local “street team” to work the social media and marketing. Just a few people to create a “buz” could have gotten a few more people in the doors and enlightened as to Cochon555’s good cause (heritage farming awareness) and gotten more exposure for the Chefs and Wine Makers. (Brady, if you see this, get in touch…I know some good helpers for next year)

2. Social Networking Media. Twitter, Facebook, and the like could have been utilized more. Take it from me, it works. Also, see “street team” suggestion above.

3. Many people felt the ticket prices were too high. I disagree (even though I admit to receiving free admission both years). Face value of the tickets was a great deal…$100 for all you can eat and drink from local wineries and fine chefs (and Leon), but I overheard people scoffing. People who had no idea of what a deal this event really is. Maybe make the tickets…$80? Maybe advertise the decadence that is included with the $100 ticket price, not to mention the Extreme Decadence of the more pricey VIP tickets (free oysters from Django, Templeton Rye flowing like rivers, cheese selections from Gateway Market). People paid the same prices to see Norah Jones, and they didn’t get ANY FOOD.

5. Have the event on SUNDAY. I know at least 25 people in the industry who would have liked to attend, but could not take Saturday off. I have a feeling this was a big factor in attendance.

And another thing…Racoon River was a great choice for an after party, but not on a Saturday. At 8pm when the winner was close to being called I was out shooting the shit with the kitchen guys from Raccoon and Django and they were still ON A WAIT. Not a good sign. The top floor was promised along with some free pool tables and the first beer for free. That plan was thwarted by a busy Saturday night crowd and some possibly poor communication on the Brewery’s management part. The cochon party was relegated to the downstairs bar and a few tables under the stairs. It is questionable whether anyone really needed more drinks at this point in the evening, but the free pool tables would have been nice for some more friendly competition and fun times. Bad night to attempt a private party at a super busy restaurant. Maybe Chequers in the Hotel Ft. Des Moines would have been a wiser choice.

A few more highlights:

Best Kept Secret Food…Chef Jasa’s Liquid Nitrogen Pork Ice Cream Root Beer Float. I was directing anyone asking about the giant Nitro tank to Hal’s booth for a taste of the “Judges Only” Pork Ice Cream. Anyone to cross its path immediately sprouted an “Oh Holy Shit This Is Good” expression and asked for more. Even our Illustrious Datebook Diner (historically not a Jasa Fan) got excited about it. Actually, she seemed really excited in general. Very nice.

It was great to see Jim Duncan, the Cityview Food Dude. Jim is a Belly (pork, not the band) fan from way back and seemed to be enjoying the offerings. (Jim, if you see this, stop by Friday at the Cafe for more belly).

Formaro’s tacos were “the bomb” according to one eater.

Raccoon River Brewing’s first High Point Beer offering since the percentage cap was lifted on local brewers, the Mai Bock was very good and a healthy 8 percent.

Many people have been questioning Chef Steigerwald’s presentation of Charcuterie…obviously impossible to create in one week and not from the event pig.

Chef Leon was kicking ass all over the place like Sho ‘Nuff, the original Harlem Shogun

Partying a little with Howard Hanna and his River Club Team was a good time. I should have stayed longer!

Had a nice convo with my former co-horts at Gateway Market. Sorry, I won’t be reporting on that.

MadHouse Brewery from Newton had some “dank” beers. Highly recomended.

Things I would have liked to see more of:


Epazote useage

More use of “normal cuts” such as ribs, loins, chops for public consumption. Maybe even a grilling demo, if a proper venue was secured.

Another round of that Pozole from Lincoln Cafe last year.

What happened to the New Belgium Sponsorship? 2009 had a huge bin full of various New Belgium offerings. It was sorely missed by your humble cook this year.

Better Judges. I was in the judges room a few times and seriously question the qualifications of many of said judges to judge food of this caliber.

A “back room” hangout session for all 5 chefs to have a few drinks and get to know each other. But we will get back to the “chefs getting along” subject later.

Well, I hope you enjoyed the wrap-up of The Cochon555 for 2010. Here’s to Chefs Matt Steigerwald, Cody Hogan, Hal Jasa, George Formaro, and Howard Hanna, their awesome teams, and everyone involved in this great, fun event that will, like the wine and swine it palps, grow even better with age.

Thanks for tuning in.

The Cook