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Food Dude

August 11, 2011

Wandering chef is a special opportunity

By Jim Duncan

Sweet corn butter cakes with caramel and sweet corn ice cream. Wandering Chef mailing list for future dates:

Des Moines is a AAA town. We compensate for whatever we lack in size with intimacy. My father saw several World Series yet said his greatest baseball thrill was watching teenagers Bert Blyleven and Vida Blue break records on consecutive nights in Des Moines. Both players spoke to him afterwards, an unthinkable thing for average fans in major league towns. Here we nurture young talent like crops. Aficionados like Dad relish such opportunities to catch a glimpse of budding greatness.

Our food scene is now AAA, too. Independent restaurants are healthy enough to expand their brands like big league indies do. Among our most honored chefs, only Jerry Talerico (Sam & Gabe's) still regularly cooks in his restaurant. Younger top chefs have become teachers, managers and front of the housemen as much as cooks. Several now run more than one place. The upside of this big city model is that Des Moines now attracts the kind of enthusiastic and creative prodigies who used to move directly from culinary school to the nation's food capitals, like central Iowa's most famous chef, Eric Ziebold, did 20 years ago.

Bree Ann Leighton, 21, graduated from culinary school one year ago. She has California in her pedigree and family in Las Vegas, yet she's been banging pans in Des Moines the last year at Azalea, Baru and Alba. Other chefs, generally a very self-confident lot, admit Leighton's chops are something special, like Blyleven's curve ball 40 years ago. She's been pestering Jason Simon at Alba to let her open his restaurant on Sunday nights for special fixed price ($65) dinners. Being himself a former prodigy who left Iowa for the culinary capitals, Simon said yes.

"All young chefs think they can do something special. Most find out that actually doing it under pressure is another story. Bree is ready though," he explained.

For her first "Wandering Chef" dinner, Leighton recruited talented friends Jessica Dunn, 23, and Benji Lefebvre, 20, from Baru's kitchen, plus Michael Kesterson, 23. It's not easy getting young people to spend their rare nights off doing the same work they do all week. "We just all love what we do," Dunn explained.

They do it all quite well. Lefebvre began the meal with a spicy crab mousseline plated with cool cucumber carpaccio and two emulsions — sweet corn and coconut. Leighton followed that with a terrine of Robiola di mia Nonna goat cheese, roasted patty pan squash and mushrooms. She plated it with local rockets (arugula), balsamic vinegar reduced with raspberries, and mixed nuts. She followed that course with tender lamb lollipops, twice breaded and rolled in breadcrumbs, served on curried cauliflower puree with salade Nicoise.

Her main course was similar to the signature dish in "Babette's Feast," though Leighton had never even heard of that short story nor the iconic movie. She stuffed whole quail with foie gras and cornbread, glazed them in maple syrup and plated them with ratatouille, fresh peach coulis and freshly-picked squash blossoms. She followed that with almond and panko crusted balls of Pierre Robert (a decadent triple cream cheese) served with a homemade lemon drop melon sorbet that coaxed more flavor out of fruit than any ice cream I've eaten all year. She topped that plate with a crisped, thick sliced piece of prosciutto. Dunn completed the meal with an equally decadent dish. She made sweet corn butter cakes, served them atop fresh caramel and paired them with a homemade sweet corn ice cream served in a confit of lime.

The gang of four provided their own service — chef's table style. Intimacy trumped grace and polish, AAA style.

Bottom line: These talented young guns plan to serve two such Sunday evening dinners a month, probably beginning in late August or September. Catch them while you can.

Side Dishes

Jethro's broke ground on a Cajun restaurant in Hawthorne Plaza… named central Iowa native Eric Ziebold one of the10 most influential chefs working in America. CV

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