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Greater Des Moines

    Surprisingly Elegant


By Jim Duncan

Remember when Des Moines called itself “The Surprising Place?” Marketing consultants tried to drown that slogan, but its spirit refused to sink. Despite today’s uncertain economic future, or maybe because of it, Des Moines is surprisingly full of happy people indulging some exotic tastes without feeling the least bit guilty. This is particularly evident on the food scene, and nobody knows that better than Michael LaValle, longtime private caterer, general manager and culinary director of the Embassy Club. This summer, LaValle will resurrect a dinner boat that used to cruise the downtown riverways as “The Spirit of Des Moines.”

“Only it’s going to be re-christened the ‘Jon Anderson White,’” LaValle said. That will honor the personable “Hat Man” of Sherman Hill who passed away last year. LaValle’s famous dinner cruises will launch again in late spring, and by 2009 his downtown boat dock should be remodeled to accommodate outdoor dining. The boat will seat “30 to 40 people” and Friday night cruises will coincide with fireworks spectaculars.

Dinner boats and pyrotechnics usually evoke the Seine on Bastille Day or New York Harbor on the Fourth of July — not the Des Moines River. But in this most surprising place, the “Jon Anderson White” will simply become one of the more visible manifestations of a new spirit for tasting things that our Iowa ancestors might have called extravagances. LaValle thinks nothing of preparing a sit down dinner for 800 guests or a buffet for more than a thousand, but he doesn’t believe that numbers of any kind define extravagance.

“I knew right then that George was going to be a great chef because he loved the challenge despite all the extra time it took,” said Michael LaValle.

“There are several different ways to evaluate extravagance. Obviously there’s the number of dollars spent, but there are equally meaningful gestures of extravagant imagination and creativity. On the first level, there have been wedding parties in Des Moines that exceeded seven figures in cost. People figured they could do that here because they weren’t flying entire wedding parties to some exotic locale like Hawaii. So they went all out in Des Moines,” he explained. 

LaValle said his favorite examples of extravagance in Des Moines are more minimalist, involving the creation of a unique venue for a function. 

“One man wanted a special anniversary dinner for his wife. So we reserved the Salisbury House and served dinner in the Library Room for just the two of them with the fireplace glowing, candles burning and fresh flowers all over. We recreated her favorite meal and served her favorite wines,” he recalled.

“Another anniversary dinner, a golden anniversary, was less restrained. The couple rented the entire hangar where they kept their family airplanes. We brought in a marching band and two big bands, and we served bison tenderloins, scallops, lobster and gargantuan servings of Caspian Sea beluga caviar to hundreds of friends.

“Another time, we did a party at the club that included so much beluga caviar that people were making thick sandwiches with it. We brought in 10,000 fresh tulip plants for that party, and the entire club was decorated with copper plating. The best champagnes flowed with best Cabs and lots of Stoli. My gratuity that night was a full kilo (2.2 pounds) tin of beluga,” LaValle recalled adding that for other parties: the Chicago Bears cheerleaders have been flown in to greet guests; the Eagles rock band was hired to entertain; and a Vegas showgirl was presented on a bar covered only with cake frosting and birthday candles.

Hal Jasa of Undergound Inc. specializes in odd venues. He said techniques like sous vide (sealed bag cooking) allow well-prepped meals to be served in makeshift kitchens. He’s cooked for large functions in art galleries and museums but said rooftops of buildings still under construction are the biggest challenge.

“We did one in a penthouse with no running water. So we had to bring 10 gallon buckets of water upstairs to set up faux sinks. There was only one electrical outlet, which meant cleaning up in the dark,” he recalled.

Special requests usually create daunting challenges. LaValle remembers that he and George Formaro (Centro) were asked many years ago to create gift baskets out of caramel nuggetines and crystallized sugar.

“When we finally got these bird cage-like baskets done, they were as delicate as anything edible can be. I remember that because I had to transport them and, of course, someone ran a red light and I had to slam on the brakes with them in the back of the van. My point though is that we didn’t have a clue how much work that was going to be, in hours. I knew right then that George was going to be a great chef because he loved the challenge despite all the extra time it took. The best chefs are always the ones who love working the hardest,” LaValle said.
Sweet nuptials

“There was a draw toward simplicity in design for awhile, now it’s definitely going back toward elaborate design.”
— Stephanie Binney

Ryan Binney knows about hard work. After opening Giorgio Armani’s only American café, in Boston, he said he had “no life” other than an occasional half hour in internet chat rooms. When Armani flew him to Charley Trotter’s in Chicago, Binney took an extra day to drive to Des Moines to meet a chat room acquaintance. That’s how this city landed a world-class pastry chef. Ryan and Stephanie Binney, his chat room lady, now run Sweet Binney’s together, supplying desserts so good that one time both chefs in a mock “Iron Chef” competition at the Des Moines Art Center secretly ordered their final courses from Binney. 

Nothing frosts an extravagance like a wedding, and Sweet Binney’s specializes in custom wedding cakes. Stephanie said there are fashion trends in this genre and that Des Moines’ cake curve is rising.  

“There was a draw toward simplicity in design for awhile, now it’s definitely going back toward elaborate design,” she explained.

Ryan Binney’s skills include those of architect and contractor. One of his cakes required a year of planning and incorporated an elaborate fountain, a multi-colored lighting system and six terraced plateaus for five different flavors of cake. He built an artificial pond for a base and used paint guns to pump water around islands of cake painted in blown and pulled sugar. 

“That cake isn’t exactly practical. It weighed over a thousand pounds,” he admitted. Ryan said he could probably duplicate it more easily a second time, but Stephanie doesn’t even mention it to most customers because it cost $5,000. That’s quadruple the average custom wedding cake. Besides, most customers want something more personal.

“I am working with one bride this year who wants her cake to match the quilted pattern of her wedding dress. Cakes are becoming the focal point of the wedding reception. The attention is on the cake, and people want it to make a statement,” Stephanie said.

One of the Binney’s upcoming commissions includes a chocolate ganache mosaic cover on an emerald and sapphire cake. Another cake is being constructed to look like a beribboned gift box resembling a classic French Charlotte. It’s built out of molded chocolate with hand rolled truffles that are scalloped to look like ladyfingers. It’s embossed with chocolate fondant and edged with pink fondant and glistened with tinted sanding sugar. The piping design alone takes five hours, and the cake takes about 30 hours to craft.
The party king

Photo courtesy Des Moines Metro Opera

Des Moines Metro Opera’s Gala Tent is Michael LaValle’s choice as the metro’s “most fun” food event.

If you want to invite 2,000 of your best friends over for a party, there is only one place to call. No one throws big parties in Iowa like Christiani’s. This 26-year-old family business is a full service event planner.

“We do about 400 events a year, over 250 weddings and we do everything — the decorations, the china, the linens, the uniformed servers, the bar, everything,” said Peter Christiani.

He said the company has 110 employees, including one, Bill Gordish, who does nothing other than ice sculptures. Their competence ranges so broadly that one year they transformed the Old English Salisbury House into a Spanish castle for a themed wedding. Christiani’s uses several specialist sub contractors, including Ryan Binney.

“No group is too big for us. We’ll do whatever it takes to please a client,” Christiani said.

The people’s party

One special gala event has been around for decades and is open to the public. Des Moines Metro Opera’s dinner tent, adjacent the opera house, includes a concrete floor and air conditioning. LaValle said the opera crowd is the most fun group in Iowa.

“They will try anything that others won’t. Maybe because they have such a costume wardrobe available to them, they are already half way to fantasyland. But we’ve done fantastic events with them. They also have a lot of serious foodies on their board. People like Mary Bey and Jo Ghrist have tremendous creative imaginations for menus,” he said.

A special small party

Dean Richardson has been accommodating special requests at Phat Chef’s café for a while now. On weeknights, he’s been in front of a new national trend in which the customers simply order three, four or five courses and trust the chef, who personally prepares and even serves the plates. Recently, one such customer made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. He wanted to spend $25,000 on dinner for 14 friends — that’s just in food and wine costs. The client also flew in Shawn Hanlin, director of the Oregon Coast Culinary Institute, to man the kitchen at crunch time so that Richardson could sit down and eat with the other guests. He commissioned a master carpenter to build a special table and atmosphere just for the dinner. It was torn down the next day like a movie set.

Obviously the wines were extraordinary — Pol Roger Sir Winston Churchill Tete Cuvee 1996, a 1996

“There are several different ways to
evaluate extravagance. Obviously there’s
the number of dollars spent, but there are
equally meaningful gestures of extravagant
imagination and creativity.”
— Michael LaValle

Dom Perignon rose champagne, 1998 Chateau d’Yaquem, 2005 Ramey Chardonnay, 2004 Palhmeyer Chardonnay, Fess Parker Pinot Noir Ashley’s Vineyard 2005, Williams Selyem Pinot Noir Precious Mountain 2005, e-Guignal from Chateauneuf de Pape 2001, Caymus Special Select Cabernet Sauvignon 1997, Concha del Toro Don Melcher Cabernet Sauvignon 2001 and Graham’s Vintage Port 2001. If you know wine, you are drooling now. If not, consider that the Chateau d’Yaquem Sauterne is the only Bordeaux ever to be granted a special class of its own — Premier Grand Cru. Special stemware was air freighted, too, at $50 a glass. Special flatware and china were also ordered.

Several precious foods were flown in for the meal. One example illustrates how special they were. Minus 8 vinegar is made from grapes harvested after the temperature drops below minus 8 degrees centigrade. Those grapes have dehydrated on their vines so their water component becomes ice and their juice is pressed from pure starch and acid, yielding only a tenth of normal grapes. That juice is fermented with a mother bacteria (similar to a sour dough starter in baking) and blended with vinegar from past vintages. Such vinegar sells for about $250 a liter, if you can find it. Richardson’s client bought a liter because he likes his foie gras glazed in it.

Hanlin brought goodies including a bag of white truffles, several kinds of wild Oregon mushrooms, Dungeness crab, Oregon foie gras and quail. Humanely raised veal was special ordered from Wisconsin. Richardson began preparing the stocks on Tuesday to serve on Sunday. On Friday, Hanlin started cooking duck hearts, livers and gizzards for the gallantine stuffing and for duck rillettes. Those are just a couple details to illustrate the preparation for this special meal.

The menu was simply titled — “Because life’s too short to drink bad wine.” RELISH

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