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Cover Story

2016 CHOICE Awards
Cityview’s Hall of Iowa Culinary Excellence
We recognize central Iowa’s culinary trendsetters with our second annual CHOICE Awards

6/1/2016

This story is about an honor inspired three decades ago by Japan’s Living National Treasures. That internationally famous program venerated “preservers of important intangible cultural properties.” During the years of American occupation immediately after World War II, the Japanese worried that unique cultural traditions (noh, kabuki, origami, kumi, teapot ceramics, etc.) would be swamped by western culture. Honoring revered living masters of the traditional arts helped them endure.

Our intention has been to do something similar for Iowa’s unique food pioneers. That evolved into a hall of fame for institutions that give our city and state a unique culinary quality. Cityview’s Hall of Iowa Culinary Excellence (CHOICE) awards began last year at a time when locals were ruing the loss of two of the most memorable food icons in Iowa history. The Younkers Tea Room died in a fire two years ago, and Dahl’s stores converted into Price Choppers last year.

Our charter members in 2015 came from enduring traditions. All had histories dating back to mid 20th century. Several topped more than a century of service to central Iowa. While this year’s class of honorable food pioneers is younger, they all blazed new trails that influenced the culinary scene of Des Moines in multiple and unique ways that often intersected and multiplied.

Our intention has been to do something similar for Iowa’s unique food pioneers. That evolved into a hall of fame for institutions that give our city and state a unique culinary quality. Cityview’s Hall of Iowa Culinary Excellence (CHOICE) awards began last year at a time when locals were ruing the loss of two of the most memorable food icons in Iowa history. The Younkers Tea Room died in a fire two years ago, and Dahl’s stores converted into Price Choppers last year.

Our charter members in 2015 came from enduring traditions. All had histories dating back to mid 20th century. Several topped more than a century of service to central Iowa. While this year’s class of honorable food pioneers is younger, they all blazed new trails that influenced the culinary scene of Des Moines in multiple and unique ways that often intersected and multiplied.

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When Harry and Pam met George

Perhaps the fortuitous moment in the history of both the local food scene and downtown development occurred a decade and a half ago when preservationists/entrepreneurs FormaroPam and Harry Bookey interviewed a bread maker and farmers market vendor. George Formaro was their last choice about opening a high-end restaurant in the Masonic Temple. The Bookeys were trying desperately to find a visionary, a willing partner to anchor a project that would salvage that historic building, despite pressure from the mayor’s office and others to destroy it. One top restaurateur after another refused their offer.

“They all told me why it would not work. George told me how he would make it work,” Harry Bookey explained.

That was just the beginning of our modern hall of fame history. Formaro took over the kitchen of Centro. The Bookeys paired him with Paul Rottenberg of Orchestrate Management, as general manager. Since then, the Bookeys have opened Dos Rios, now closed for renovations. Formaro’s successful culinary contributions to the city had already begun with his state-of-the-19th-century art brick oven bakery South Union, and continued, in partnerships with Rottenberg and many others (see below) to include Gateway Market, Django, Malo, Zombie Burger one and two, and a regular radio show, The Kitchen Insider. The number of chefs and restaurateurs mentored by Formaro is long — very long.

 

Larry Arugulaseed

 

While Larry Cleverley was working in New York City for Rockwell International, he began attending the Big Apple’s best farmers markets. After inheriting a heritage family farm near Mingo, he determined that he was ready for a more bucolic life. The toughest part of relocating was convincing his wife Beth that it was a good idea. She had never lived in a city smaller than Chicago at the time.

His second hurdle was finding a guaranteed market. He knew a start-up business needed more than half a day a week to make it. Cleverley FarmsHe talked to top area restaurateurs and convinced Doug Smith of Cosi Cucina and Jim Mondonaro and Christian Prochaska of Mondo’s to commit to regular deliveries of natural produce. A regular fixture at the Downtown Farmers Market since its beginning, Cleverley Farms has turned central Iowa on to things that were out of their ken 20 years ago — spring garlic, arugula, Savoy spinach, rapini, nettles and mesclun, plus heirloom versions of radishes, carrots, peas, beets, tomatoes and potatoes. This year he is growing friarelli.

Cleverley Farms has made a number of the best restaurants in town possible — Centro, Django, Malo, Alba, Splash, Proof and Aposto are all top customers. Larry’s success has encouraged a number of other farmers to plant and grow natural, heirloom produce. From humble seeds sprout mighty ideas. Larry and Beth are currently fighting the Iowa Department of Transportation about the latter’s attempt to seize their historic farm to implement an expensive new highway.

 

American Parma

When Herb Eckhouse lived in Parma, Italy, working for the late, great company then known as Pioneer, he and wife Kathy fell in love with charcuterie. Parma is the birthplace of prosciutto, and almost every town in the old duchy specializes in a different form. This culture dates from the Roman Empire.

After their kids graduated from college, Herb and Kathy were determined to bring Parma-class charcuterie to Iowa. Eckoff (_zxThey began experimenting on pig butts in their garage before opening Prosciuttificio La Quercia in Norwalk. When they felt they had mastered prosciutto, they expanded into other body parts of the pig.

Today they are world renowned, considered in the same breath with the most legendary salted pork products of Italy and Spain. La Quercia has encouraged local pig farmers to raise to their standards, including pigs fed an acorn diet. That practice was common in Parma 100 years ago but has disappeared in Italy since World War II. They also have supplied a fair market (never related to pork commodity prices) for farmers to raise heritage breeds like Tamworth and Berkshire.

La Quercia supplies some the top restaurants in America and several in Des Moines. Their products now include nine versions of prosciutto and speck (fatty prosciutto) from hams, three kinds of pancetta from bellies, two kinds of coppa from the collars, a lomo from the loin, an acorn edition spellacia from the shoulders, guanciale (cheek), lardo (lard), n’duja (spicy sausage from southern Italy, similar to Andouille) and three kinds of salami.

The company has been exemplary in both greenness and sustainability, including worker sustainability.

 

When Mike met Lisa

Mike and Lisa LaValle have respectively been called the “godfather” and the “earthmother” of Des Moines’ culinary scene. Those nicknames have more to do with appearances than history. Mike is a mustachioed Italian American from Iowa Falls, where he grew up working in the family restaurant. Lisa is a blonde Dutch girl from Pella. For 40 years, they have been supreme mentors to a couple generations of service industry stars, and big-hearted community supporters.

Mike started his career in Des Moines working for minimum wage at Embassy Club, where he has been both general manager and culinary director since 1993.LaVallezx By the late 1970s, he began personal ventures including Healthworks, LaVal Ltd. Catering, City Grille, Che Pasta, Winston’s Pub & Grille, Spirit of Des Moines Riverboat, the John Anderson White riverboat and The Hub. He was also a founding partner with George Formaro in South Union Bakery & Café, Centro Restaurant and Gateway Market.

Lisa, who grew up cooking for her family after her mom died, operated the Des Moines Art Center Café for 19 years before becoming owner and chef for Trellis in the Greater Des Moines Botanical Center. Besides the considerable revenue those restaurants contributed to their non profit landlords, Lisa has been a big supporter of I Have a Dream Foundation. Mike did extensive work with Des Moines’ downtown revitalization efforts after the flood of 1993.  Between them, they have mentored scores of the best hospitality workers in town, from Formaro to Des Moines Social Club founder Zach Mannheimer.

 

The exotics enabler

Father and son team David and Simon Cotran’s C-fresh Market is the most multi ethnic, diverse supermarket in town. Besides including a jewelry store and a superb Vietnamese Café, it caters to Vietnamese, Chinese, Thai, Japanese, Korean, Iraqi, Bosnian, Ethiopian, Somali, Kenyan, Sudanese, Mexican and Central Americans. A Des Moines shopper can now find ingredients that previously eluded him after visiting a dozen small ethnic stores.

The storeC-Fresh offers such esoteric foods as 22 kinds of “frozen balls” (fish), four kinds of fresh duck eggs, plus fermented and pickled ones. Bargains abound. One can find, at times, leg of lamb for $5 a pound, six packs of frozen quail for $10, and 10 packs of quail eggs for $1.39. Coarse ground sea salt costs $2.09 — for 2 pounds, not half an ounce. Pomegranate concentrates have been priced at $4.29 for 33 ounces. Whole roast ducks sell for $20. Gluten-free options are also the best bargains in town. Pasta were made with flours of mung beans, arrowroot, sweet potatoes, rice and even haricots verts. Water chestnut flour was sold in small bags, just like in Italy. Exotic pickled items included a few things we don’t recall ever seeing even in local South Asian markets — sour mustard, bamboo shoots and curried mackerel.

The fish market has added a score of species not previously seen in town. The meat market includes such things as pig uteri, cow penis (called “pizzle” an Old English word still popular in Asia). Each exotic fruit in Asia has its season now. In Des Moines, though, some are sold only at the cash register in large quantities.

All this bounty has raised the bar for church basement dinners and for ethnic restaurants. The latter now offer fish other than tilapia. n

 

The guru

Robert Anderson left the dining room of the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs 42 years ago. He became the first director of Des Moines Area Community Colleges culinary department. That superb institute has since been renamed ICI, for Iowa Culinary Institute. Anderson remains the only director the college has ever had.Robert Anderson One of his first students became long-time director of the Kirkwood Community College Culinary School. Other students included George Formaro, Hal Jasa (Undergound Chef, Café di Scala, Dos Rios, Proof), Hing Wong (Café Shi in Ames) and so many other stars that few top chefs in the state are more than two degrees of separation from Chef Anderson.

ICI has developed magnificently over Chef Robert’s term and now is a state-of-the-art institute. Students come to Ankeny from all continents for his tutelage. ICI operates a café that serves bargain, bistro luncheons weekdays whenever school is in session, plus frequent high-end wine dinners. The school has partnerships and exchanges with French culinary entities, especially in Saint Etienne, and operates like an international operative. All that happened on Anderson’s watch.

 

Mr. Carlson goes to Capitol Hill

Scott Carlson is a restaurateur, entrepreneur, Iowa Restaurant Association chair and National Restaurant Association (NRA) Board of Directors member. He has been the most effective food industry member in the state for establishing relations with the legislators of Iowa on issues ranging from minimum wage and tip credit, to taxes, healthcare and PCI compliance. Most significantly for restaurant customers, he helped persuade the legislature to approve legalizing homemade spirits plus beers and ales that exceed previous restrictive levels of alcohol content. That paved the way for Iowa’s superb, emerging craft beer industry.

He is the owner of Court Avenue Restaurant & Brewing Company (CABCO), Americana Restaurant and the recently opened Gilroy’s. Scott CarlsonThe first two sparked big revivals of the Court Avenue district and Gateway West. He says he thinks Gilroy’s could be part of the revival of the restaurant district of Eighth Street in West Des Moines.

When he opened CABCO in 1996, brew pubs were in a slump across the nation. Only Millstream had made a go of it in Iowa, and only Johnny’s Hall of Fame and Old Spaghetti Works were established in the Court Avenue district. Carlson changed that with new brews, including the first soy beer ever offered on the retail level. (That has since inspired a surge of soy beers in Japan.) He says he bloodied his knuckles, literally, trying to install bar room equipment and antique brewabilia on the walls.

More than anything, Carlson represents the joie de vivre that the most dedicated restaurant industry people exude.

“I love getting up and going to work each day,” he said. “You can’t make this life up. No two days are ever the same.”

They join our charter class as CHOICE honorees. CV

 

 

2015 CHOICE Charter Members

 

Mr. V’s

206 Indianola Ave.

 

Noah’s Ark

2400 Ingersoll Ave.

 

Tursi’s Latin King

2200 Hubbell Ave.

 

Graziano Brothers

1601 S. Union St.

 

George the Chili King

5722 Hickman Road

 

Crouse Café

115 E. Salem Ave., Indianola

 

In’t Veld’s Meat Market’s Pella bologna

820 Main St., Pella

 

Maytag Cheese

800-247-2458

 

The Iowa State Fair

 

Anderson-Erickson

2420 E. University Ave.

 

B&B Grocery, Meat & Deli

2001 S.E. Sixth St.

 

 

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