Restaurant love stories12/31/2014
On a recent visit to Lincoln, Nebraska, I stopped at a charming French café in the Indian Village neighborhood. The Normandy specializes in French comfort foods like cassoulet with duck cracklings, rillettes, mussels in saffron sauce and crocque madame. A sign greets patrons inside the door: “All Because Two People Fell in Love.”
It seems that owners Lawrence and Renee met in the Bronx while doing volunteer work for a Franciscan order. He came from an aristocratic political family on France’s west coast. She came from a small Nebraska town west of Lincoln. They fell in love, got married and moved to Nebraska. Several food writers from bigger cities found their story fascinating. I felt jaded because Des Moines’ restaurant scene is full of such love stories.
Our local food renaissance probably began when a Tennessee guy named Jeremy Morrow fell in love with a Des Moines girl and moved here to open Bistro 43. Morrow would also open 43, Azalea, Star Bar and City Hall. Wisconsin’s Andrew Meek moved to Des Moines to open Sage. He met his future wife Lisa there after being introduced by her brother, who was a wholesaler who called on Sage. After a lengthy Internet courtship, she moved to Des Moines. Meek would also open Sbrocco and Gramercy Tap. Pastry chef Ryan Binney was working at Giorgio Armani’s restaurant in Boston when he began an Internet relationship with his future wife, a Drake student. They would marry and open Sweet Binney’s here.
Mao Heineman was classically trained in her native Thailand. She owned a Thai restaurant in Seattle when she met her husband, an Iowan who persuaded her to move and open King & I. Larry Cleverley, the farmer who sparked the farm to fork revival here, was a high tech salesman in New York City when he decided he wanted to try farming. He had to persuade his wife Beth, who had never lived in a town smaller than Chicago.
Sean Wilson, chef and owner of Proof, worked for some of the best chefs on both coasts before moving here when his wife Haley got a job. His partner is Zach Mannheimer, a New Yorker who married an Iowa girl.
Alex Strauss, chef of the West Lakes Hy-Vee, came to Des Moines from France via Chicago, where he met his future wife Jennifer, an Iowa girl who owns Carefree Patisserie.
Another key player in the local food dynamic is George Formaro. He is a Des Moines guy who planned on moving somewhere on the coasts until he met his wife Sheila. Formaro has opened South Union Bread Café, Gateway Market and Café, Centro, Django, Zombie Burger and Malo. He says Sheila made him promise not to open another place this year.
The food story that most resembles the one in Lincoln is that of an Alsatian who had worked for some of the best chefs in Europe before Steve Logsdon persuaded him to leave his hotel/restaurant in Belgium to open Lucca. At the time, Logsdon’s partner, Tami Johnson, was taking a jewelry class from Sarah Hill at the Des Moines Art Center. So when David Baruthio arrived in town, Johnson and Logsdon introduced him to Hill.
Visas have been hard for French chefs to acquire since 9-11. Hill and Baruthio moved to Mongolia for two years, where they helped open the first-ever five star hotel in that country — Terelj Hotel in the Gorki-Terelj National Park. Baruthio was the executive chef of the hotel and its five restaurants; Hill was the assistant managing director of the hotel. With Johnson’s help, they returned to Iowa and opened Baru 66. Last year, they also opened Baru at the Des Moines Art Center and Blue Tomato. Any day now, they will open Prime steakhouse downtown.
Love stories are not always happy. Some of these couples lasted longer than their restaurants and vice versa. If anyone is truly lucky in such love, it’s Des Moines.CV
Jim Duncan is a freelance writer who has penned nine different columns for Cityview and its sister publications beginning in 1987.