Friday, June 21, 2024

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Lunch With...

Mike Lavalle and Marc Navailles at Purveyor


More than anyone else, Mike Lavalle elevated the Des Moines dining scene over the last 50 years. Right or wrongly, he has been a step ahead of everyone else in Iowa. We asked him to lunch, and he invited us to his new project, Purveyor in East Village. 

Our old friend Marc Navailles is the chef there and, wow, this is something the Food Dude should write about. Marc started us off with some Serrano ham from Redondo Iglesias (18 months cured), some Manchego cheese, Marcona almonds, and white grapes. Sommelier Drew Charron poured some Monterey County Albarino and a Lavalle blend of petite sirah and cabernet. (Mike will explain that later.) 

Everything begins with family for Italians. What is Lavalle’s back story? 

“Grandpa came from Puglia, in the boot of Italy, to Greenwich Village. His first job in America was shoveling coal on the Staten Island ferry. My father, Rocco, moved to Iowa in 1942. The first time Grandpa came to Iowa, he came with some unusually heavy luggage. It contained several four-liter jugs of wine. He didn’t think there would be wine in Iowa.”

Was he wrong about that? I remember Joe Giudicessi saying that adding a choice of wine beyond “red or white” at Christopher’s required educating diners. They thought rosé meant half red and half white. 

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“I think I was the first restaurateur to offer wine by the glass here. I know I was the first sommelier. 

“Wine is always about education, and humility. I remember the first blind wine testing I held in Des Moines. Everyone considered themselves a wine expert, and yet the cheapest wine won the test over far more expensive bottles.” 

Marc brings us some empanadas and roasted piquillo peppers stuffed with chicken and caramelized onions. Mike calls him Marco, French chef David Baruthio introduced him to me as Marc. He is Basque, but is he French or Spanish? 

“I grew up on the French side of Basque country just a few miles from Spain. You had to be 18 to go clubbing in France but only 14 in Spain. So my teenage years were spent in San Sebastian.”

A few years ago, a group of Hall of Fame soccer players were asked where in the world was the best place to go clubbing and bar hopping. New York was the unanimous answer to the first part, but San Sebastian was the most popular answer to the second. Marc’s menu reminded me of that place. “That’s good.”

How old was Lavalle when he opened his first restaurant in Des Moines?

“Twenty-four. Remember, 1970s Des Moines was still in the fine dining stage. My thinking was that people can’t eat Hollandaise sauce every day. I opened a healthier option — Health Works. I grew my own bean sprouts because I couldn’t buy them in town. That was before the first immigrants from Vietnam.

“Two guys fresh from Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park helped me, taught me a lot. Lou and Lydia Patierno moved to D.C., and I visit their restaurant in Virginia every time I can. Girasole, it’s a regional Italian café.”

It’s easy to forget the fine dining splendor of mid 20th century Des Moines, but Lavalle started in the midst of it. There were a score of restaurants then that used dry cleaning service for their linens. Is fine dining a thing of the past? 

“It’s dead. Only clubs use linens now and only for special occasions. I used to have a doorman, a valet, a coat check server (people used to wear hats), a host, a maître d, a service bartender, nine servers, and five busboys. We did 250 dinners a night. 

“I started catering because people still wanted to entertain after they no longer had live-in maids and cooks. I know nearly every back door south of Grand, because I dropped so much off there.”

Marc returns with albondigas (meat balls) “Madrid style” plus some txipirones (calamari cooked in its own ink.) “You should come on a Friday. We set up a tent outside and cook paella in a paella (pan) large enough for 80 servings.” 

How long did the healthy café last here? 

“Less than a year. But I learned a lot about sourcing. The Vietnamese really changed things for the better. I hired two of the first six who came here. They were fabulous workers, learned everything on one try. I used to buy my herbs and even coffee beans in San Francisco. They changed that. They taught me to make spring rolls and sweet potato fries. I was the first to serve them in Des Moines because the Vietnamese taught me to. Seriously, I remember when we substituted parsley for cilantro because the closest cilantro was in San Francisco.” 

Marc returns with pulpo a feira. It was the tenderest octopus I ever tasted. Lavalle agreed. Marc said it’s a special kind of salt that helps with that. 

Lavalle was possibly the first chef/owner in town. Vic Talerico preceded him but stayed in the kitchen. 

“I brought the chef out of the kitchen. In the old days, owners wanted to be in the front of the house. I still do. I can’t think about retirement because I need to mingle with 200-300 people a day. City Grille was a turning point for chef-driven dining here. That was the same year that Robert Anderson started the first culinary college in Iowa, at DMACC. Suddenly being a chef was a profession, not just a job.”

Marc brings us some garlic shrimp with ciabatta. Where did all this come from? “We took over the old South Union Bakery by Graziano’s. We can cater out of there for up to 250 people.” 

Over a box of French and Italian pastries we finished lunch. What is the deal with the Lavalle wines? 

“Wine is not sustainable the way it’s consumed. More than half the wine sold in America is drunk the day that it’s purchased. It makes no sense to pour five glasses and throw away the cork and bottle. So, we buy grapes in California and finish them into wines in Winterset. I have five kegs here that contain 1,000 bottles worth of wine. I think that young Des Moines is maturing from beer drinking to wine. We’ll see.” ♦

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