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Lunch With...

Clark Williams at West End Architectural Salvage

3/6/2024

Clark Williams is a musician, writer, chef, graphic designer, publisher and proud Son of St. Patrick. We asked him to lunch, and he chose West End Architectural Salvage, a downtown coffeeshop surrounded by wonderous things that have passed into second-hand status. 

Williams worked at two of the best-ever seafood restaurants in metro history, from their beginnings. He also was partner at a sushi café. The Des Moines Rusty Scupper was built by Miller Ream, a Chariton native who became a top San Francisco developer by taking high-rise construction to the peninsula that would become Silicon Valley. The restaurant was part of an upscale chain mostly associated with famous harbors. He placed one in Iowa sentimentally.

In Des Moines, it became THE place to see and be seen after opening in 1977, with king crab for lunch, bartenders in tuxedo shirts, live music and a dome. Its $1.4 million price tag broke all Iowa records for restaurant evaluations. The state had never seen a $1 million place before. Yet the building had so many problems that, when the restaurant closed suddenly after just seven years, it was not deemed worth preserving and was leveled. 

What was it like working there?

“It was definitely fun to work there. (Top pastry chef and culinary professor) Laurie Dowie was a bartender. She gave me my only B in culinary school. The Scupper and Colorado Feed & Grain were the only restaurants with live music then. But the building had fatal flaws. Its nickname was ‘Rusty Beach.’ Whenever it snowed, we had to get on top of the dome and shovel. That was not so much the leakage problem but more to keep neighborhood kids from using the dome for saucer sledding. 

“The ‘beach’ was mostly created from water rushing downhill and leaking under doors. When they closed it, they offered me a job at other Scuppers, so I moved to Phoenix and later Chicago to work for them.”

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How did he get from the Chicago Scupper to Waterfront in West Des Moines where he also was an original staff guy? 

“Chicago was too much fun. The afterhours music scene was incredible. Keith Richard was sitting in a club one night. He even sat in with the performers. I was staying out after work until 4 a.m. I finally realized that was not physically sustainable. So, I got on my motorcycle and road back to Des Moines. I saw an ad for Waterfront, and I remember sitting in the parking lot debating whether or not to go in. I did, and I worked there for 26 years.”

That included some big transitions? 

“Yes, it opened as a market with carryout. The lines were getting very long. I pushed the owners to go full service. Then we expanded by taking over neighboring bays and tearing down walls. Ted Hanke was a great guy to work for.”

Then Williams opened his own place. 

“That didn’t work out. I had to sell my house to cover losses, and my partner lost his to foreclosure. Owning a restaurant is big-time gambling. I was so depressed, I moved to Missouri.”

People still say the old South begins at the Missouri state line. Is that fair? 

“Even northern Missouri, where I was, is nowhere near Iowa in anything but mileage. I worked there in cemetery maintenance. I learned the intricacies of cutting grass around tombstones. That was an art there. Guard dogs, feral cats and Trump posters were everywhere. Businesses had signs saying, “Guns welcome here.” I packed one for the only time in my life. I helped train coon dogs. People trapped raccoons and sold carcasses to a mysterious truck from Los Angeles. People snagged wolves. I learned to hunt and butcher hogs.

“Even the food there was different. I had to go to Centerville, in Iowa, to shop for much of what I wanted. They ate lots of beef and noodles like in Iowa, but potato salad was made with mashed potatoes. Biscuits and gravy were a big part of every meal. Finally, it just got too strange for me.”

Today, Williams, who studied graphic design in college, publishes books, comic books and magazines he has researched, written and designed. 

How many books? 

“I have 14 food and travel books, all have 14 subjects and 14 recipes. I started with New Orleans because I had been going there almost once a month from 2014-2019. Now I have books about restaurants and foods in Oslo, Sydney, Belfast, Dublin, Des Moines, Nashville, Atlanta, Duluth, Savannah, Toronto and Chicago.”

He also has books about the big band era, Celtic music, hippie lifestyles, cosmic rock, movie monsters, and cooking in general. 

“I just do what I like. I don’t have to make money.”

He also works for a company that helps open new restaurants and put on gala food events. 

“Probably the biggest dinner was for the Republican Party when Gov. Reynolds hosted all the candidates for the 2024 election. There were over 1,000 for that. I have done a lot of wrestling events; WWE Raw is a big one. The wrestling events get to use the permanent kitchen at the Iowa Events Center. Music acts don’t. So we create a MASH kitchen on the lowest level of Wells Fargo Arena. Curtains are walls, and everything is electric. We have to carry in water. We feed about 80 crew members three meals a day.”

Williams showed me a menu for a Chris Stapleton show. It included 11 breakfast items, 12 for lunch and 13 for dinner, all including fruit or salad bars. 

How specialized does this need to be? 

“It’s hectic. Dishwashing is a lousy job, normally, but it’s the only station with no pressure. Sometimes I just cook shrimp.”

How long does it take to cook shrimp without overcooking? 

“One minute to one and a half, depending on size. They can overcook in a hurry.” 

Williams has also cooked for Carrie Underwood, the Eagles, Shania Twain and Thomas Rhett. Who seemed like the nicest? 

“Mostly the stars do their own thing, and we just cook for their crews. But Thomas Rhett was really nice to everyone. Chris Stapleton, too.”

Where can we find Williams’ books, comic books and magazines? 

“King Baby Productions, www.kingbabyproductions.com.”

Williams was a founder of the local Celtic Music Association. When is the next Celtic music concert in Des Moines? 

“March 23. Dàihm is a full bagpipe, Scottish band.” ♦

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Summer Stir - July 2024