A number of young chefs are spicing up the restaurant scene in central Illinois. They were lured away by culinary schools and jobs at top restaurants and then, for a number of reasons, they returned home, bringing with them a wealth of culinary knowledge and a passion for quality.
By 11 a.m., the savory aroma of roasting veal bones filled Troy Ummel's kitchen at Connected, Peoria's newest restaurant for classic American and Italian cuisine.
From the oven, the bones go to a stock pot where they are browned with mirepoix, a simple combination of onion, carrot and celery, before being covered with water and simmered for 20 hours. That broth then becomes the foundation for a number of recipes.
It's part of an uncompromising process of cooking from scratch for this Morton native who left central Illinois for the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. He worked at the renowned Christini's restaurant in Orlando, Fla., and the Grand Wailea Resort on Maui before returning home to open his own place.
Ummel is one of a handful of young chefs who followed a similar path. They can trace their interest in cooking to childhood in central Illinois. They were lured away by culinary schools and jobs at top restaurants and then, for a number of reasons, they returned home, bringing with them a wealth of culinary knowledge and a passion for quality.
Perhaps most renowned among the repatriates is Josh Adams, who owns and cooks at June in Peoria Heights. Adams grew up in Dunlap and left central Illinois for school in Chicago and the French Culinary Institute in New York. He worked at Vie and Alinea in Chicago before returning home to open his own restaurant.
Back in central Illinois, he spent months visiting organic farms throughout the Midwest finding suppliers before opening June about one year ago.
He has been invited to cook at the James Beard Foundation in New York City on Feb. 1 and is offering the same menu Jan. 27 and 28 at his Peoria Heights restaurant.
"For a lot of people in our industry, cooking at the James Beard Foundation is the highlight of their careers," said Adams, 29.
A representative of the foundation ate at June prior to recommending Adams be invited to New York City to prepare a special dinner at the James Beard House. About 85 people will attend the Feb. 1 event.
"I've heard too many horror stories about chefs who flew to New York City," and their ingredients never arrived on time, Adams said.
He plans to rent a van with ice chests to transport his food and some equipment. Four of his cooks and an Illinois Central College intern at June will go with him to New York City. One of his first cooks, who has since left June for Colorado, plans to fly to New York to help in the kitchen.
The Wall Street Journal's Raymond Sokolov gave June a stellar review in the paper last February and in December Sokolov published his picks for the three best new restaurants in America, naming June best in the American heartland.
To ensure local, year-round organic produce at June, Adams is constructing a geothermal greenhouse on family land in Princeville. He hopes to sell produce from that venture at the green market next winter at the Methodist Medical Center Atrium Building.
Another chef to return home is Richard Davis, who cooks at Goodness Cafe in Peoria. He started cooking for his family in Chillicothe, graduated from Le Cordon Bleu cooking school in Minneapolis and completed his internship at the Playboy Mansion in California. The internship turned into a job until the economy crashed, forcing layoffs in the mansion's kitchen.
"I learned more about cooking at the mansion than anywhere else," said Davis, 23, who cooked for Playboy founder Hugh Hefner and his guests as well as working on many of the catered functions at the mansion, including one party for 3,000.
"Some of the girls at the mansion were pretty health conscious," Davis said, explaining his introduction to vegan cooking that is a specialty at Goodness Cafe, where Davis also cooks meat-based recipes.
His days at the mansion started at 7 a.m. with preparation of fresh sliced fruit platters. Next, he'd start the soup of the day. That's when he learned the vegan tortilla soup popular at Goodness Cafe. Vegan tortilla soup was served every Saturday at the Playboy Mansion.
Once soup was on the stove, Davis turned his attention to the daily pastry item.
"I was the muffin specialist. When I left, the chef gave me a really great muffin recipe. I will keep that recipe to myself," he said. "I can turn any fruit into a great muffin."
After baking pastries, Davis routinely joined staff discussions about meal planning.
"Everything stopped when we got an order from Hef or the girls. They could order whatever they wanted," Davis said.
During his shift, deliveries of fresh produce, meat and fish arrived regularly at the mansion and needed to be inspected.
"The fish was especially good. Coming from the Midwest, I wasn't used to all that fresh fish. We'd get whole salmon, halibut, mahi mahi, sea bass," Davis said, recalling with a laugh his first attempt at filleting a whole salmon.
The mansion's kitchen included three shifts, with the third shift primarily baking cookies and preparing special orders. It was at the mansion that Davis learned the biscotti recipe he now makes at Goodness Cafe.
Ummel said Connected and other new chef-driven restaurants in central Illinois are all about quality.
In the first six weeks Connected was open, some guests returned six, seven and eight times, said Ummel, 40, who is determined to prove this area will support a number of premium, chef-owned restaurants.
"I'd rather close my doors than not do it right. I love quality. I love to see people react to quality," said Ummel.
Clare Howard can be reached at (309) 686-3250 or firstname.lastname@example.org.