Tales of a Food Critic: The Highs and Lows of Boise's Food Scene 

Comfort trumps innovation in Boise restaurants

Beyond Idaho, we may be famous for that one ubiquitous tuber, but we're less renowned for our restaurant scene. So, when Providence Cicero, the chair of the James Beard Foundation's award committee, emailed me in June 2011, asking if I'd represent Idaho on the panel that nominates chefs and restaurants for the influential James Beard Awards, I was flattered but also a little conflicted.

I've had plenty of memorable meals in restaurants around the state and admire nearly every chef and restaurateur I've met in my role as a food writer and restaurant critic, but I'm also less sure how those meals would measure up in competition with the wider restaurant world.

At least in the press, Idaho's restaurant scene has been overshadowed by those of Portland, Ore., Seattle and even Salt Lake City. Pouring over the past several years of James Beard Awards, I found that Idaho has had the occasional early stage contenders--like Jon Mortimer of the now-defunct Mortimer's and Franco Latino in Boise and Eagle, Dustan Bristol of Brick 29 in Nampa, and this year, Jeff Keys of Vintage in Ketchum--but no Idaho chef has yet made it into the final stages of the nominating process.

During the same period, Portland and Seattle have had numerous winners. Those cities have also won several of Food and Wine's Best New Chef awards, and although Nick Duncan of La Belle Vie in Nampa was recently in the running for Food and Wines' peoples' choice version of the Best New Chef of 2012 awards, he didn't make the final cut. Food and Wine also named Portland, Seattle, Salt Lake City and Jackson, Wyo., as some of the nation's best food destinations. Idaho was absent.

But why? Is our's merely the burden of a small state destined to always hover at the margins of the country's culinary consciousness? Or does Idaho actually have a less dynamic, award-worthy restaurant scene than the rest of the region (an assertion I've made myself when the length between good meals outdistances my patience)? And if so, what are the underlying reasons?

"I was the [Idaho] Statesman's restaurant critic from 2004 to 2008, and it was kind of the heyday," said James Patrick Kelly, an Idaho-based food, wine and travel writer who I asked to help me tease out the local restaurant scene over coffee.

"There were some impressive concepts going on, and at that point, it felt that Boise had kind of joined the ranks--maybe not fully--of both Portland and Seattle in being able to support innovative, cutting-edge concepts. Then, in 2008, about 10 restaurants closed."

I'm painfully aware of those closures, having, in February 2008, replaced Kelly as the Statesman's restaurant critic and soon after finding myself bearing reluctant witness to what I described in a review as "The Great Restaurant Die-Off." In rapid succession, many of the Treasure Valley's most innovative, chef-driven restaurants tumbled like elegant, ill-fated dominoes: Mortimer's, Franco Latino, MilkyWay, Tapas Estrella, Andrae's and SixOneSix. All fell within a few months.

Kelly, like many I talked to about the subject, blamed the economy for many of the closures but added that the fall wouldn't have been as swift or as efficiently targeted to such a specific class of restaurants if not for other factors.

"Boise is a burgeoning city," he explained. "And therefore, you would think it would be able to support innovative concepts that are a little more 'big city.' But I think at the end of the day, people are not as adventurous here in terms of dining. High-end concepts aren't cutting it in Boise, and that has to do with the economic downturn, as well as people not necessarily wanting it. They may say they want this high-end, this big-city cuisine, but actions speak louder than words, and you actually have to frequent those places."

Andrae Bopp, whose upscale Andrae's once featured signature dishes like butter-poached lobster with sunchoke puree and coconut emulsion, shut his doors in early fall of 2008, but told me it wasn't just pricey places like his that folded.

"It wasn't all the super high-end, fine-dining that went," he said. "It was all the entrepreneurial, all the roll-the-dice-and-put-it-out-there guys that went."

Bopp pointed out that expensive but arguably more conventional establishments like Boise's Chandlers Steakhouse survived the downturn.

Jered Couch, one of the most "put-it-out-there" restaurateurs of the time, blames his well-reviewed Eagle restaurant's 2008 demise on his own culinary hubris.

SixOneSix was stamped with the singular imprint of Couch's imaginative cooking, but he was quick to say he didn't think the issue was the customer.

"The issue is more the restaurateur. If I would have been a smart person and not put all of my eggs in a passionate culinary basket--'I'm doing this because I'm passionate and I'm going to educate and I'm going to show everyone how god-damned passionate I am'--I would have looked at it more as 'hey, I'm a business person first, I'm a chef second.' You have to create some sort of balance between great, creative cuisine and comfort."

"Comfort," a descriptor chanted like a mantra by many during my look into Idaho food culture, is a concept Idaho-born-and-raised Couch said he should have considered more seriously.

"If I were to open another restaurant, I would balance myself. I would create more of a comfort zone for people and have things on the menu that are more recognizable."

Couch said former customers were occasionally perplexed by ingredients as seemingly mainstream as prosciutto.

"Idahoans are down-to-earth people," he said. "And the thought of eating cuisine that is thought to be something that is out of their realm, they kind of think of it as a little pretentious. I think that people just tend to shy away from that."

Does our famously conservative state express its conservatism not only in the voting booth, but at the dinner table, too?

A couple of years ago, I produced a public radio show I titled "The Arugula Wars: Food as Partisan Politics." It was meant to be a tongue-in-cheek glimpse at liberal and conservative eating habits, but I soon stumbled across a serious vein of research on the subject that suggested political leanings and eating habits have more in common than I'd suspected.

For instance, a study published in the Journal of Consumer Research in 2008 concluded that a person's belief system influences how she or he perceives food. In other words, if a particular food fits with your values--if, for instance, it jives with your moral belief in vegan fare or your lust for barbecued pork--it will actually taste better than food that doesn't mesh with those values.

Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at the University of Virginia, studies the underlying roots of liberalism and conservatism and says those competing philosophies can express themselves in restaurant preferences, too. In a 2008 TED talk, Haidt said that liberals score much higher on a major personality trait labeled "openness to experience" than conservatives. He explained that liberals "crave novelty, variety, diversity, new ideas, travel. People who are low on it like things that are familiar, that are safe and dependable." He went on to say, "once you understand this trait, you can understand why anybody would eat at Applebee's--but not anybody that you know."

Susan Swetnam, Idaho State University professor, food scholar and former Gourmet magazine contributor, isn't convinced that conservative politics and conservative palates always run in parallel.

"The more I think about that, the more I don't think that's true," Swetnam said. "When I was working for Gourmet and I got sent to The Point [the old Rockefeller Great Camp in the Adirondacks], which is arguably the most spectacular three- to four-day dining experience I've ever had, and the most expensive, there was almost nobody who wasn't right of Nixon eating there."

Perhaps more in sync with Swetnam's own observations, another study emphasized class rather than political affiliation as a major factor influencing food preferences. In a 1991 book, Feeding the Family, sociologist Marjorie DeVault wrote that blue-collar workers tend to live closer to where they were raised and therefore value familiar foods and foods that evoke family bonds. On the other hand, professionals tend to move away from family to further their careers and end up valuing foods that highlight variety and novelty over the familiar. They also have more cash to spend on food.

"It's much more economic than cultural," Swetnam said. "I don't think there's a population center [in Idaho] with a critical mass of wealthy-enough people to afford to eat out regularly and keep a number of high-end restaurants going."

She said the state also doesn't have enough of those restaurants to keep that affluent customer base coming back, except perhaps for the resort towns of Sun Valley and Coeur d'Alene.

"There has to be a critical mass of restaurants, because nobody wants to go to the same place, eat the same fancy food every week, right?"

Another factor may hamper achieving that critical mass--one we Idahoans happen to cherish: our wide-open, rural character.

"We're still kind of country out here," Couch said. "I think a lot of it is population-based. People think that Boise is a bigger city than it really is. Think of all the nice restaurants that probably could have been successful in more highly populated areas."

But higher population isn't the whole story. The fact that Idaho cities, no matter their size, are isolated from each other and the greater Northwest by vast distances likely slows the culinary cross pollination that naturally occurs where cities sit in close proximity.

After closing SixOneSix, Couch spent time as executive chef at St. Joseph Medical Center in Bellingham, Wash. Although Boise is more than two times the size of Bellingham, Couch said he was surprised to see how vibrant the restaurant community was in that smallish, western Washington town.

"The difference between here and Bellingham is, you're smack right between Seattle and Vancouver [British Columbia]. You're on a major throughway of business and millions of people and cultural diversity," Couch said. "It has really good, fun dining and food culture and even some of the food markets were amazing--but that's what you get in these areas nearer population centers."

Idaho's isolation also handicaps its ability to compete for awards like the James Beard. Though the awards committee tries to recruit restaurant reviewers and food writers in every state in order to create an initial pool of candidates for the annual awards, votes for the finalists can only be cast by a select group of judges who must have eaten in the restaurants they vote for. The odds that those judges have eaten at restaurants in large cities or well-traveled locations are far greater than those for restaurants in small towns or out-of-the-way places.

The James Beard Foundation's award committee chair and Seattle Times restaurant critic Providence Cicero said that "Portland and Seattle chefs tend to make it into the top five because the group of people who vote are likely to travel to the bigger markets, the bigger cities."

Although the committee is continually trying to level the playing field, it's a nonprofit, volunteer-based organization without funds to pay judges to travel to nominated restaurants.

"The reality is that Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Alaska, are not markets that people travel through a lot," Cicero said--at least not with the frequency they travel to more densely populated destinations.

Even Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Denver and Houston have complained about being underrepresented in the James Beard Awards. They, too, have felt forced to compete with larger metropolitan areas or hotter restaurant destinations in their designated regions. Cicero said that even the current foodie magnet of Portland, Ore., once complained about its inability to get a James Beard award.

But, why, you may ask, is a vibrant, award-winning restaurant culture important? Society clearly doesn't require restaurants to survive, nor would it take much intellectual effort to write them off as unnecessary indulgences or worse. I'd argue, though, that a vibrant restaurant scene is as fundamental, as essential a cultural expression as the visual arts, music and literature. And without a vibrant restaurant scene, culinary creativity can bleed away from a community.

"A lot of chefs leave town," Kelly said. "It's easy to get bored as a chef if you're not being creative. We've had chefs that have shown up here and worked a few months and left. And we've had chefs that came out of Boise State and now the College of Western Idaho Culinary Arts Program who don't even bother. They get right out of culinary school and head to Portland or Chicago or San Francisco or Seattle."

Kelly, a former chef who taught part-time in Boise State's Culinary Arts Program, admitted that he often told students to leave town.

"And that's kind of sad that you have to tell students that," he said. "A lot of people who have high aspirations as chefs realize not too long after getting out of culinary school here that they need to leave to get a good internship in a larger city--and then often don't come back."

As a result, Kelly said, "there's a lot of redundancy in the scene here," a lot of pubs, steakhouses and sandwich shops serving variations on mac 'n' cheese, sweet potato fries, chicken wraps and other pleasant but predictable standards.

Kelly believes the Treasure Valley's dining scene is not only bleeding creativity but cash.

"The most successful restaurants in this valley currently are Olive Garden and Cheesecake Factory and Applebee's, and these are restaurants that are busy day in and day out--and that's kind of a sad commentary. Even though they're employing local people to cook and wait tables and clean the restaurant, the money is primarily going out of state."

Yet Kelly holds out hope for Idaho's food future.

"The most interesting thing going on in Boise right now is all the new food trucks," Kelly said.

The Treasure Valley embraced the food truck rage late in its national evolution, but the trend continues to offer an innovative way for chefs to express their creativity while sidestepping the prohibitively high overhead of a conventional location. Former Boise restaurateur Andrae Bopp has won praise since moving to Washington and opening Andrae's Kitchen, Walla Walla, Wash.'s first gourmet food truck. In the greater Boise area about a dozen similar food trucks now prowl the streets. It's a reminder that creative cuisine and high costs don't have to be inexorably linked.

"It's not all about the six-course dinner and the linen and the nice stemware," Kelly said. "You can do good food at a relatively affordable price if you know what you're doing."

Couch agreed.

"In these bigger cities, you walk into these hotspots and they haven't put a ton of money into them, but they're being creative with what they've got."

Swetnam said we should also remember how far Idaho has come over the years. The whole nation, after all, has set the bar higher in the past few decades, focusing on varied, fresh, less-processed foods prepared with more craft.

"There's no comparison of food now to what it was when I came to Pocatello in 1979. It's so much better," Swetnam said. "Boise is 100 percent better than it was when I first started going over there."

Add on the numerous creative Idaho restaurants that continue to set high standards, and it's tempting to slip into a self-congratulatory culinary cocoon. Still I'd argue that our praise-worthy restaurants are the exceptions that prove the rule--you only have to take a trip to more-progressive food towns to see how high the bar is set. Even if you believe the Idaho restaurant scene is doing just fine, identifying obstacles and finding ways to hurdle them is never a bad idea.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette writer China Millman penned an article in 2009 titled, "Why Are We Off the Culinary Map?" She suggested that "thriving dining scenes must be constructed from the bottom up as much as the top down." By that, she meant that the responsibility to invigorate any dining scene lies not only in the hands of restaurateurs and chefs, but also in the hands of those who value culinary creativity.

"Diners are the foundation of a culinary scene," she wrote. "Their knowledge, their palates and their demands ultimately drive change."

Millman wrote that patrons should not only patronize their favorite restaurants (perhaps the most important thing), but promote them using strategies as simple as posting reviews of favorite restaurants on websites like the Zagat guide and Chowhound. That can drive online chatter and potentially attract recognition from media outlets.

Cicero said that food festivals are another way to attract attention to less-traveled areas, creating a buzz that can then ripple through the greater culinary community, potentially attracting, among others, those elusive James Beard judges. At the same time, she said festivals can act as gateways for restaurant-wary locals, introducing them to new foods in entertaining, non-threatening surroundings.

Small things, perhaps, but activities any community can use to spark a creative restaurant scene.

So as much as I admire Couch for his willingness to take the blame for his restaurant's failure back in 2008, I disagree. We customers share a responsibility to support chefs like him. After all, creativity isn't exclusive to wealth, nor is location destiny. Despite the physical, cultural and economic limitations we face in Idaho, as a community, we have the power to build a more creative, award-worthy restaurant scene.

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