State of Downtown Boise Speakers Zero In on the City's Culinary Scene 

click to enlarge Left to right: Angela Taylor, Matt Gilkerson, Robin Kelley, Nate Whitley and Kasey Allen.

Lex Nelson

Left to right: Angela Taylor, Matt Gilkerson, Robin Kelley, Nate Whitley and Kasey Allen.

There was a lot of self-congratulation at the Downtown Boise Association's April 17 State of Downtown Boise event.

"Lynn [Hightower, DBA Executive Director] actually tours people from other cities [through downtown] on a regular basis, because we are that cool," DBA President Mindy Gronbeck said in her opening remarks.

Later, Hightower said of those same groups, "They want what we have," listing "vibrancy" and a "cool factor" among Boise's attributes.

Still, it was the speakers who challenged that narrative or probed beneath its surface that held the crowd's attention. As the event focused on Boise's rapidly expanding culinary scene—the organizers went so far as to stash an "Idaho's Bounty Bento Box" packed with Gem State-made snacks on each seat—the most pertinent speakers where those who'd had their hands either in the dirt or the kitchen.

click to enlarge The bento box included lamb bacon, grilled halloumi cheese and grissini, a beet-root cured Idaho trout pinwheel and a "mashed Idaho potato" chocolate truffle. - LEX NELSON
  • Lex Nelson
  • The bento box included lamb bacon, grilled halloumi cheese and grissini, a beet-root cured Idaho trout pinwheel and a "mashed Idaho potato" chocolate truffle.
Idaho Department of Agriculture Director Celia Gould, speaking to the nearly 500-strong crowd from the podium, highlighted Idaho's urban-rural divide, pointing to food as the intersection of those sometimes conflicting ideas. In particular, she cited downtown Boise chefs who focus their menus on what's local.

"Data tells us that consumers now spend more on food out of their home than they do in their home. So I am doubly grateful for our culinary community that appreciates all of what Idaho has to offer," she said.

Gould also challenged the audience to "be better stewards of the precious resources needed to bring food from farm to table" going forward. That position was echoed by a panel of restaurateurs, producers and foodies—moderated by Angela Taylor, the "chief indulge officer" of Indulge Boise Food Tours—that took the stage later. Its members urged listeners to think more deeply about where their food comes from and support local businesses when possible.

Robin Kelley, the owner of Kelley's Canyon Orchard in Filer, said her biggest challenge is the expense of transportation, and noted that those who want to eat local food often have to seek it out, whether at the farmers market or the farm itself.

"If you want to get that farm experience, go have it," she told the audience.

Chef Nate Whitley of The Modern; Matt Gilkerson, the program manager of Trailhead and the new food startup competition Trailmix; and Kasey Allen, co-owner of The STIL, chimed in with their own advice. Allen, Whitley and Gilkerson encouraged attendees to eat out, try new places and support food industry entrepreneurs, while Kelley said to ask questions, whether of friends (Where are you going to dinner?) or waiters (Where do you get your beef?).

click to enlarge Chef Kris Komori addresses the crowd at the State of Downtown Boise meeting. - LEX NELSON
  • Lex Nelson
  • Chef Kris Komori addresses the crowd at the State of Downtown Boise meeting.
The event ended with a surprise speaker: Chef Kris Komori, the three-time James Beard nominee formerly of State & Lemp and currently of KIN.

"Downtown Boise isn't just competition. It's collaboration. It's working together. It's a rising tide," he said, revealing that  KIN will soon open at the corner of Ninth and Main streets in the space that once housed Angell's Bar & Grill Renato. "...It's really important that Boise's restaurants continue to push each other. We need to respectfully call each other out so that as a group, we become better."

Komori went on to note that Boise's explosive population growth has presented both opportunities and challenges for its food scene, leaving the city in something of an identity crisis.

"When I moved from Portland six years ago, a lot of people in town said that Boise is like a young Portland. You probably hear that—a young Seattle, a young San Francisco, what have you. In a way it's true, but in most ways I've seen it's actually not. It's important to take inspiration from the larger cities on the West Coast, but it's also very important for us to realize that Boise is a different place and we should be wary of trying to be anything that's not authentically Boise," he said to an explosion of applause, later adding, "We have a ton of momentum right now and that makes for very exciting but very precarious times."
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