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

Comfort trumps innovation in Boise restaurants

Page 3 of 3

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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