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Des Moines chef nominated for the Oscars of food — again — and that's not all he's got on his plate


Courtney Crowder   | The Des Moines Register
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Not many chefs can say that a James Beard Foundation Award nomination — colloquially known as the Oscars of the food world — is the second most exciting thing to happen to them in a week.

But Joe Tripp is not most chefs.

“I just had my first kid last week, so celebration and excitement has been high at my house recently,” the slightly weary new dad of one-week-old Clayton told me Wednesday. “So this nomination is adding to the craziness — in a really good way, of course.”

A five-time nominee — two as chef at the East Village’s Alba and three as chef and owner at Harbinger on Ingersoll Avenue — Tripp, 34, was dropping his stepchildren off at school when friends forwarded him the foundation’s announcement topped with messages of hearty congratulations.

“I’m always grateful to be on the list with such talented people and hopeful we will be on the shortlist when that comes out in March,” he said.

Iowa has been well-represented on the Beard Awards’ semifinalist list, with about 25 nominations since 2008, but not one of those chefs or restaurants has ever made it to the finalist list — let alone won the whole enchilada.

Wednesday’s announcement is the first step toward Des Moines native Tripp reversing that trend. Nominated in the Best Chef Midwest category, he’s up against 19 impressive chefs from Kansas, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska and the Dakotas.

The 2020 semifinalists were culled from open-call submissions entered throughout the fall as well as nominations from renowned critics, writers and editors. The ballot announced Wednesday now advances to a voting body of about 600 people who are former winners, committee members and other regional panelists. They will cut the 20-person semifinalist list to five finalists, who will be announced March 25.

The winner will be crowned at a black-tie gathering of culinary virtuosos on May 4.

“My goal every day at my restaurant is to get a little bit better than we were the day before, and then a little bit better the next day and a little bit better the next day,” Tripp said. “When you do that, hopefully you are constantly moving forward and changing creatively and pushing yourself."

"Everyone on the team at Harbinger buys into that mission and works towards that with every plate," he added. 

So will Tripp’s gastronomic drive, passion and inventiveness be enough to finally break Iowa’s Susan Lucci-esque drought?

Meet Joe

Tripp wasn’t one of those kid gourmets that you see on reality shows today — or at least he didn't realize he was.

At just 4 years old, his father, one of his greatest culinary influences, introduced him to foie gras at Wolfgang Puck’s Los Angeles hotspot Spago, according to a Register profile after his first Beard nod in 2016.

The family’s appointed cook, Tripp’s dad’s cuisine tended to lean more tartare than tuna noodle.

“He'd make something out of Bon Appétit or Food & Wine,” Tripp told former food writer Susan Stapleton. “We were never a meatloaf Tuesday kind of place."

After studying psychology and philosophy at the University of Iowa, Tripp dedicated himself to food and sought out a career in the kitchen. Landing at Denver’s Fruition Restaurant, a farm-to-table place from James Beard Award winner Alex Seidel, Tripp opted to work his way up through the lines rather than study at a formal culinary school.

At Fruition, Tripp got a first-hand lesson in sustainability when Seidel requested his employees spend one day a week working on his Fruition Farms Creamery, Colorado's first artisanal sheep dairy. There, he pitched in wherever help was needed, which on any given day could be with the cheese, the Heritage breed pigs, the apiary or the produce that would later appear on diners’ plates.

After a few years in the Mile High City, Tripp moved back home and unpacked his knives at Alba, an upscale American eatery from local restaurateur Jason Simon.

"I returned to Des Moines because I have such great pride in the product that we have in this state,” Tripp said previously. “We have fantastic soil, fantastic pork, amazing produce.”

At Alba, Tripp left his mark on Simon’s modern, local fare. And Simon helped the young chef continue his culinary education, sending him for a two-week stint at Coi, a Michelin-starred seafood restaurant in San Francisco. Working in a tasting-menu only environment, Tripp’s passion for seasonal ingredients only deepened — as did his understanding of the importance of good prep work.

He continued his real-world training by backpacking through Asia — spending 20 days in Vietnam and, later, 35 days in Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore — where he relished discovering new ingredients and mastering unfamiliar styles.

But some of his greatest lessons came when he “staged” — what chefs call an unpaid internship taken to learn new techniques — at Los Angeles' French restaurant Republique and Hollywood's modern Alma and Animal.

"In L.A., I learned it takes more than being a good cook,” he told the Register. “Being a great chef is about being a great leader. Hopefully, you can cook. Not all great cooks are great chefs.”

A prescient point considering the criteria for the Best Chef Award say as much about setting “high culinary standards” as they do “demonstrating admirable leadership skills.”

Harbinger as a harbinger? 

In 2017, Tripp paired with Simon to open Harbinger, a restaurant whose inventive food and homey atmosphere defy one culinary category. (In a weird twist of fate, Harbinger sits in the space once occupied by Bistro Montage, a much-loved eatery run by fellow Beard nominee Enosh Kelley.)

Self-described as a “vegetable-focused small plates concept featuring flavors inspired by our chef’s trips through SE Asia and beyond,” Harbinger regularly switches menus and items to reflect the growing season.

“I am very interested in food made for a time and place and, at Harbinger, that’s right now in Iowa,” Tripp said. “Ingredients are seasonal, so we are changing out plates more regularly during the growing season. In winter, we slow down a bit but still base our menu on Iowa flavors by using produce we preserved at the peak of their growing season.”   

And Tripp isn’t feeding me a line about local food or farm-to-table fare. Talk to him for more than five minutes and you’ll see he seeks to understand on a deep level food and seasons and farming — and he knows enough to throw out assessments like, “Last summer, Iowa had the best peach year I can remember.”

Harbinger, through the nomination of its head chef, has been on the Beard semifinalist list every year since its opening — a rare feat and a good sign for Des Moines’ ever-flowering food scene.

“Once a dismal landscape of old school Italian restaurants and chains galore, the dining scene in Des Moines has matured in the past decade to embrace interesting cuisines and nuanced flavors worthy of a more sophisticated palate,” my colleague Stapleton wrote back in 2016.

Tripp would agree, saying he “loves what Iowa has become as a food destination.”

“I have had wonderful meals in all corners of the state and that reflects in Iowa being represented on the list pretty regularly over the past decade,” Tripp said.

But it’s lonely at the top, and he’s hopeful more Iowa talent will be recognized soon. Specifically, he is awed by the food from Lynn Pritchard at Table 128 in Clive and Kevin Scharpf at Brazen Open Kitchen in Dubuque.

With so much culinary press on the coasts, getting attention out here in the middle can be hard, Tripp says, but innovative plates from passionate chefs will bring accolades. Look at Kansas City, he offers, which went from having one nomination to more than a handful this year — all on the back of a simple concept: good food made by good chefs.

“At Harbinger, we are screaming as loud as we can about Iowa and Iowa food,” Tripp said. “It can be hard living in a land-locked state — flyover country as people say — but having a restaurant like Harbinger on the list three years in a row makes it hard for people not to notice what is happening here.”

“Ultimately,” he added, “the louder the group of us can holler and make noise about the work we are doing here, the more likely we are to see Iowa names on that list.”

Courtney Crowder, the Register's Iowa Columnist, traverses the state's 99 counties telling Iowans' stories. She's always looking for Iowa restaurant recommendations. Got any? Reach her at ccrowder@dmreg.com or 515-284-8360. Follow her on Twitter @courtneycare.

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