The Chef Redefining Iowa’s Contemporary Cuisine
We’ll be honest: Cedar Rapids, Iowa seems like an unlikely destination for smears of egg yolk jam and ‘Nduja with shaved radish. On a quiet downtown block, a ten-minute drive from picturesque cornfields, is Cobble Hill Restaurant. There, Andy Schumacher, an Iowa-bred, New York-trained chef, is redefining what market-driven, contemporary cuisine means in his home state. And the James Beard Foundation is noticing. In 2015, Schumacher was a semifinalist for Best Chef Midwest.
Before returning to Iowa, Schumacher gained experience working in some of the best kitchens in the world. After ditching medical school to attend culinary school in New York, he trained with Michelin-starred Dan Barber and James Beard Award-winning restaurateur Tom Colicchio. When he and his wife moved back to Iowa to raise their family, they knew they wanted to stay true to their creative ideals, despite the state's somewhat traditional culinary scene.
“We made a decision when we opened that we were going to do it our way,” Schumacher said. “In Iowa, you go into a restaurant—and not every place is like this—but it’s more common to get a big steak. And if you get an entrée, of course you get a salad for free. But our menu is à la carte.”
Schumacher was even one of the first people in town to do craft cocktails. “If we were in a large metropolitan area, we’d be four times as busy as we are now,” he said. “We’re still catering to a small segment of the market, but that segment is strong enough to support us.”
It’s easy to see why. Schumacher’s pedigree is apparent in his execution: buttery panisses are texturally perfect, with silken, mousse-like interiors, and tangy, cumin-speckled yogurt cuts the fat. Slivers of radish add crunch. Then there’s the house-made curried lamb sausage, plated with near-magical chickpeas, crunchy on the outside and fondant on the inside. Their savoriness is contrasted by the carrot purée beneath, which offers a blush of sweetness. Torn mint brightens an otherwise rib-sticking meal.
Despite having grown up amidst Iowa’s agricultural expanses, Schumacher’s farm-to-table outlook was catalyzed in the enclaves of Greenwich Village. It was there that he worked for Michelin-starred, James Beard-crowned Dan Barber, who helped popularize the farm-to-table movement in the early 2000s. (You might have seen Barber on the first season of the Netflix docuseries Chef’s Table.) At his restaurant Blue Hill, Barber works closely with the experimental Stone Barns farm, famous for its hybrid, heirloom bounty of rainbow beets, over 25 varieties of lettuce and free-roaming Berkshire pigs. “That was really my first experience with New American, market-driven cuisine,” Schumacher said.
At Cobble Hill, Schumacher is governed by the weather, too. “We have a really strong sense of seasons here in Iowa,” he said. “Summer going into fall … I try to convey some of that nostalgia that comes with those visceral, sensory experiences.” Encapsulating the sensations of late summer is a charred sweet corn cannelloni currently on the menu, filled with ricotta and tarragon and dressed with beurre monté. “I love the flavor of charred corn, like elote,” he said. It’s only available for two weeks, because that’s all the corn that Schumacher could get from his corn guy.
“Growing up in Iowa, I didn’t have a relationship to the food culture like someone growing up in the South might have,” he said, but his food is unequivocally informed by place. And he’s not the only one reimagining contemporary cuisine in Iowa. Jim Duncan, the James Beard Foundation’s Midwest regional panelist, has seen several Iowan chefs get nominated over the past several years. No one has outright won—yet. “Iowa’s restaurant scene revived as dramatically as its economy in the last 15 years,” he said. "A renaissance was inevitable after the constant of the state’s rich, black dirt met the Alice Water’s school of ingredient-driven cooking, and farmers' markets encouraged niche, natural and organic crops.”
All this is to say: Iowa has been called a flyover state, but maybe you should consider driving through. And if you do, stop at Cobble Hill.
Cobble Hill, 219 2nd St SE, Cedar Rapids, IA, 319-366-3177