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?