Q & A with Chef Joe Tripp—Harbinger
Recently, I sat down with Joe Tripp to discuss Harbinger, a new restaurant he’s collaborating on with restaurateur Jason Simon (of Alba and Eatery A). Tripp had just returned from Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore, where he traveled five weeks for culinary inspiration.
Here’s what he had to say about Harbinger, which is due to open in April. (Note that the questions and answers have been edited for clarity and concision.)
Q. What inspired the name “Harbinger”?
A. A harbinger is a sign of ensuing change—it’s something that is representative of the first of many things to come. By that, I don’t mean other restaurants—I’ve never wanted to be a chef that opens multiple restaurants. But if Harbinger takes off, it will be a first of many things to come—perhaps a farm, which could provide the restaurant with its own products.
Harbinger also invokes seasonality—for example, people say asparagus is the “harbinger” of spring—so the name also speaks to the seasonal focus of the restaurant.
Q. I’ve heard more than a few Des Moines food enthusiasts wonder aloud if your new restaurant will be a Thai or Asian restaurant, given your extensive travels for culinary research—last year to Vietnam, and this year to Thailand and Malaysia.
A. No. Not Thai. Not Asian. Far from it. It’s not my heritage. However, those flavors will be present to enhance the flavors of the ingredients I use—carrots flavored by miso, for instance. In other words, I’d like to use flavors from Asian cuisine, without doing Asian cuisine.
It’s about elevating New American Cuisine with flavors from those countries.
Q. Can you tell me about the menu in general?
A. The menu will change weekly and offer about a dozen plates each night. We’ll be doing vegetable-focused small plates. But just because it’s vegetable focused doesn’t mean it’s vegetarian. We will have proteins on the menu, like chicken, pork belly and dry-aged strip loin. We’ll even have a burger on the menu—a stellar burger with a homemade potato roll for the bun.
Our goal is to have locally-sourced ingredients, which means you won’t see a lot of seafood on the menu—maybe walleye, but if it’s not local, we’re not using it.
Q. Can you describe some of the dishes you’ve been working on since your return from Thailand and Malaysia?
A. I’ve developed an XLT, which is a play on XLB (Xiao Long Bao, a popular dumpling served in dim sum restaurants). I’m replacing the “B” with “T”; that is, instead of a dumpling, it will be tortellini. It has gelatinized pork stock—which becomes a rich pork stock when it melts—along with pork and celery root, flavored with black vinegar and ginger.
I’m also working on a butternut squash chawanmushi (a Japanese egg custard) with sweetbreads, barley miso and apples.
My desserts will have Asian flavors coming through—but they will not be Asian desserts. For example, I’ll have a play on a lemon-meringue pie, with fermented chiles and citrus zest, topped with whipped soy instead of meringue.
Q. And what is the price point for such detailed, inventive cuisine?
A. Nothing on the menu will cost more than $15, and a lot of dishes will be under $10. We want people to encourage people to take a chance on a dish. We’d like to be able to say, “Have you ever had Barley Miso before? On Sweetbreads? It’s only $8—give it a chance.”
Q. I’ve noticed the quality of front-of-the-house service in town has slipped dramatically lately. How do you plan to keep your standards high?
A. This is important to me, because when you go to a restaurant, it’s not just for the food, but the entire experience, and service is an important part of that.
We’ve hired two front-of-the-house pros, Ben Nelson and Rae Doyle [Nelson was long-time sommelier at Splash; Doyle has most recently been front-of-the-house manager at Alba]. Rae will be bar manager, Ben is the floor manager—the face to go to for our customers—and is also in charge of picking out wines. Ben and Rae will both be serving tables, as well as keeping an eye on the room. The great thing about this space is that it only seats 50. I can see what’s happening on the floor from the open kitchen.
Q. And what about your wine program?
A. We’ll feature unique wines on a small list—12 to 15 bottles—that will change often. We will only choose wines that have a good story behind them. We want our guests to feel that excitement.
Q. [Note: During our visit, Tripp got word that he is on the ballot for the James Beard Chef Awards, for his work at Alba. It’s his second consecutive year snagging the honor. While we both scrambled on our iPhones to see which other chefs from Des Moines might be on the ballot (sadly, none were), I asked him who else in Des Moines should have gotten the nod this year.]
A. Lynn Pritchard from Table 128.
Q. Amen to that! So, back to Harbinger. I’m intrigued when you say the restaurant could be the first of many things to come. What other things might there be "to come"? Cheesemaking? Butchering? What are some of your other visions?
A.Our philosophy is veggie centric so I'd love to be able to provide the restaurant with its own product. That really livens the story line, but obviously Harbinger needs to be successful first before we even start dreaming of that!
Of course we would like the farm to provide the basis for a good butchery program but beyond that it would also be a good place to work on season extension through preservation, such as pickling, fermenting and curing. I also think playing around with miso pastes and other soy-based products would be an innovative move. We grow soybeans remarkably well in Iowa, but we have no soymilk or tofu producers around? Might just be the kind of artisanal product Harbinger could line its brand up with.