By Chris Bavender
For chef David Tallent the approach of spring means one thing – time to plan his favorite menu of the year for his Bloomington eatery.
“We are getting out cookbooks and pulling out old menus and talking about what products we are hoping to see and when we are hoping to see it,” said Tallent, who owns and operates Restaurant Tallent with wife, Kristen. “When we have asparagus and start to see green stuff — and not everything is a potato or root vegetable — it’s really our favorite menu to plan.”
That creativity is no doubt among the reasons why Tallent was named as one of 20 semifinalists in the James Beard Foundation restaurant and chef awards for Best Chef in the Great Lakes region. It is the eighth year in a row that Tallent has been on the list – something he calls “very humbling.”
“It’s always nice to be recognized – to know there are people that recognize the hard work and the passion that goes into what we do – I appreciate it,” Tallent said. “You have those days where you just feel like banging your head against the wall for whatever reason – something that doesn’t go right, etc. – and this makes all the burns and scrapes and cuts worth it when people recognize it. Everyone loves to be told they are doing a good job.”
The “short list” of finalists for the Beard Awards will be announced March 18 in Chicago, a city that has 11 of the 20 semifinalists in the Great Lakes region that includes Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Ohio. While Indiana has four chefs on the “long list” of semifinalists – Tallent is joined on the list by Indianapolis chefs Regina Mehallick, Greg Hardesty and Neal Brown – no local chefs have ever made it to finalist status.
Perhaps that will change this year and Tallent or another Indiana chef will be among finalists at the Beard awards gala in New York in May, but the Bloomington chef is looking ahead to spring for another reason.
While the bitter winter has been hard on everyone it may have a hidden benefit for Tallent – an abundance of one of his favorite ingredients.
“I’ve heard this really cold hard winter makes a better morel season when spring really happens – my fingers are crossed for that,” he said. “They are like Indiana truffles I would say – people hold them in that kind of regard here.”
His other favorite springtime ingredients? Ramps (wild baby leeks) and asparagus.
“I really love doing asparagus with some sort of an egg – like a soft boiled or poached. Or I’ve done it in the past fried –taking a soft boiled egg and then breaded and fried it with asparagus,” Tallent said.
While Tallent has become of Indiana’s culinary stars, he is quick to credit his influences.
“The one I look to first – and hold in the highest regard – is Thomas Keller,” Tallent said. “Alice Waters is another. They were two of the most influential in my upbringing in this business.”
It’s a business whose customers, Tallent said, are more knowledgeable these days when it comes to local food, and Restaurant Tallent features as many local ingredients as possible.
“I think people are a lot more conscious about what’s going into their bodies,” he said, “where things are coming from, the distance a vegetable or a piece of fish or meat may be traveling, and whether an animal was raised humanely or the fish was caught in a sustainable manner. Or, if the vegetables were sprayed with chemicals – or if a farmer put extra work into raising them organically. I hate to think it’s just a trend, but that’s how a lot of these things start and people begin to realize it’s important to know where it all comes from.”
It could also be the reason behind the trend, he said, toward more casual dining.
“I really feel it’s kind of cyclical – like a roller coaster – with ups and downs,” he said. “Fine dining goes into spells where people really want that and then goes into where they don’t want to have to wear a jacket and tie and be so formal and stuffy.”
Diners today want the experience they get at Tallent’s Bloomington restaurant – creative dishes expertly prepared and beautifully presented…and with top-notch service.
“They want to have really, really good food but want to go in blue jeans and be more casual and relaxed,” he said. “They want it to be about the food and the experience and interaction with the server and having a good meal and enjoying the company of the people they are with.”
ChrisBavender is an Indianapolis-based freelance writer.