by Bill More
When Tim Johnson of Peoria Life had first asked me to put together an article on Peoria Area food trends, I jokingly asked if he really wanted a full article on Pork Tenderloins.
I know Peoria and the Peoria food scene. While not a native I have been here for more than 40 years, have tried many, many, many restaurants from local fast foods to the highest end the area really has to offer. And I have seen a NUMBER of restaurants come and go, some deserved --- and some not so deserved. That being said I decided that it may be best not to do any full analysis on my own but rather to contact some colleagues in the field that live, breathe, work, and sweat every day to make a go of it in the food profession and have had their shares of success. My goal was to determine what THEY have seen as the Peoria food scene in the past, present and future.
My first contact is Rose Leftwich, Wine and Spirits Manager at the Kroger Lindbergh store in North Peoria. Rose, age 57, started at Kroger 7 years ago as a Cashier. She was promoted to the Floral Department, and has headed the Wine and Spirits area for nearly 6 years. Originally from Germany she had family exposure to German wines at an early age and acquired some knowledge even then. When she started medium-sweet wines were really popular as was Pinot Noir, mostly due to the Sideways movie. Currently she is seeing strong sales in the popular Moscatoes, really sweet, but strong interest in solid dry red wines like Malbecs and solid full-bodied red blends as well. She has noticed a trend in that younger people have become more interested in great quality wines even at a young age. It is a splurge they can afford and truly appreciate. She expects these trends to continue.
I then was able to share some time with Travis Mohlenbrink, age 38, of Cracked Pepper Catering, Salt Restaurant, Sugar Wood-Fired Bistro and Gourmet Treats. Travis has been in the food business for nearly 17 years with stints at Maggiano’s Restaurant, Panera Bread Company, Restaurants America Company, as server, manager, and District Manager. He got the spark to open his own place and started Cracked Pepper Catering/Bakery/Café. Cracked Pepper has one a number of awards at the Taste of Peoria, Viewer’s Choice, People’s Choice, and Reader’s Choice Awards as well. The emphasis of all his businesses is a unique twist on known foods, their own twist on sautéed chicken breasts for example. When he first started he was serving loads of pork and beef dishes which were quickly popular. He now finds more requests for gluten-free, vegetarian and vegan dishes and he is able to satisfy these needs as well. He strives for simple, tasty, unique dishes, even wood-fired when possible. He insists on local management, and sees a big upswing on the quick casual concept with less interest in a fine dining concept. He has a huge following of local supporters which he loves. He admitted there were a few recipe concept ideas that he thought were terrific but didn’t attract the popularity he expected. All recipes and menus are always evolving. His next venture is Thyme, a Gastro-Pub concept in the warehouse district in Peoria. Stay tuned. He promises a burger that will be the envy of every restaurant in the Tri-County area.
Troy Ummel (age 44) is the Chef/Owner of Connected Restaurant on Dries Lane in Peoria, and Connected is described as Classic American Food with a Unique Italian Flair.
Troy is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. He has been recognized 4 times by the James Beard Culinary group, has competed in the Culinary Olympics in Germany, and has been recognized as a Top Chef in the National Restaurant News. He has been in the food business for more about 28 years, has experience in the restaurant business from Hawaii, to Southern France, to Florida, and now Peoria. He got into the business because at the time, the great chefs and restaurateurs were celebrities, always around fun people, great food, cocktails, and, yes, girls. The popularity of chefs has done nothing but continue to grow and Troy feels that this is still the best profession to be in since he feels one of the most intimate things he can do is provide great food for people to sustain them. When he began his career Buffets and Smorgasbords were very popular.
They served real food (stay tuned), well-prepared and tasty. That concept has changed over the years and now is more known for Chinese/Asian food, and the domain of chain restaurants. Troy feels real food should contain no more than 4 ingredients per dish, and knows that terrific food can be fast, easy, and cost effective. Fine dining is still in vogue, he believes, and restaurants can survive if we go back to chefs operating the kitchens instead of Food Managers. “Organic” may be more of a marketing ploy than a true change in the food industry. You can get fabulous foods from most all local supermarkets and retail shops. He thinks that a back to basics approach will continue to be the trend in the future – simple roast chicken, roast potatoes, properly done will be what customers want. Not as much Raspberry/Coconut Chicken as in the past. While all business owners have to jump through hoops, the restaurant business is famous for the number of hoops, but Troy has done so most successfully. He has had a great run with Connected and is evolving to make sure things continue there. Finally, he has purchased The Chateau in North Pekin, Illinois, and now plans to hold it as a Banquet and Event location.
Fine, simple ingredients classically prepared are Troy’s keys to success.
Dining and entertainment options still abound in the Peoria area.
If there is any night of the week that you feel stuck at home with nothing to do, get out.
Go find a new restaurant to you and tell THEM and others what you think. You may be
surprised at the diversity and quality of your options in Central Illinois.
What are YOUR favorite places?
Bill More is Your Secret Chef, Personal Chef in Central Illinois.
After a 33 year corporate sales career he made the change 7 years ago to follow his passion and share his talents with Central Illinois. He now provides Dinner and Massage Experiences, Romantic Dinners, Dinner Parties, In Home Cooking Lessons, Girls Night IN! Parties, and many more custom options to his clients, and thanks them for their loyal support over the last 7 years. He wants it to continue long into the future.