Plucky Pioneer in the Black Hills

M.J. Adams / June 2000

I arrived in Rapid City, at the foot of South Dakota’s Black Hills, more than three years ago, a refugee from New York City’s supercharged food world. I wanted to spend time with my sister and also be near my father, who lives in Wyoming. I also saw limitless opportunity in this culinary backwater, where the prairie bleeds into hills and meets the sky. To me, it was like before the California Gold Rush.

Everywhere you look here, there are chain restaurants. People in and around Rapid City have forgotten how food—real food—should look and taste. I believe that other chefs and I who have stepped away from the urban bustle to make a go of it where few dare to venture hold the future of food in this part of the country in our hands. I don’t need a million-dollar kitchen to create great food. Nor do I need every exotic ingredient at my fingertips or on my menu to be an accomplished chef. It’s been a pit-in-my-stomach adventure here: a fire leveled my first restaurant in Rapid City, and my husband couldn’t stand the isolation and returned to New York City. But it’s easier to see the canvas away from the bright lights of the big city, and I love the one I’m painting at my restaurant, The Corn Exchange.

A city story It’s funny how people assume that, if you’re a chef, you must have grown up in an atmosphere of gourmet cuisine. My customers are shocked when I tell them I got an F in Home Economics.

I come from a background of fruit orchards and Hamburger Helper on Vashon Island, Washington, where I lived with my parents and my mom’s father. My grandfather had a wonderful house surrounded by cherry trees, 50 different kinds of apple trees, and blackberry bushes. However, my mother was too sick when I was a child to spend a lot of time on meals, so I don’t have many memories of home-cooked food. She made two things: bread pudding and cantaloupe filled with vanilla ice cream. Later in life, after my mother died, I lived with my grandmother in Mitchell, South Dakota, where I found the meaning of family meals. In junior high, I ended up in Wyoming with my father. My stepmother worked, so we were responsible for putting meals on the table, or at least getting them started. I always had better things to do. It wasn’t until I stumbled across an issue of Cuisine magazine in college in Wyoming that food sparked any interest.

In the spring of 1984, my first husband was accepted as a student by New York University. Without a second thought, I sold everything we owned, bought two Greyhound bus tickets, and, in mid-August, headed east. After a few months of working as a temp in offices around Manhattan, I landed a job as a secretary to three advertising salespeople at Woman’s Day Specials magazine. I couldn’t believe that Cuisine was published upstairs. I was sad that I didn’t get hired by them, but later realized why, since Cuisine went bust a few months later.

I befriended the food editor of Woman’s Day Specials, who further piqued my interest in food. Every day during my lunch hour, I would wander the streets exploring New York City’s neighborhoods for food. I even took the train down to the farmers’ market at Union Square and would come back to work laden with bags of vegetables. Then I’d lug them to the subway for the long ride to my apartment on Coney Island.

New York City opened my door to the food world. I remember coming home at night, pulling out my latest cookbook, dragging out my pasta machine or whatever prop I had bought at the time (from my moonlighting at Macy’s Cellar), and begin the task of dinner. Around 10:30 p.m., my husband would ask about eating and I would holler out, “Relax, it’s coming.” Around midnight we would finally sit down to eat, half starved, me beaming with delight over my latest creation from a Rick Bayless recipe or a dish by the Frugal Gourmet. This venture prompted my husband’s Christmas present that year—Pierre Franey’s Gourmet Meals in 30 Minutes.

By 1987, I was beginning to feel restless in my job. It was about then that I saw a small ad regarding a foundation honoring the late James Beard. I made a phone call. Months passed. I never heard from anyone. I again phoned and insisted that I would like to help. I was told to stop by Beard’s house on West 12th Street, and thus begin my days and nights immersed in the fledgling foundation. Every spare minute away from the magazine was spent at Beard’s house. Even during working hours I made phone calls on behalf of the foundation. It was such an exciting and uplifting feeling I felt every time I went down the front steps, rang the buzzer, and the door opened to Clay Triplette’s bow tie and smiling face. Percy, Beard’s pug, was around then, and Gino was still living upstairs. He would come down and take Percy for a walk, and I would sit on a cushioned stool and listen to Clay, Beard’s triple right-hand man, reminisce. I couldn’t have asked for a better introduction to the food world.

I was put in charge of the “Meet the Author Series,” under the watchful eye of the late Peter Kump, a co-founder of the foundation. I would make arrangements for book-signing soirees at the house. I snared appearances by the likes of Craig Claiborne, Nika Hazelton, Eileen Yin-Fei Lo, Jacques Pépin, Jim Fobel, Judith & Evan Jones, Barbara Kafka, and Julia Della Croce. When the visiting chef series began—now the bread-and-butter action at the James Beard House—I gladly volunteered my time chopping and prepping. Whatever it took. But to be taken seriously, I would need to attend cooking school.

I picked The French Culinary Institute because many of the students were older and, like me, making career changes. And because Pépin was joining the faculty. I entered school in February 1989. I don’t know who was more shocked, me or my teachers. It was like Jerry Lewis attending cooking school.

After graduation, I remember how excited I was when I got an offer from Gotham Bar and Grill to trail and how disappointed I was not to wind up with a job. I realized then that I wouldn’t go to any more interviews wearing a skirt and pumps, but would instead try my luck in jeans and a leather jacket, especially when I wanted to work the line. I remembered an old issue of Food & Wine featuring Edna Lewis and thinking how much I would like to work with her at Gage & Tollner in Brooklyn, where she was the chef. She graciously gave me a job, and I could have stayed with her a lifetime and learned only a small portion of what she knows. But I couldn’t live off 20 hours’ pay a week.

New York City’s saturated with restaurants, and I wanted to experience as many as I could. So I conducted my own chef’s working tour: Man Ray, under Matthew Tivey; a stint as pastry chef at Alison on Dominick under Tom Valenti; Le Petite Ferme; Henry’s End; Roettele A. G.; Home; catering at Dean & Deluca; and others. I even worked as a private chef after I left my sous chef’s job at Home due to my pregnancy, which ended in a stillbirth.

That experience forced me to make a 180-degree turn. No longer was I to be a mother and a chef. Now I only had my cooking career, and I immediately threw myself into it. I ended up meeting a young couple, John and Rebecca Bondellio, who wanted to open up a restaurant called Seasons in the murky Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. Three months after opening, in February 1996, we were reviewed by Eric Asimov of the New York Times in his “$25 and Under” column. “Appetizers like a tart of potatoes and sharp Gorgonzola served with an arugula salad and thick slices of portobello and cremini mushrooms sautéed with shrimp were evidence of a clever and careful hand in the kitchen,” Asimov lauded. And, he added: “Main courses show a similar respect for the fresh, natural flavor of ingredients.”

I felt as though my hard work had paid off. Yet I wasn’t satisfied. All I could think about was leaving New York. I had remarried, but my new husband wasn’t ready to leave the city. I felt that I couldn’t have a family in the city, but that I could in a quiet part of the Mid­west. I wanted to go to a familiar place, a place that desperately needed a restaurant, a place where I could make a difference.

Near the Brooklyn Art Museum, I had always admired a wonderful building called The Corn Exchange Bank Trust Company and thought it would make a nice restaurant. Later, when I realized that New York would not be the place for me, I decided I would take the name with me. In October 1996, we left for Rapid City to turn that dream into The Corn Exchange.

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In Rapid City, we found a small downtown storefront to rent that actually had been a little restaurant. Unfortunately, all the equipment had been sold. The day we signed for our place I flew to California to participate in The School for American Chefs program run by Madeleine Kamman at Beringer Wine Estates in St. Helena, thanks to a scholarship I received from Women Chefs & Restaurateurs. It was perfect. A week in the Napa Valley, filled with ideas, winery visits, Chez Panisse, The French Laundry, and food discussions. Just the inspiration I needed to take back with me to Rapid City for my venture.

With only $7,000 of our own money and a $1,800 loan, we managed to fill our place with equipment and inventory. The Blodgett oven that my father found for $50 actually had ducks sleeping in it when we inspected it. Three hundred and seventy-five dollars later, it was baking my tarte Tatin. On December 18, 1996, in minus-23-degree weather, we opened the doors of The Corn Exchange to the tune of “What’s a scone?” “Why don’t you have a cinnamon roll as big as my head?” “What’s goat cheese?” Right then I decided to get involved in community education and signed up to teach cooking classes that would explain the hows and whys of what I was up to at The Corn Exchange. But I also promised myself I would never compromise my standards. Either my food would be accepted, or we’d close the doors.

I filled The Corn Exchange with wonderful flea market finds from my 12 years in New York City. There were watercolors of Paris on the walls; Art Deco vases filled with tulips; an antique cake stand holding Valrhona chocolate bars for sale; an old oak gun display case filled with Maytag blue cheese, potato tarts, and tarte Tatins; and a standard-issue deli case holding olives and Vella Jack cheese, among other food items. My customers were overwhelmed. They felt transported to some big metropolis, which is exactly how I wanted them to feel.

I opened with a small, modest menu—a two-inch center-cut pork chop, free-range chicken, salmon, and filet mignon. I wouldn’t try to change these meat-and-potatoes folk, but offer them food cooked simply, but well.

By spring, we were a success. I was teaching more classes—now at a local cooking equipment store—and planning to add a prix-fixe dinner menu by summer. Then, three days before Mother’s Day, six months after opening, someone spotted smoke coming from the middle of our block. Nothing to be alarmed about, it seemed. Just a swirl. Three hours later, half the block had been burned out and seven businesses were lost, ours included. It was devastating. Only our storefront sign of a corn husk, hand-forged in iron by a local blacksmith, survived. The community rallied behind us, and within weeks, our United States senator, Tom Daschle, helped us file for a disaster loan. Like many small businesses, we were underinsured, and, had it not been for that disaster loan, we would never have had a chance to start over.

Three months after the fire, a storefront in the undamaged half of our block became available. It took six months of blood, sweat, and tears, but on March 14, 1998, we reopened The Corn Exchange, this time for lunch and dinner. The second restaurant retains the same color scheme as the first—buttercup, sunflower, and flowerpot red—and a local artist painted giant bunches of beets and carrots on the wall opposite the original 1886 brick one we uncovered during renovation.

While recovering from the fire was certainly traumatic, my greatest challenge in Rapid City has been finding qualified employees and purveyors. I’m not sure restaurateurs in big cities realize how lucky they are to have available so many trained front- and back-of-the house personnel familiar with fine dining. Most foodservice workers in Rapid City only possess experience from fast-food establishments. The other difficulty is with purveyors, many of whom try to push off products that are either pre-made or frozen. It’s especially dispiriting to hear a pitch from a purveyor who wants to sell me toilet paper and fish in the same truckload.

I’ve tried to become involved in the farmers’ market, but it’s slow going, especially since it doesn’t open until mid-July and ends in September. I try to incorporate what is available locally, mainly pheasant, quail, and buffalo, and, during the summer, farm-raised trout. There are wonderful fruits and berries here—tart wild plums, buffaloberries, and chokeberries—that are either made into jams or juice, excellent for glazing game birds. Sometimes friends go to the thermal springs nearby and bring me the watercress they find there.

Still, a lot has to be shipped in. I recently found a wonderful fish broker, allowing me to bring in more fresh seafood. Seems that South Dakotans don’t mind paying the $18 I charge for Gulf crab cakes. The menu in the new restaurant is a bit more expansive and expressive than the one in the first, and some of the items have become hits with regulars: roasted beet/goat cheese salad; braised lamb shanks with preserved lemon, roasted tomatoes, and caramelized onions; and shredded pheasant in phyllo with pear/onion chutney.

Even though I want my food to be appreciated by one and all, I market the restaurant to Rapid City's professional community, people who travel more and have experienced more than prime rib. I don't even offer ketchup and still scream when waitress annoys me with customer requests to pour it on the filet mignon. There are some things that people here just won't eat, and I can't seem to change that. I served some wonderful flageolets as a bed beneath Dijon-crusted salmon. Every plate came back with more than half of the beans uneaten. Curry is another tough sell. Garlic Mashed potatoes is a different story; that dish goes.

Another frustration here is wine. When you dine out in Rapid City and ask what kind of wine is available, you're told red and white. When the wine salespeople in the state visited our restaurant, we were told we needed white Zinfandel and wine coolers. I couldn't believe it. I also couldn't believe that there were only two wholesalers in the state. (Besides selling wine, they also must sell hard liquor, beer, and soft drinks.) At first it was difficult to turn down customers' requests for white Zinfandel. We offered them a Riesling or Gewürztraminer instead. Now, many of them are finding out how gratifying it is to explore the wide, wide wine world.

I feel like a pioneer woman in Black Hills. A lot of times I look out the window and ask myself, "What the hell have I done?" I take a sip of wine, then muse, "New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco—do they need one more restaurant?" It's places like rapid City that do, and I want to set a standard here. So many customers tell me that since eating at The Corn Exchange, they've had trouble enjoying any other restaurant in Rapid City. As hard as it has been, I get a lot of satisfaction knowing I've opened the door for future restaurateurs and chefs with dreams.