Art imitates life imitating art.
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Iowa Baits Chefs

Merrill Shindler - October 2013

Grinnell, Iowa—Talk about life imitating art! Those who have lamented the transformation of the Food Network into the Culinary Game Show Network (“You’ve been Chopped!”) may need a strong drink to face the fact that America’s Next Best Sweet Genius Cheftestant (or whatever variant is airing this week) has spread into real life.

When the powers that be in Grinnell, Iowa (“The Jewel of the Prairie,” population 9,266 and home to Grinnell College), decided there was a need for a proper non-chain restaurant, they announced a nationwide competition—Iowa’s Best Bite Restaurant Challenge—with a prize of a “Restaurant Start-Up Package”—three months’ free rent on a downtown storefront, along with $40,000 in cash, goods, and services. The result was 44 entries from across the country, which were winnowed down to three finalists who did their cooking in person for a panel of locals whose occupations ranged from farmer to the mayor of Grinnell.

The result is a new restaurant in Grinnell called Prairie Canary (“Comfort Food with a Local Flair”), to which residents flock for grilled cheese (cheddar, provolone, and goat’s milk) sandwiches (with pesto), and the Canary burger—a third of a pound of beef with blue cheese, caramelized red onions, and bacon on a ciabatta bun.

The winner, chef Carly Ross, knows her clientele well. She grew up just down the road from Grinnell and ran two restaurants in nearby Des Moines. For her, “Prairie Canary is all about being local, with effort taken to showcase local talent and area producers, the food served on hand-thrown plates and bowls at hand-made hickory tables. Farm-fresh produce grown just miles away…Iowa wine or beer…”

And this isn’t a one-shot culinary competition. The chef search has led to an ongoing contest, at Grinnell was followed with a search for a chef for nearby Oskaloosa, where chef Pam Oldes has opened On the Green at the Oskaloosa Golf Course, with a prize package of $153,000. You just know the Food Network will jump on this bandwagon—in this case, art imitating life imitating art.