As the number one producer of corn, pork and eggs, and the second top producer for soybeans, Iowa is perfectly poised to support a strong culinary arts scene. These chefs are embracing Iowa's produce and empowering the farms that grow it to craft delicious cuisine and bring fine dining experiences to towns large and small across the state.
Kevin Scharpf - Brazen Open Kitchen
Kevin built his career in the culinary scene both in Iowa and nationally. He won the Iowa Pork Producers Association’s Taste of Elegance competition, competed at the National Pork Summit in Napa Valley, competed on season 16 of Bravo’s “Top Chef” and was named one of Full-Service Restaurant (FSR) magazine’s “40 under 40 Food and Beverage Professionals on the Rise.”
When Kevin decided it was time lead his own kitchen, he opened Brazen Open Kitchen & Bar in 2015. The restaurant, which focused on fresh, locally sourced ingredients prepared with modern culinary techniques and innovatively plated, grew in popularity when Kevin was named a James Beard Foundation semifinalist for “Best Chef: Midwest.”
Since then, Kevin’s work in the Midwest’s culinary scene has only continued. He started the Birds food truck in 2021, took over Ottos restaurant in Galena, Illinois, and co-founded Project Rooted, which offers a variety of in- and out-of-school and community programs to help children and families learn how to prepare healthy meals.
“With Iowa being one of the leading ag states in the country, Farm to Table represents an idea of bridging a gap,” Kevin said. “We already have amazing resources for farming, so it makes Iowa a perfect place to show how you can build stronger communities and local economy through bridging that ‘farm to table’ gap.”
Jessica Baldus - Taste Restaurant
Jessica developed a love for hospitality and food at an early age. She grew up watching her parents run a restaurant and enjoying meals made with produce that was grown on their small acreage. These passions inspired her to attend Des Moines Area Community College (DMACC). While getting her degree, she worked in the food industry and started baking her dad’s cheesecake recipe to sell to local restaurants to pay for school.
A frequent customer loved the cheesecakes and recommended Jessica take business classes to make something more of it. So, she did just that.
From there, she quickly formed a business plan and opened her first restaurant, Cache dessert shop, in 2008. It became a staple in the Des Moines metro and helped get her foot into the area’s food industry. However, a need to be closer to family eventually inspired her to move back to her native community of Osage. Her business plans tagged along for the ride, and she opened Taste Restaurant in 2012.
Today, Taste Restaurant offers delicious fare crafted with local meat, dairy and vegetable products. Jessica works with no less than eight to ten producers weekly to supply her restaurant. Her close relationships with area producers have also inspired hobby farmers to drop off extra produce when they have it.
“We’re so lucky to be surrounded by farming communities supplying us with bountiful harvests being brought up in our rich Iowa soil,” Jessica said. “The relationships between the farmer and consumer are next to none. We really are so lucky.”
Through Taste Restaurant and its sister restaurant, The Bakery, which still serves her famous cheesecakes, Jessica continues to inspire and progress local food initiatives.
Sean Towley - Big Grove Brewery
Sean Towley cherishes the childhood memories of cooking alongside his mother and grandmother. With a family legacy of dairy farming, his grandparents maintained a strong tradition of using their land for growing food year-round. His childhood consisted of eating fresh sweet corn, tomatoes and pork directly from their farm or neighboring farms.
“Iowa is great for farm to table because of the deep agricultural roots in this state,” Sean said. “While not as numerous now as when I was growing up, small family farms are the lifeblood of Iowa. The produce, dairy, and meat produced here are amongst the best in the world.”
This sparked an early passion for food and fresh produce, and inspired Sean to start working in the food culinary industry as soon as he could. At 15 years old, he was cooking in local restaurants. However, he wandered away from this passion and rediscovered it years later, when he decided to go back to school and focus on the culinary arts.
He re-entered the industry by landing a job at Big Grove Brewery, a powerhouse in the brewery scene that also specializes in craft cuisine. Though he started as a line chef in 2016, Sean has since worked his way up to the executive chef at Big Grove’s Iowa City location.
“I’m excited for people to get a better glimpse at what Iowa chefs can do,” Sean said. “I think we are a vastly overlooked group and have a ton of extraordinarily talented chefs in this state.
Richard Byrd - Big Grove Brewery
Originally from North Carolina, Richard moved to Iowa when he was 11 years old. As soon as he could, he started working in kitchens, but also had a strong passion for music, which was his focus for most of his twenties.
“I realized at one point that food, like music, is a form of creative expression and I never looked back,” he said.
From there, he rediscovered his passions for food and entertainment in a new way – cooking for the people he cares about and creating a unique dining experience. Today, Richard works as the Chef de Cuisine at Big Grove Brewery’s newest location in Des Moines.
His move to Iowa and a career at one of the state’s top restaurants and breweries has introduced him to the value of farm-to-table dining and why it’s so great here.
“You always hear about how great fish from the coast is, or how amazing a mango is right off the tree, and we have that here as well,” he said. “We have the freshest corn on the planet, the best pork money can buy and there are amazing ingredients all around us, grown right here in our home.”
Carl Busch - Alchemix Bar
After three decades of working odd-end jobs, Carl Busch wandered across a true passion for mixology and creating an unforgettable experience through flavor. His journey started in the catering space, where he worked as a bartender for Winifred’s Catering in Cedar Rapids. For six months, he was tasked with pouring and mixing drinks, but Carl quickly realized it came naturally to him and jumped at the offer to bartend at the company’s brick-and-mortar steakhouse, Winifred’s.
While serving the steakhouse’s basic cocktail menu, he began experimenting with other mixes. After six months, he’d created his first craft cocktail list and, with permission, started serving them. His new creations were an instant hit with regulars.
Carl then entered Iowa’s Best Mixology contest, sponsored by the Iowa Restaurant Association. After competing in 2012 and making it to the finals, he came back to win it all in 2013 and 2014. These awards and Winifred’s spike in cocktail revenue gave Carl the confidence to officially pursue mixology as a career.
In 2020, Carl and his wife started Alchemix Bar, a YouTube channel centered around cocktail making and education. In 2023, the duo started a podcast called “Do You Want to Start a Tab?” to share the stories behind the bartender life.
Carl’s main goal, however, is to open a cocktail bar in Dubuque where guests can enjoy creative flavors without the distraction of live music and TV.
“It took me about 32 years to find a career path I enjoyed, and it took another year to realize I was good at it,” Carl said. “I love creating cocktails and seeing people try new things they might never have ordered.”