The parking lots are full. The lines are longer. This is the time of year Lynn Pritchard calls "OND". That's short for October, November, December said Pritchard, the executive chef and owner of Table 128 Bistro + Bar in Clive.
Pritchard said restaurants are especially busy for a number of reasons right now: colder weather means Iowans don't grill out at home, families hold holiday celebrations, and businesses hold end-of-the-year gatherings.
So Iowans are looking for ways to get the most out of their special night out.
Pritchard`s passion for the kitchen lit long before he was old enough to use it.
New York's Culinary Institute of America trained him but it was the family farm back home in the Quad Cities that's nourished his 20 year career as a chef. Pritchard said, "Those best meals that we had sitting down with my parents, grandparents, godparents, aunts and uncles."
Pritchard knows the odds are against a new restaurant's success. The Iowa Restaurant Association counts 5,922 places to eat and drink in the state and said more than one in four don't survive the first year of operation. So Pritchard pushes to be original. At his restaurant, a burger is not just a burger. It comes with prosciutto and aioli. The duck is served on french toast with Chambord syrup. And the popular signature item is called the ugly donuts. Pritchard, "Anybody can hit a chain restaurant, whether it be in Sacramento, California or Fort Lauderdale and have the same food. That`s not engaging as a diner."
Engaging means more than just filling your belly. So Pritchard agreed to do what many chefs don't: He opened up his kitchen to share his secrets and answer our questions.
Jessica Dunker, the president of the Iowa Restaurant Association said one of the most popular questions she hears from diners is whether a local restaurant buys local. "The trends in the restaurant industry right now are very focused on locally grown organic farm to table products. And so one of the questions I would want to know is where are you getting some of this fantastic produce."
Pritchard doesn't go far. Here's his list:
Sunstead Farms; Waukee (herbs, potatoes, kale, chard, beets, eggplant, leeks & onions), Black Cat Acres; Nevada (herbs, kale, garlic, cauliflower, broccoli, honey, micro-greens), Coyote Run Farm; Lacona (eggs, poultry, herbs), Butcher Crick Farms; Carlisle (tomatoes, cucumbers), TableTop Farm; Nevada (beets, beets, beets, kale, chard, carrots, melons, parsnips, brussels sprouts, celery root).
The list looks like an Iowa road map. Pritchard said, "In some instances, having my hands in the dirt where that carrot was plucked. That`s so cool to me."
He also puts local on the walls. He commissioned an Iowa artist to cover the restaurant with his work. It's all part of the unique experience. But unique can be challenging, if people don't know what the unique meals and ingredients are.
Pritchard said he doesn't mind if people ask to sample beforehand. It's easier for wine. But he said, if he is able, he could let you sample food on the menu, too. Although, he generally cooks those to order. Bottom line, though, is that if you don't like your meal, he will find something else you will. Pritchard said, "That`s when we start engaging our customers` palates and learn what they like and don`t like."
Fridays and Saturdays are the busiest, of course. But Pritchard said Thursdays are increasingly become popular date nights for couples, a chance to go out without the kids and without other couples.
And he said 6-7:30pm tend to be the most crowded time of the nights.
Perhaps, a surprising answer Pritchard gave was this: He doesn't fantasize about becoming the world's next celebrity chef. "As much thanks as we owe to TV Food Network and all those people who have preceded and laying some of that celebrity status, I think we also need to take a big collective professional gulp and say, we`re technicians."
Technicians focus on your plate, not their wallet. Pritchard says if he loses sight of that, he loses his vision in the kitchen. And he'll lose you for your next meal.