Q&A: Iowa Culinary Institute Alumnus and “Chopped” contestant James Richards

James Richards graduated from Iowa Culinary Institute in spring 2010. He was one of the few students who received a one-month scholarship to France upon graduation.

Upon return, he moved to Las Vegas and began working at various restaurants. Most notably, he worked in Emeril Lagasse’s establishments, including Delmonico Steakhouse in the Venetian and the Fish House in MGM. He also worked with noted restaurateurs Elizabeth Blau and Chef Kim Canteenwalla to open Honey Salt, which is located off the strip. Richards was the chef of Table 10 prior to returning to Iowa earlier this year. In April, he was a contestant on the Food Network show “Chopped, finishing second place. He is currently the chef at Provisions Lot F in Ames.

Q: Did you always know you were going to go to Culinary School?

A: My great aunt is the one who was my biggest culinary influence. [She] is 100% Greek so she did everything old school, she didn’t write down any recipes, so everything was verbal teaching. You had to pay attention and listen to her. I would spend a lot of time with her in the kitchen.

I remember Thanksgiving making pies from scratch with her. I always liked cooking and the kitchen was a fun place I could hang out. I think what really came about it was that I’m not the most traditional human being and it gave me a home. A place where I felt I fit in and belonged and I was really good at it too.

Q: Tell me about your experience at Iowa Culinary Institute?

A: I didn’t really know what I wanted to go to college for. My dad was like go be a doctor or lawyer. [I was] a smart kid, got good grades, I probably could have easily, but when I found out the state would pay for my first year of [culinary school] and I didn’t have to be in high school; I was like sign me up, let’s give it a shot. Let’s see what this is all about. I fell in love with it. I’m a high energy active person, so something to keep my hands busy and not sitting behind a computer all day.

I started with the career advantage program, so my junior and senior year in high school I got to spend half my day at ICI. The state paid for it, so as long as I kept my grades up, I could take college classes my junior and senior year. When I graduated high school I already had my first year of culinary completed, so I only had 1 year left when I went full time.

Q:  You said you participated in the French Exchange Program?

A: France was awesome. We had a two-week food and wine tour. [We] traveled around France, ate and drank.

We saw, Paris, Leon, and went to a cool Champagne House where in the cellar they had champagne. We had this elaborate dinner and each course featured champagne in some different way. Then I lived with Fredrick Stalport. He had a little restaurant in [France] and we were in the restaurant day in and day out. We woke up at 5:30 a.m. and had to be there at 6 a.m. First thing we did was make bread from scratch every morning. Then we prepped. It was him and he had two interns and that was it. There were [only] 3 people in his kitchen.

Q: After France did you do any internships or immediately started working?

A: I got done [at ICI], [went to] France, came back and was like I can’t stay in Iowa, I got to go and see what’s out there. [I] asked a favorite chef and mentor Laurie Dowry — “Hey, who do you know, where can I go?” She said Vegas or Chicago. I was like let’s get out of the Midwest, let’s go [to] Vegas. Ended up at Delmonico’s Steakhouse. Then went for [a] very interesting 8 years after that.

Q: What kind of restaurant is Provisions Lot in Ames?

A: [The restaurant] opened last summer of 2017 [and] I came aboard in February. We’re still trying to figure it out, [but leaning towards] elevated modern. [We’re] really trying to push the envelope and do something different than what you would normally find in Iowa.

My goal is to win James Beard awards and Michelin Stars. Let’s bring that to the Midwest—why can’t we? Chicago can do it and they’re six hours away. Just because we don’t have a big fancy city? We can do this. We have the best soil in the world, we grow the best food so let’s highlight that. Let’s celebrate it. It’s not going to be just me in the kitchen to do that stuff, everyone in the kitchen must have [that mentality].

Q: What restaurants locally are you excited about?

A: Harbinger. I went and hung out with Joe Tripp one night. I went one Saturday night after working a 12-hour day [and] worked the line with him. It’s hard walking into a kitchen you’ve never been in before, but my God is he making good food. He goes to the farmers’ market and changes the menu every week. The menu is hyper-seasonal and vegetable focused. He’s like a mad scientist … he’s doing cool stuff in that tiny space and doing it the right way.

Q: What advice would you give to current students?

A: If you’re not working in the industry, you’re already a step behind. Go get a job anywhere, something in a restaurant. Get used to working in it. Culinary school is awesome, but it’s a bunch of students paying the school to learn. It doesn’t give you that real aspect of 3 or 4 people [in a kitchen] and you don’t get [the] sense of urgency and [the] sense of “Holy crap, it’s on me to get this done.” Learn from experience that way. You’re going to learn a ton in the classroom, but get that real-life work experience.

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