Photos by Brendan L. Spengler
Sometimes you want to experiment in the kitchen and cook a dish like Rabbit Terrine. But, you don’t want to cook it just for yourself, only to enjoy your culinary triumph alone in your apartment. Sound relatable? This was the problem faced by Emily Qual, Jaime Gowans and Aaron Hall, who recently started the Full Moon Cafe — a local foodie group — with one simple mission: Share and experiment with fresh, local food with friends.
Every month, on the full moon, these three food aficionados host an invitation-only dinner and serve an extraordinary, painstakingly crafted meal. They ask for an optional donation to cover costs of the supplies, and host the parties at various friends’ homes around Iowa City.
“It’s our extended community group, really,” explained Gowans, who works at Leaf Kitchen here in town and The Lincoln Cafe in Mount Vernon. “We like to host dinner events with good quality, local foods and share them with our friends.”
The three hosts act as suppliers, chefs and servers for each meal.
“All of us have been in the food industry as long as we’ve been working,” said Gowans. “We’re not really trained as chefs, but we cook as hobbyists.”
Hall is the kitchen manager at the Lincoln Wine Bar in Mount Vernon and Qual works at the Greyhound Deli at the NewBo City Market in Cedar Rapids, where everyday she works with local produce, herbs and meats. The trio is perfect for their venture, hungry for information, curious about new ideas and devoted in a passionate way to food and it’s social meanings when shared with friends. They also make great dinner hosts.
“Eating together creates a bond, like the old-fashioned idea of breaking bread,” said Qual. “It’s very natural. Not to sound too political about it, but we’d like to liberate serving meals from a commercial paradigm.”
One of Full Moon Cafe’s top priorities is serving local foods. Their themes vary from month to month, so they might get rabbit from Big Boy Meats out of Cedar Rapids one month or pork from Rustik Roosters in Ionia, Iowa another month.
“It’s a challenge in the winter, though,” explained Qual. “Local is a guiding principle rather than a hard and fast rule.”
Sometimes they can’t resist the occasional treat. During their raw foods dinner, for example, they used coconut water for their sweet corn chowder with whole coconuts that friends brought back from Key West. It is certain that wherever the food comes from, great care and attention is paid to the product itself. There is also a level of excitement on the faces of the chefs, as they tell the stories behind their ingredients, that is rare in the age of fast and processed foods.
With the freedom these “guerilla chefs” have to provide any type of meal they want, from raw foods one month to a Cajun Summer Solstice the next, Full Moon Cafe’s possibilities are endless, depending on the season, that is.
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“We have a comprehensive list of ingredients we can work with. And then we plan the menu around that,” said Gowans. “But, according to the time of year, the theme of the ingredients and the style of event changes.”
During the fall, sweet potatoes, butternut squash and wild rice can be readily found in local markets. In the spring, of course, there is an abundance of fresh produce and herbs. But the winter proves to be more of a challenge. Full Moon Cafe makes use of preserves, pickled vegetables, hydroponic tomatoes and greenhouse vegetables during the frozen months.
The trio have been hosting their dinners on almost every full moon since January. Their style and methods have been growing and evolving, from five course meals to family style buffet dinners.
The first Full Moon Cafe was supposed to be a modest taco night at Gowan’s house. Twenty five guests ended up coming to the dinner.
In July, they had a grill-out theme, making their own southern style pork sausage, or boudin, rice and beans with fresh kale, house-smoked cheddar polenta and a green salad with tahini honey mustard.
During the full moon on August 19, we attended a dinner that focused on raw foods.
“We wanted to focus on uncooked, as-is produce,” said Gowans. “There’s so much of it right now and it’s so good.”
They hosted the event, incidentally on a blue moon, in their friend’s back yard. Dinner was served to the two dozen guests on a long table under a giant oak tree strewn with colored lights. While the guests were hanging out, having their first drink and finding their seats, the kitchen inside the house buzzed.
Qual and Gowan gave a little welcome speech with announcements and thank you’s, and then along with Hall began to serve the first of seven courses.
For those not familiar with raw foods, they’re not as strange and restrictive as one might think. The dinner began with local vegetables and pickled beets with “le grand aioli” and a shot of tomato water, which was curious, lightly salted and refreshing. A lot of folks were surprised by the brined anchovies, which weren’t oily at all, had only a faint saltiness and a nutty vinegar taste. They were really amazing and the farthest thing from a pepperoni pizza you could possibly imagine. One of the three chefs was always around to answer questions from their guests.
As we moved through the courses: apple tacos with fennel and a mashed macadamia nut “cheese,” sweet corn chowder with smoked paprika and stuffed bell peppers with wild mushrooms, the chefs began to surprise us with their inventiveness. The macadamia nut “cheese” and the pine nut “ricotta” in the stuffed peppers were more of a paste, made by mashing the nuts and adding herbs. The “speck,” a type of cured, spiced and smoked meat similar to prosciutto, was from La Quercia, a Norwalk, Iowa company specializing in handcrafted cured meats, was something completely new to many of the guests and was talked about for the rest of the night.
As the guests looked at their small, pocket menus, the anticipation for the next course was high. I would say the only flaw was the wait between courses. But, with only three hosts acting as preps, chefs and waiters, they were actually moving along at an impressive pace. And, as dusk passed good company and alcohol filled the time. The guests weren’t snobbish foodies, they were normal locals who also loved good food.
Gowan commented on the atmosphere, “It’s an intimate setting, so people are comfortable. There’s a commonality to (the food). A lot of people come to the dinners who might not know about the farms where the food comes from. So, there’s more networking that happens, too.”
We finished our last course, a summer squash pasta with pomodoro sauce, in which they cut the squash into long noodles and served it cold with fresh cherry tomatoes and light sauce.
Dessert consisted of raw milk with homemade bitters by Wild Rose Apothecary, an Iowa City herbalist group recently featured in Little Village’s On The Table column. The results were like a potent dark chocolate milk, with strong flavors of mint and herbs.
After a night at the Full Moon Cafe, we went home full with some some new connections, and plans to travel up to the New Bo Market for some lamb and pork. This trio of food lovers knows how to host a dinner, and it would be cool to see more private events like this in Iowa City. It’s like the culinary equivalent of a house show, in a way, free from the red tape of the commercial system, but influenced by the many great restaurants that Qual, Gown and Hall have cut their teeth at. You can find more information about their cause on their Facebook page, and maybe we’ll see you on the next full moon.