The first time I went to a Chefs' Night Off dinner, I had no idea what was going on. All I knew was that a sweaty guy in an Iron Maiden shirt was really jazzed that I was there and planned to write about it. The food came served on a paper plate, placed on a paper-covered communal table, but simultaneously was one of the most beautiful platings I'd ever seen. That paradox is central to CNO's ethos: Strip away all of the accoutrements and distractions and focus on the food. And that sweaty guy, RJ Wall, is trying to transform Indianapolis into a hub for up-and-coming culinary talent, and he wanted to use his dinners as a platform to show off new the skills of young line chefs. He enlisted Andrew Whitmoyer, now the chef and kitchen manager at Thunderbird, to help run the back-of-house elements of the dinners. A full year later, I sat down with them at Milktooth to check in on how they had progressed over the year.
Wall and Whitmoyer knew they'd be taking on somewhat of a challenge. After all, central Indiana is known as a "chain city," with massive franchises swooping in and supplanting the local market with cookie cutter food. Not only was the plan to serve high-end, experimental food to Hoosier diners, but also to do it without any of the pageantry or stuffiness of other pre-fixe style dining options. They didn't know how long it would last or if it would make it a year, or if there would be enough chefs to fill out the ranks. A year later, and Wall has new faith in our dining scene.
"There is a whole lot more culinary talent than I had originally thought," he said. Instead of having to beg and scrap for chefs, he found most were more than willing to show off their chops. "The Indy food comm is much more hungry, open and receptive to moving forward and progressing than I had thought."
"Indy cooks are very anxious to work with other cooks that they normally don't get a chance to," Whitmoyer said. "That was awesome to see that grow. They're excited to do this event and they want to be part of it." Sometimes they don't have enough spaces for the number of chefs that want to cook for the dinners. "We get a lot of requests to be part of it," he said.
The biggest surprise, though, was how big and underserved the vegetarian community is by the fine dining scene. Every time Wall and Whitmoyer have put on a veggie-friendly event, tickets have sold out.
"I could have sold 200 tickets to the last vegetarian dinner," Wall said. And it's not just vegetarians, either. Both Whitmoyer and Wall have noted that their diners' palates are a lot more adventurous than they initially gave them credit for. Whitmoyer has a theory on that.
"The openings of places like Bluebeard that push exotic and not well-known ingredients have made people more receptive to that, for the chain culture that we have in Indy." But that doesn't mean that every dish is a hit.
"Hoosiers have a texture issue. The things that come back uneaten are things that are traditionally not texturally appealing," Wall said, referring to the "one or two" dishes that come back to the kitchen at every dinner. Compared to a regular brick-and-mortar, though, that's hardly a percentage to worry about.
As for their day jobs, Whitmoyer and Wall will have to find a way to balance between the increasing demand for bigger, better, and more dinners and their day — or, in both cases, night — jobs.
"We both have full-time jobs, and I still work 60 hours a week. Its a timing thing with us," said Whitmoyer. If they're having trouble juggling, you'd never know it. Their anniversary dinner is a planned blowout, with local kitchen rock stars like Jon Brooks, Erin Till and Pete Schmutte coming in to ruin your whole week with a five-course, bring-you-to-your-knees menu with tickets on sale for a (totally worth it) hundred bucks. This time, they're returning to the place where they first began, making the full-circle connection at Thunderbird.
If you've ever called yourself a "foodie" in polite conversation, you owe yourself a ticket to one of these dinners. You may just catch a rising star on the way up.
Event: CNO Anniversary dinner: 'And & And'
When: Feb. 8, 6-11:30 p.m.
Where: Thunderbird, 1127 Shelby St.
Tickets: $100 on eventbrite.com