If Alba's genesis was a type of music it would be more jazz scat than classical symphony. It began in 2007 when, after a decade of travel, Jason Simon packed a bag and hopped a bus to Des Moines. His contacts were few, his budget small, and his main mode of transportation was a bicycle. Soon after his arrival, he stumbled upon what was once a 1950's auto garage and car dealership on the edge of the East Village. A month later, Simon was slinging a sledgehammer to create what is now Alba's open kitchen.
The entire design and rebuild took 8 months. During that time Simon was involved in every detail, from the curve of the concrete bar to the spice racks above the prep table to the installation of the restroom sinks. The doors on the ceiling, now one of the principal features of the restaurant, were really a product of necessity rather than pre-meditated design. Acoustic panels would have been over budget, so Simon improvised with large wooden doors from a nearby architectural salvage store.
Simon's menu changes frequently and although he describes the cuisine as contemporary American, he draws upon ingredients and flavors from all over the world. In the open kitchen there is not a lot of fuss, chef's whites, or specialty equipment, just knives and sauté pans. Patrons seated at the chef's table delight in having a front row seat to the action.
Simon was born and raised in Parkersburg, Iowa, and grew up working at his parents' local grocery store. He began cooking while earning a degree in history at the University of Iowa, continuing his education at the Western Culinary Institute's Le Cordon Bleu in Portland, Oregon. After completing culinary school he lived and cooked in New Orleans, Denver, and Cleveland. He finally returned to Iowa and opened Alba Restaurant in 2008.
Shannon Emerson applied at Alba on one of the coldest days in 2008. Jason Simon was shoveling snow outside the restaurant when Shannon walked down the sidewalk sporting snow boots and a leopard print Russian-style ushanka atop her head. As she waded through the snow, she greeted him with a vigorous wave and her signature smile. A week later she was running the bar and mixing up her infamous pomegranate and lavender martinis.
Although Alba has had a steady and loyal core of front-of-the-house employees, Shannon is the only one who began on day one and has worked nearly every day since. Everyone who enters her bar is greeted warmly and the drinks she pours are unquestionably the best cocktails in the metro. In addition to her affectionate personality and her exceptional mixology skills, Shannon is also a graphic artist and is responsible for the window frames that hang above the high-top tables in the bar and the large Allen Ginsberg poem that is stenciled on Alba's eastern wall.
In February 2008, Nic stopped by a new restaurant on the edge of the East Village to apply as a garde manger. Owner/chef Jason was wearing an obscure 1996 rapcore band t-shirt and drinking coffee at the bar. The interview lasted 12 minutes. Jason liked Nic's passion and sarcastic wit. Nic liked the idea of working in a place that was locally owned and would value his creativity.
Three years of hard work and 823 Morphine / Radiohead / Galactic songs later, Nic is now the sous chef at Alba. He is responsible for the day-to-day operations of the kitchen, including menu development and production. He relies on fresh and seasonal ingredients when creating contemporary twists on American favorites. Although modest in his approach, he is the first person servers and guests turn to when they have a question. His sincerity and laid-back personality coupled with an eye for detail and strong work ethic are but a few reasons for Alba's success.