This article first appeared in the February 2015 publication of NOURISH magazine.
Welcome to Indiana, neighbor. Neon Bud signs and gold arches dot the cornfield landscape. Fast food strata, diners and the occasional watering hole grace their presence in the sister towns of Warsaw and Winona Lake. A local’s concept of a nice restaurant is Ruby Tuesday's. He finds the idea of spending fifty dollars for a wagyu beef laughable. Such was the scene before Caleb France triggered a community identity shift.
Caleb and his wife Courtney’s restaurant, Cerulean, contrasts other local culinary options starkly. Here, aromas are intimate affairs: indulgences are kept between the visitor and her food. Each impeccably arranged dish challenges a customer, “…Well?” Flavors cross the tongue—some dancing, others glowing. Still others glide by, like the servers carrying steaming plates of red pepper flake orecchiette, or ramekins of pumpkin bisque. Murmured conversations snowball with indie pop and the entry’s waterfall gurgle. This is not just a restaurant; it’s creative space. And eight years ago, Winona Lake and Warsaw shuddered as an infant food culture breathed its first.
“You’ve got to immerse yourself traveling for inspiration,” explains Caleb. “There isn’t a lot of creative vibe in Winona…” Barcelona and Ireland and Southeast Asia inspire Caleb. Fresh fish flown from the coasts unlock more flavors. Chicago chefs give Caleb permission to flip off the rest of the country and do what he wants. Caleb paints Cerulean’s originality with proteins and produce from local farms.
Cerulean expresses Mediterranean-Asian fusion: Asian bento boxes for lunch, tapas and pastas for dinner. Extensive wine, beer, and sushi menus accompany the rotating seasonal menu. Special multi-course tastings or wine pairing appear every other quarter. Caleb calls Cerulean’s style, “Modern sensibility.” He wanted space for both suited businessmen and boat-shoed lake vacationers.
But typical Midwesterners still fear the menu. As maître de, Courtney, Caleb’s wife, built the strategy: a warm welcome from a wait staff primed to educate. She reassures. She teaches her staff to offer sage ingredient knowledge. Chris removes the garnish and returns the cocktail, “Much better.” But every sage has his school.
Pappardelle and pancetta, croquettes and curtido, shallots and shiitake ingredients intimidate shiny new servers. Caleb approaches his staff as he did the restaurant overall: start from scratch. “We’re hiring people from town that have no idea what bacon is, let alone pancetta,” he explains. From the beginning, Cerulean posed an immaculate if not daunting wait staff program.
When they started, they had a full sushi menu, two ten-font pages of hand-selected wines of craft beers, not to mention weekly specials. In 2012, they added a full bar for specialty cocktails. Every server is expected to brandish working knowledge of the ingredients and flavor profiles of all menus. Quieting clientele fears was no easy task.
"Cerulean taught me to explain food delicately," barman Jason Bodley reflects. Scallops with apple gastrique over brussel sprouts and toasted walnuts, blended scotch sour with housemade tobacco don’t fit a small town box. It takes an interpreter.
“The greatest compliment we could ever get is someone from town who comes in and doesn't even know how to pronounce the word,” Caleb acknowledges. “She doesn’t know what she’s getting. She tries it. And she responds, ‘That's the best thing I've ever had!’ At that point, you've changed her.” In that instance, the customer grows. She sees food differently. Growth for employees, however, looks slightly different.
Metropolitan areas beguile kitchen staff with higher demand, further training, and greater creative freedom. Lula’s Café and RPM in Chicago, other culinary schools, steal away some of the best talent. For Caleb—yes, it’s fulfilling—but he’s really thrilled when his own employees further his philosophy.
For instance, Jason Bodley had no culinary resume to speak of. “I had one job during college making pizza, and that didn’t last long. I had just tried a Manhattan for the first time, and I loved it. That was my culinary resume,” laughs barman Jason Bodley. “I told Caleb I was a quick learner, and he gave me the job!”
Caleb hired him to write the bar program because he saw a strong work ethic and passion to learn the art of drinking. When he wasn’t serving, Jason would spend hours in cocktail primers, teaching himself recipes. By the fall, he wrote a menu worthy of NYC, successfully opening Cerulean’s cocktail bar. And after two years, Cerulean’s effects on local food culture became directly tangible, when he opened his own speakeasy style bar, Oak & Alley, in downtown Warsaw.
Caleb asserts, “We don't view it as competition at all. This is exactly why we're here. Winona Lake and Warsaw food culture is a thousand times better because of it. At end of the day, that’s really what helps me sleep.”
In the sister cities, neither the purveyor nor the diner were previously aware of food as artistic expression and experience. Cerulean as a creative space is producing a culture shift. Here, another facet of the community’s identity appears.
“Somebody opens a cocktail bar,” says Caleb. “They open coffee roasteries. Then a meatery. Now, you've got more than just one or two good restaurants, now you've got five, or six or seven! And for us, that's really exciting.” Like craft breweries in Michigan or vineyards in California, Cerulean servers as a culinary mecca, changing how natives speak affectionately of their home.
And the scope grows beyond Winona Lake, when Caleb opened a second Cerulean in Indianapolis 2012. “Honestly,” Caleb admits, “We opened Cerulean Indianapolis because we kept losing talent.” Indy—let alone the state—doesn’t boast definitive culinary arts.
“Indy requires more than one restaurant; it requires twenty,” he maintains. But he goes even further. “We have to do this throughout Indiana. To change the Midwest--and Indiana especially—we have to be doing what we're doing in Winona in ten cities.”
Visionaries don’t limit their goals. Effective visionaries push through limits to accomplish goals. In Caleb’s case, he won’t allow cultural norms to shake even his most ambitious goals.
“In Indianapolis, we're starting a chefs collaborative. We're looking into the seed savers... We connect the seed saver with the farmer, the farmer with the chef, and right there, we've started a new food system… You can try this corn that's never been tasted in 100 years. Right there, we've created our own identity. It might take five, ten years, but you have to start somewhere.”
Texas is bigger. Michigan is pure. New York City never sleeps. But Indiana? “Flyover” doesn’t do it justice, but what else is there to offer? Caleb sees Indiana’s local agriculture as a rough gem, and the culinary arts as the polish. Caleb’s passion for food have made Winona Lake and Warsaw shine. Time will tell whether or not he can do the same for the state as a whole.
Cerulean opened in 2006. Caleb France was 23 years old. Today, he lives on Winona Lake next to the restaurant with his wife Courtney and their two children.