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Cooking on the edge

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The beat that Dustin Allen marches to is his own, but he is certainly not above asking others to join his parade. The more who do, the more successful his restaurant at Junction City will be.

Just be prepared - he likes to change the tune frequently. He just makes sure it tastes as good as he can make it for customers of that restaurant, Edge By Chef Dustin Allen.

“People sometimes comment on our limited menu, but having a limited menu is not a problem for us. By having six or seven entrees we are able to better concentrate on making those the best and it enables us to change the menu often, every night if we want,” Allen said.

Indeed, that’s why the Edge menu is no frills, a single sheet of paper that can be changed daily, as can the menu listed on the restaurant’s website, www.edgeinpeoria.com.

“What is most important is that our customers, especially the all-important repeat customers, know they are going to get a high quality meal. We knew from the start that how we do things wouldn’t be for everybody. But we also knew we’d be the first to step out and say we’re going to be an everyday restaurant, the kind of restaurant we are. 

“I have no regrets in my decision to do it this way.”

Another way Allen is putting his own style on the local culinary scene is by being one of the area’s few farm-to-table restaurants, which some view as risky. He was undeterred.

“This was the way I wanted to do it. It’s putting quality first and giving back to the local community. It also gives us more control over what we buy from the farmers we’re contracted with, farmers who are committed to organic practices. This way people get to taste food the way it was meant to taste,” he said.

Allen became known in Peoria when he was executive chef at Magnolia’s on Prospect, a fine dining establishment that also was at Junction City. His mother, Kelly Mohr, was principal owner of Magnolias and brought Allen in because he had experience cooking at restaurants in the south.

But about a year ago, they decided on a new direction, including a smaller restaurant with a unique style that Dustin and his wife Ashley would own. The best way to do that was to close Magnolia’s and start over.

After months of planning and building - including custom building the bar and impressive wine rack themselves - the Allens and the crew they brought with them from Magnolia’s opened last Sept. 27. Already the restaurant is drawing rave reviews and while only open for three months during 2013 it was named the best newcomer for the year by the Heart of Illinois Hospitality Association.

“We wanted a very contemporary style of restaurant that was comfortable, but also where the emphasis could be on the food. We visited a lot of places to see what was working, what we thought would work for us. Then we made the commitment and here we are,” he said.

Edge started out wanting to be a more casual restaurant than what Magnolia’s was, including what was on the menu. “But within a couple weeks we realized our customer based still wanted us to be fine dining. So we are, just a little less pretentious. Our staff already knew how to do that.

“That’s when I realized, I don’t have to change myself. We’re doing what I envisioned and it’s working.”

His menu often has a distinct southern flare, largely because he was trained in the south, including in New Orleans. His entrees are listed on the menu as “Supper” and on one recent evening it included quail, lamb and Cajun shrimp and grits.

“I love to experiment with blending flavors to give a modern and rustic feel to our menu choices. Most of them are well-received. If they aren’t, I don’t serve them again,” he said.

Another idea he had has been well-received and that is having an arena kitchen so customers can watch the meals being prepared. Some enjoy sitting at the L-shaped bar so they can do that. “We have nothing to hide from, obviously, and we want customers to know how fresh their food is. We only have one small freezer in the restaurant and that’s only for ice cream,” Allen said.

Allen said Edge is “very customer-driven” in that he talks with them each night and tries to accommodate their wishes. “You have to be smart and listen to them. One thing I already knew is that society is becoming more and more health conscious. So the fact they know they will get fresh food made from scratch when they come here is a big selling point. We can adjust on the fly when somebody says they want something cooked a certain way or if they have dietary restrictions,” he said.

Allen said just as his customers have very high expectations of him, he has high expectations of himself and his staff. “We have to meet those expectations and if we do, everybody benefits. Peoria has an opportunity to have a great culinary scene, so I think we will see the trend of demanding healthy, fresh food continue. I hope it does,” he said.

Already, he added, Edge is drawing customers from a radius of about 150 miles and has even had customers who said they came from Chicago to dine here.

“What a role reversal that is. And we’re not the only restaurant capable of doing that here,” he said.

Like all the local farm-to-table restaurants, getting fresh vegetables in the winter months can be difficult. “We manage as best we can. But having them clean of chemicals is most important. I would like to someday start a community garden. Growing your own food is a lost art. I want to do something to benefit the whole community,” he said.

He also wants to pass his love of fresh food to his children. His youngest, 4½ year-old Addilynn, is already showing interest in the restaurant business…well, the food side of it.

“She comes in and helps with the prep. She tastes things. She’ll try anything at least once. Not many kids will do that. Now I have to find her a purple chef’s coat,” he said, grinning.

Edge by Chef Dustin Allen
Located in Suite K
Junction City Shopping Center
(309) 692-3343
www.edgepeoria.com
Hours: Mon - Thu, 5 to 9 p.m.
Fri & Sat, 5 to 10 p.m.
Closed Sundays

About the Author
Paul Gordon is the editor of The Peorian after spending 29 years of indentured servitude at the Peoria Journal Star. He’s an award-winning writer, raconteur and song-and-dance man. He also went to a high school whose team name is the Alices (that’s Vincennes Lincoln High School in Indiana; you can look it up).