Kicking it up a notch
By ANDREW MCGINN
Even before his graduation from Le Cordon Bleu gave him carte blanche to make lobster bisque virtually anywhere in the world, Chef D.C. Bland II worked in the greatest, most exclusive, five-star restaurant you’ve never heard of.
His grandma’s kitchen.
“She didn’t like a whole lot of people in the kitchen,” Bland recalled recently. “A typical grandma.”
His two brothers were happy to run along — but young D.C. couldn’t shake the urge to help cook.
“I’d always watch my grandmother cook. She was a great cook,” Bland said. “My mom, God bless her, wasn’t that good.”
He considered it a privilege when he finally moved from shucking oysters for his grandma McCeil Clinton to getting to make a graham cracker cream pie for the 20 or more people who would descend on her home on the southeast side of Des Moines for dessert following the Sunday evening service at Shiloh Baptist Church.
Now 57 and a one-time Merrill Lynch stock broker, Bland followed an unlikely path in order to finally arrive back at the fact that he’s happiest in a kitchen.
His next move is to finally open his own restaurant — and in the unlikeliest of places, Jefferson.
Sitting inside the former Homestead Bakery building on a radiant fall morning last week, Bland was still trying to make sense of the series of events that led a lifelong urbanite into the heart of rural Iowa.
Let’s just say he may want to print up some bumper stickers that tout, “God is my sous-chef.”
“In retrospect,” he explained, “it all fits. I’m supposed to be here.”
In the few weeks since he announced his intention to open JAZZEDY, an upscale bistro and catering business at the corner of Lincoln Way and Chestnut Street, Bland has been on the ultimate sugar high. Every day, it seems, someone new walks in off the street to introduce themselves and to wish him well as he works to clear boxes, trash and leftover tables from the building that last housed a coffee shop.
He marvels at all the friend requests on Facebook from people he’s never met.
“I should have come here earlier,” Bland said with a chuckle.
“God,” he added, “moves when he’s ready to move.”
When JAZZEDY opens — possibly as early as December — Bland said he hopes to expand the “palate of Jeffersonians.”
He may very well be the right executive chef at just the right time.
Local economic-development leaders have long pined for a “business-class restaurant,” and thanks in part to the popularity of the Food Network over the past 20 years, foodies can now be found in places big and small.
For all we know, there’s somebody in Farlin right now just dying for some good whitefish primavera.
Bland hopes to coexist with established Jefferson restaurants by serving what they don’t.
If you’re craving sea bass with sauteed vegetables and mango salsa, JAZZEDY could be your new favorite place.
“For the meat and potatoes folks,” Bland said, “we’ve got that, too.”
From aged steaks to something he calls the Haystack — basically a Philly steak “with a mound of deep-fried hash browns” — Bland may be a classically trained French chef, but he’s still first and foremost an Iowan.
“It will be a nice, hip spot,” he said, “without being pretentious.”
See “mound of deep-fried hash browns.”
That said, it will likely be the coolest-looking mound of deep-fried hash browns around.
“I’m an art on the plate guy,” Bland said.
He believes people in Jefferson shouldn’t have to drive 50 miles for interesting food.
“We’re taking stuff you recognize,” he explained, “and putting a different twist on it.”
That means barbecue sauce might occasionally take a back seat to gochujang, a Korean condiment.
You’ll just have to trust the man.
While French cuisine is his favorite thing to prepare — a scalloped dish on a potato pancake with chardonnay cream sauce topped with caviar, anyone? — barbecue runs a close second, and he considers good barbecue to be an art in and of itself.
Bland hopes to offer cooking classes as well.
He said he’ll be leasing the 125-year-old building for a year with the option to purchase it. For more than 50 years, the building on the south side of the Square served as a J.C. Penney department store.
The interior needs refreshed, he said, and he’s turned to the crowdfunding website Indiegogo for assistance. Bland is looking to raise $7,000 for interior work and hopes the community will invest in his endeavor.
His fundraising page can be found at https://igg.me/at/JAZZEDY-Bistro.
‘A God thing’
Even at 57, there’s still a part of him that wants to prove his dad wrong.
“He’s not happy about this,” Bland said of his business-savvy father, Donald Bland. “He’s worried about me biting off 100-some-odd-thousand-dollars.”
The elder Bland, now 77 and retired, was a legend in the retail industry. After growing up in a St. Louis still so divided by race he wasn’t allowed to attend school in his own neighborhood (which was totally white), Donald Bland went on to blaze a path as the first black store manager in Target history.
From there, he went on to Montgomery Ward and Hudson’s before his career culminated at Walmart in the ’90s and early ’00s as the senior officer who grew the Arkansas-based chain in Canada and Argentina.
As D.C. Bland explains, his father hails from an era when you worked hard and climbed the ladder.
“Why don’t you just work for somebody?” his dad will often ask.
“There’s no other rung for me,” Bland said.
After working a series of kitchen jobs — including stints at Wild Rose Jefferson, The Port on Lake Panorama and the Iowa Statehouse — Bland is ready to own his own ladder.
“That’s the American dream,” he said.
He will continue to work in the cafe at Life Time Fitness in Urbandale until JAZZEDY opens in Jefferson.
Born in St. Louis, Bland moved with his mom back to her hometown of Des Moines following his folks’ divorce when he was 2.
A 1979 graduate of Hoover High School, he virtually grew up inside Shiloh Baptist.
“Everybody was related, I swear,” he joked. “Every Sunday was like a family reunion.”
As their reward for attending two services every Sunday — one in the morning and one in the evening — the whole family would decamp to Grandma’s for dessert.
Bland was 12 when she first entrusted him with making the dessert.
Church is still near to Bland’s heart, and today he plays bass in the band at Elpis Christian Fellowship in Des Moines.
“I had no intent in being a chef,” Bland recalled. “I didn’t think there was any money in it.”
“I still don’t think there’s any money in it,” he added with a laugh.
He instead ventured off to college to study finance at Iowa State, then network engineering at the University of Massachusetts.
He was working for Merrill Lynch in Boston when the market crashed on Oct. 19, 1987, a day known as Black Monday.
Since 1993, he’s worked either full- or part-time in the restaurant industry.
He was a line cook at the famed Boston Park Plaza Hotel and Towers when he personally made a pizza for President Bill Clinton, a guest at the hotel.
Secret Service stood over him the entire time, even inspecting his gloves.
A foray back into the corporate business world with Mediacom simply wasn’t meant to last.
“What can I do that is secure?” he eventually found himself asking. “What can’t be outsourced?”
Calling on his long love of cooking — at home, he was whipping up everything from Israeli and Greek to Caribbean and barbecue — he joined the staff at Fleming’s in Des Moines as chef tournant.
There, he was encouraged to “do it the right way” if he ever hoped to make cooking his career.
Three weeks later, he left for Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Scottsdale, Ariz., graduating in 2011 at the age of 50.
Founded in 1895, Le Cordon Bleu’s original school in Paris is where Julia Child learned to master the art of French cooking.
It was during his time at Le Cordon Bleu’s now-defunct U.S. campus in Arizona that Bland established the catering service JAZZEDY, inspired by the names of his daughters Jasmine and Kennedy (with a pinch of his second love, jazz music).
He also worked at resorts in Arizona before returning to Des Moines.
When a friend from church who was planning to buy a diner in Coon Rapids asked him to be the restaurant’s executive chef, he moved there in late 2016.
The plan, however, fell through, leaving him in Coon Rapids without a job.
“It’s interesting to see a deer run around your yard,” Bland said.
Wildlife aside, rural Iowa isn’t entirely foreign to him, he explained.
“I remember going to parades in towns like this,” he said.
He began to see rural Iowa as rife with opportunity for business.
“If I was in Des Moines,” he said, “I’d be just another really good chef, if I can say that, in a crowded field.”
He was still intent on opening a restaurant in Coon Rapids up until this past summer, when a series of events led him to Jefferson.
In June, Bland catered Beta Tau Delta’s Roarin’ 1920s Garden Party at the Jefferson Community Golf Course.
In attendance was Caroline Hoyt.
“I thought his catering was fantastic,” Hoyt said.
She in turn hired Bland to prepare dessert for an August meeting of PEO in Jefferson.
Knowing of Bland’s hope to open a restaurant in Coon Rapids, Hoyt began encouraging him to consider Jefferson instead.
“Jefferson,” she told him, “has got so much going for it.”
As fate would have it, the PEO meeting in August was at the home of Peg Raney, director of Jefferson Matters: Main Street, an organization actively working to attract new business downtown.
“I said, ‘OK, I’ll get him to your house. You sell him on Jefferson,’ ” Hoyt remembers saying.
When August arrived, Bland didn’t disappoint.
“He really outdid himself for PEO,” Hoyt said.
She initially just wanted Bland to bring cannoli — which he did, along with Black Forest cake and lemon fudge, and he personally showed up to plate it all.
Within a few weeks, Bland had a key to the former Homestead building.
“There’s no question it was a God thing,” he said.
But if there’s any question why somebody with no ties to the community would seek to open a business here, let history answer that.
Some of Jefferson’s most delectable fare — from the doughnuts that made Bunkers Dunkers the stuff of legend to the Chinese dishes at the Peony — are the result of outsiders (minorities at that) who saw their opening in small-town Iowa.
Saba Saba, a man of Arabic descent, moved from Nebraska to Jefferson in 1925 to open a bakery. His doughnut recipes live on today at Dunkers By Matt.
The Duong family moved from California in 1994 to establish Jefferson’s first Chinese restaurant, now under the ownership of the Longs.
D.C. Bland II hopes to emulate their success in Jefferson.
But one last thing — that name.
Is Bland the all-time worst name for a chef or what?
“I think it’s outstanding,” Bland said with a laugh. “It’s like Smucker’s. With a name like Bland, it’s got to be good.
“I have to overachieve because of that name.”