Downtown Culinary Artists

You don’t have to look very hard to find artistic expression in THE BLOCKS. From vibrant building murals and multiple modern dance companies to edgy galleries and concerts galore, whatever you’re artistic itch is, you can scratch it—and then some—in THE BLOCKS.

A burgeoning facet of downtown Salt Lake’s creative scene that may not immediately come to mind when considering artistry is the culinary arts. We recently pulled up a chair with three downtown food and beverage aficionados—a well-known pastry chef, a boundary-pushing gourmand with deep Utah family ties and an up-and-coming mixologist—who practice their individual crafts in
THE BLOCKS and posed this question:
what fuels your inspiration to create?

“I really appreciate the structure of it,” says Amber Billingsly of being a pastry chef. “I admire chefs who can work on the line, but I find that overwhelming. In pastry, you’re going into the kitchen early in the morning, no one else is around, when it’s a clean slate. And then once you learn the rules and foundations of pastry, you can get in there and play.”

Billingsly (who works for the LaSalle Group making desserts at Current Fish & Oyster and Stanza Italian Bistro & Wine Bar ) is renowned for all kinds of desserts, but a confectionary genre that she particularly enjoys “playing” in is gelato. “Gelato is a wonderfully neutral canvas that takes on any flavor you add to it, allowing the magic and alchemy to happen naturally,” she says. A couple of Billingsly’s more recent frozen creations—peach and jasmine gelato and pistachio with candied basil gelato—derive from her passion for growing and foraging for herbs. “Connecting to plants—both by tromping through the woods and digging in the dirt—is incredibly relaxing and calming for me,” she says. By combining herbs with more traditional ingredients, Billingsly says, you can create complex and completely unexpected layers of flavor. “It’s really fun for me to elevate the flavor of any dessert—not just gelato—by adding a pop of herbs to it.”

It’s no exaggeration (or a pun) to say that Matt Crandall, executive chef for the Bourbon Group, has a lot on his plate. Part of his job is creating menus for three unique restaurant concepts—the modern speakeasy/elevated sports bar Bourbon House; the chef-driven, gastro-pub Whiskey Street and White Horse, an American brasserie.

“Creating menus for three different restaurants while maintaining each’s individual identity can be a challenge,” Crandall says, “but it’s really inspiring to me. And I love being downtown where I have the opportunity to have a bigger audience and show people both from here and elsewhere that the food you can get in Salt Lake City is comparable to anywhere.” Crandall grew up in Utah, honing his skills practically from birth in his family’s Hires Big H restaurants. He left his hometown briefly to attend culinary school and “see things outside of Salt Lake,” which included a stint at Aspen’s legendary Caribou Club private club, before eventually returning to Utah. Now, in addition to getting to contribute to Salt Lake City’s growing status as a restaurant mecca, Crandall says one of his biggest inspirations remains how his grandfather insisted on making sure everything at Hire’s was made in-house, a standard he diligently maintains at all three Bourbon House establishments. “We make our own ice cream, pastrami, bacon—really anything that can be made in-house, is. And with only the best ingredients available.”

Bartender Maddy Schmidt frequents the Downtown Farmer’s Market, Asian markets and Harmon’s to get ideas and ingredients for the original cocktails she contributes to often-refreshed libation menu at Alibi Bar & Place.

Case in point: the mango lassi -inspired drink she concocted earlier this year, made with fresh mango, cilantro, turmeric, cayenne, Plantation pineapple rum and Plantation 5 Year rum. “I like to see what’s fresh and then let that inspire me,” she says. “I love how, versus cooking, making cocktails allows for pretty much instant gratification.” Like many culinary arts practitioners, Schmidt does not have any formal training, but draws both from years spent as a fine-dining server and by soaking up as much as she can from talented people around her. “I also work at Templin Family Brewing and have learned a lot about flavor balance and profile from Kevin, one of the brewers there,” she says. “And then here at the Alibi, my coworker Lacey, who used to be a pastry chef, and I are constantly bouncing ideas for new cocktails off one another. I feel really inspired by and lucky to work at the Alibi. I love the energy of the customers and feel very supported and encouraged by the owners, Jacob and Chase.”

Written by Melissa Fields