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.
Cooking wasn’t always in the cards for Joe – the former psychology and philosophy major started dishing up delicacies as a way to put himself through school at the University of Iowa. But food was his passion, and after graduation, the kitchen called him back.
Joe traveled to Denver to attend culinary school, where he met Alex Seidel of Fruition Restaurant (who won a Food and Wine "Best New Chef" award in 2010). Alex convinced Joe that culinary school wasn’t the right path and hired him at Fruition. Joe started at the bottom and learned the art of the basics from Alex – including how to respect the ingredient and get it to the plate. The two worked well together, so they opened a farm/creamery, where they raised sheep for milk and cheese, grew produce and raised pigs.
Joe returned to Des Moines with a strong sense of food fundamentals and a new respect for ingredients and their sources. Joe has been working at Alba for 2 1/2 years, running the kitchen and striving for the utmost care and consistency in each and every meal.