Josh Adams breaking down a Caveny Farms lamb
Josh Adams breaking down a Caveny Farms lamb Credit: jeffery noble

In late January 2009, Caterpillar, Peoria’s largest employer, announced it was laying off some 20,000 workers worldwide. That should have been awful timing for Josh Adams, who just a month earlier had opened June, the most ambitious restaurant the city’s ever seen. But Adams—who combines the rigorous local sourcing of Chicago farm-to-table fine-dining temples such as Vie and North Pond with a touch of the advanced techniques most of the world refers to as molecular gastronomy—was booking his 52-seat space weeks in advance, and diners were waiting knee-deep at the bar every night.

Things only got crazier a month later, when venerable Wall Street Journal restaurant critic Raymond Sokolov, who’d parachuted in for an undercover meal just after the layoffs, published a glowing review. After that, the out-of-towners started arriving—not just from Chicago but from Iowa, Missouri, and Kentucky. In December Sokolov (who’s since left the Journal) declared June the best new restaurant in the midwest, and in February Adams, 30, was invited to cook at the James Beard House in New York and named among 26 semifinalists for the Beard Foundation’s Rising Star Chef award.

I finally ate at June on a warm Tuesday night last month, when the economic news of the day was a little brighter than it had been the previous year. Cat, according to the Peoria Journal Star that morning, reported a $233 million dollar profit in its first quarter, and the next morning officials said they were prepared to ramp up production.

A couple kids were tooling around on BMX bikes in the nearly empty parking lot, and inside only six tables were occupied. But Tuesdays aren’t a big night out in any city, and Adams seemed unconcerned as he and three cooks went about their business in the wide-open kitchen, methodically putting together beautiful but minimally constructed dishes like hiramasa sashimi with green almonds and grape emulsion and a New York strip dry aged for 40 and cooked sous vide in fat from its own trimmings. Things had definitely calmed down since his opening year, he told me later, but he was hardly worried—he likes that things are more relaxed. He described Peoria Heights, where his restaurant is located, as an “old-money” suburb, inhabited by Caterpillar execs and employees of the three major medical facilities in the area. But there’s some stratification. “You can drive a quarter mile and see a $7 million home,” he said. “And then you can see a $50,000 home the other way.”

Lamb, steelhead trout tartare with smoked steelhead roe and Henry’s Farm tae bak
Lamb, steelhead trout tartare with smoked steelhead roe and Henry’s Farm tae bakCredit: jeffery noble

Stories about Adams tend to position his cooking squarely between the two prevalent culinary trends of the last few years. It’s true he has an enthusiasm for collecting the sort of expensive equipment associated with chefs like Homaro Cantu and Grant Achatz (the water circulators for preparing dishes sous vide take a lot of punishment from the notoriously hard water you get this close to the Illinois River). But he leans harder toward the know-your-farmers-and-foragers end of the spectrum, and his food is hardly overmanipulated. During my dinner, a rangy guy in a trucker cap strode in with a bulging bag of the most perfect golden morels I’d ever seen. The man, an architect by trade, had collected them earlier that day. He kept ten pounds for himself and gave ten pounds to Adams in exchange for a bit of money and a bite to eat.

“This is like the breadbasket,” Adams says. “There are so many great farms in this area.” Many of those farms are familiar to Chicago diners—Henry’s Farm, Kilgus, Caveny, Living Earth—but for Adams getting the goods is a lot easier. “We could drive 20 minutes in any direction and run into so many great farms. You can pick your vegetables for the day yourself. We still do that. I’ll be doing that tomorrow,” he told me.

Soon he’ll have to travel even less for some items: he and Lyndon Hartz of Hartz Produce in nearby Wyoming have teamed up to break ground on a 36-by-90-foot geothermal greenhouse, where they’ll grow salad greens, microgreens, and baby root vegetables.

Adams grew up north of Peoria in the tiny community of Dunlap, which he says was similarly divided between low-income farm families and affluent Caterpillar execs, doctors, and lawyers. His father, Russ, built a small business empire from a trucking company he’d bought for $50,000.

He was a picky eater as a kid, and when he turned his nose up at his mom’s “meatloaf-housewife-like food,” she sent him to cooking classes in the city. “I’ve probably cooked about 90 percent of everything I’ve eaten since then,” says Adams, who speaks rapidly, leaping from subject to subject in a low growl that sounds like a distant lawnmower.

Salt cod cake with aioli, forest greens, and dehydrated black olive powder
Salt cod cake with aioli, forest greens, and dehydrated black olive powderCredit: jeffery noble

In high school he thought he wanted to draw comics for a living, and though he did contemplate enrolling in culinary school after graduating, he instead worked in the family business and at a menial job at a lighting company. But Russ Adams was a fan of Charlie Trotter’s business book, Lessons in Excellence, and urged it on his son for inspiration. Then, six years ago, Russ booked the chef’s table at Charlie Trotter’s, where Josh asked so many questions of chef de cuisine Matthias Merges that he offered the kid a one-week stage at the restaurant.

Like Trotter, Adams spent relatively little time working in restaurants before opening his own. Unlike Trotter, he did end up going to culinary school, at Illinois Central College, about three months after his visit to the restaurant. But he dropped out before fulfilling nonculinary requirements like math and psychology. He took occasional courses in kitchen technology from Dave Arnold at New York’s French Culinary Institute—two-day stints that currently carry a price tag of $1,500—and through Illinois Central secured a longer stage at Vie in Western Springs, where three months of absorbing Paul Virant’s rigorously seasonal, local, and preservational aesthetic were brought to an end when he came down with mono.

Adams had been collecting cookbooks since he was young, amassing what is now a collection of more than a thousand tomes by chefs like Heston Blumenthal, Pierre Gagniare, Ferran Adrià, and Stephane Reynaud, as well as some rare out-of-print stuff. During his time at Vie, he also began gathering equipment, setting up what was essentially a professional kitchen in his home.

“You start looking at the cost for the French Culinary institute and the CIA,” says Adams. “I could take that same amount of money, invest that in a bunch of equipment for myself to experiment with. I’m really big on self-teaching. I read about Trotter—he didn’t really work a lot of time in a kitchen. He spent a lot of time staging all around the country and really went back and taught himself a lot. And I read about Ferran Adrià and Heston Blumenthal. How is it that three of the best guys didn’t spend tons of time in restaurants and ended up being three of the better chefs? Those are definitely people I’ve idolized since I was younger. There has to be something said for the path they took.”

He began cooking for parties hosted by his parents, his friends, and “friends of friends,” and continued to stage, putting in a week at Alinea in 2007. After that, he was offered a position as executive chef at a new French restaurant in Peoria. But the deal fell through, and it was then that he began serious preparation for what he’d intended all along: a small, exclusive, tastings-only restaurant using ingredients sourced from the local farms that had been supplying his home studies.

During the build-out of June he continued to stage, putting in a week at New York’s Brasserie 8 1/2, and one at Revolver, a restaurant in Findlay, Ohio, whose concept was similar to the one Adams was developing: small town, small restaurant, big ambitions.

He eventually abandoned his plan for a tastings-only menu, but not his budget, which was funded by his own savings and a significant investment from this father. He won’t name a figure except to say it was “astronomical,” but to give you an idea, his cooking island, a freestanding Athanor model, cost $100,000, took six months to build, and then had to be shipped over from France.

“We didn’t really skimp on any details,” he says. “Everything’s crystal, French flatware, custom-built tables. That coffee machine over there? That thing was so expensive. I was the first person to have a Rex Royal in the United States, because I’ve always heard these are best coffee machines made. Sometimes I think people don’t really appreciate that stuff.”

Ice cream-sorbet trio
Ice cream-sorbet trio

Peorians, understandably, are sensitive to intimations that they live in a backwater. The well-worn chestnut “Will it play in Peoria?” is stubbornly interpreted here as an acknowledgment of the population’s discerning and sophisticated tastes.

In the days prior to June’s opening, chatter on local blogs seemed to be evenly divided between those who were excited and those who believed it would never fly. After Sokolov’s review, some were outraged that the critic had referred to its downtown as “grim,” and the Journal Star’s entertainment editor published Sokolov’s e-mail address and urged citizens to invite him back to town to disprove his claim that June was “the only first-rate place between Chicago and Kansas City.” Others were thrilled. “They were so happy that Peoria got noticed by somebody,” Adams says. “I never even met this guy, and he walks in and hands me a couple hundred-dollar bottles of wine.”

But even now the divide persists. Adams admits there are those in town that won’t darken his door because they feel his restaurant is “arrogant or pretentious, just because we do something that’s out of the ordinary for Peoria.”

He’s got big ideas about more accessible food too. He’s currently consulting on a menu for a friend’s restaurant in tiny Delavan, about 30 miles south, and sent his sous chef over to take charge of the kitchen. “It’ll be a lot of smoked foods, wood-fired foods, flatbreads, ribs,” he says. “When I’m not here, that’s what I do.”