Profile: Joshua Tibbetts, the determined chef

Chefs, he says, are like chess masters

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Joshua Tibbetts is a determined guy.

He never went to culinary school, but he'll be the sous chef at Sauce, which is expected to open in Czech Village in Cedar Rapids next month.

To get there, over the past 25 years Tibbetts has worked in more than 50 kitchens across the Midwest. He worked his way around restaurants, starting as a dishwasher, moving to server, line cook, kitchen manager, you name it.

He found his love for fine dining at the Loring Cafe — which since has closed — which he described as a “nexus for some of the top chefs in Minneapolis.” Working with them, he said, essentially was his cooking school.

But after 15 years of perpetual frost bite from biking through Minnesota's bitterly cold winters, Tibbetts decided it was time to move south. At 34 years old, he ditched most of his belongings and started his journey by road bike following the Mississippi River.

Just 30 miles outside of Cedar Rapids, though, he was sideswiped by a semi-truck, thrown from his bike and left in the gravel with a gnarly knee wound.

The semi didn't stop. He tried to flag down passing cars without success, leaving him without much option but to patch the wound himself.

With a particularly strong grain alcohol to sterilize, a pair of tweezers to pluck out gravel, a surgical needle and nylon thread, he stitched himself back together.

His knee injury kept him in Iowa City for almost a month, eating up his travel time and money. He eventually made it as far as St. Louis, but ultimately turned back for his hometown of Cedar Rapids.

Today, most of his waking hours are spent in the kitchen — about 70 to 80 hours a week.

“It never stops. It's relentless,” he said. “It's the same thing as being on a bicycle ... You have to be physically engaged. You have to plan ahead and be super aware of your surroundings.”

 

A self-proclaimed adrenaline junkie, Tibbetts gets his fix not only in the kitchen but also atop his unusually tall bike.

Perhaps you've seen him pedaling around Cedar Rapids, towering above traffic at eight and a half feet on the homemade bike.

“On a regular bike, you're just surrounded by cars and staring at pavement all the time,” he said.

“On a tall bike you get a really nice view of everything going on, and you also don't go as fast so you can soak up the world a little more.”

Abrupt stops are a no-go when perched at that height, so he's always conscious of bumps in the road and what's happening ahead of him.

“It gets you very connected to your environment,” he said. “You have to anticipate problems before they happen. I find that mind-set to be really wonderful.”

The bike is his only form of transportation, as driving is simply not an option. Something about the lack of movement, the vibration of the motor and the hot air blowing on his face lulls him right to sleep.

“It's just so unengaging, so passive,” he said.

Which is something he wouldn't say about cooking. He's excited to get back into fine dining — something he said is lacking in Cedar Rapids.

“You have to anticipate problems before they happen. I find that mind-set to be really wonderful."

“I see a lot of restaurants around here that I would call upscale ... (But) it's a little bit too far on the trendy novelty for my particular taste,” he said. “Novelty doesn't necessarily need to be part of the equation ... If you're going out of your way to make a novelty out of something, I think it kind of shows ...

You can make a steak and potatoes dish completely profound just from absolutely nailing every aspect of it. It doesn't need distractions to shine.”

Tibbets describes his palette as “old-fashioned” — he likes the “way people used to eat,” a more simple approach.

His informal training is in the Northern Italian style, which he described as “reactionary” compared to the calculated, methodical, “formal and authoritarian” approach to French cooking.

Fine dining to him means taking simple ingredients and treating them in such a way that they speak for themselves — instead of adding complex sauces and fancy ingredients such as truffles — approaches such as slow-cooking meats to bring out their best qualities and working with local, fresh, seasonal, farm-to-table ingredients.

“It's just taking something simple and doing it right,” he said. “I'm really looking forward to that at Sauce.”

Chefs are like chess masters, he added, always planning their next move.

“When you get in the thick of a rush, it's really easy to get fixated on what you're doing right now,” he said. “But if you really want to be on top of it, you have to be aware of what's down the road.”

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