Modern Midwestern: Sky's the Limit for Cerulean Crew
Ask Caleb France, owner and chef of Cerulean Restaurant in Winona Lake, Indiana, to describe his food and he will use the words modern Midwestern. But between the sushi menu and dishes like chickpea fritters with jalapeño yogurt, cilantro and mint, you might find yourself wondering, where exactly does Midwestern come into all this?
Undoubtedly, it’s about sourcing and making the most of the region’s best ingredients. The yogurt served with the chickpea fritters is from a small Indiana dairy. The herbs and peppers come from the restaurant’s own garden, right out back. And Chef France is proud to point out that all meat on the menu comes from a farm (that is, not from a distributor)—one hand-selected by one of Cerulean’s four full-time sourcers.
As if that weren’t enough, this summer Cerulean kitchen and front-of-house staff traveled down the road to Hawkins Family Farm in North Manchester every Tuesday to help harvest and pack the restaurant’s community-supported agriculture (CSA) shares. (For more about Hawkins and the Cerulean CSA program, click here.)
Local Bounty, Transformed
With the best local ingredients at his fingertips, France unleashes his creativity, turning familiar Midwestern foods into something unexpected— and totally delicious.
A dish he calls the Heartland NY Strip, for example, begins with a generous cut of sustainably raised beef. France enhances the umami flavor of the meat with a hickory gastrique and a schmear of baked bean “hummus,” and contrasts its tenderness with caramelized Brussels sprouts and crunchy, golf-ball-size bacon croquettes.
Even common Indiana garden “weeds” get star treatment: Foraged nettles turn risotto a surprising and gorgeous green, an herbaceous foil to rich and salty duck bacon (made in-house at Cerulean) from Maple Leaf Farms (Milford, Indiana).
Think Globally, Eat Locally
Not everything served at Cerulean is local, and France is fine with that. The chef draws culinary and aesthetic inspiration from his world travels—he rattles off a list of favorite destinations: “Thailand, Spain, Ireland, Chicago”—and he knows that turning Midwestern ingredients into truly exceptional dishes means pushing all sorts of boundaries, including geographic ones.
“We love to support local and sustainable—and highlight ingredients from all over the world,” he explains. “We do that unapologetically.”
The Cerulean menu, for example, boasts over a dozen artfully constructed sushi rolls, made with decidedly non-Midwestern seafood (fresh tuna, hamachi and scallops), complemented by locally sourced vegetables and herbs.
France, who was trained in sushi, also celebrates modern and global influences on his lunch menu, which is built around Japanese-style bento boxes—lacquered trays divided into sections filled with the diner’s choice of entrée (peanut ginger chicken, stir-fry, wasabi-crusted shrimp) and a selection of noodle and vegetable sides. The boxes, Mondrian compositions of color and geometric precision, are as beautiful as they are delicious.
Food + Business
After graduating from high school in Winona Lake, France studied business and finance at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana. He then returned to Winona Lake and started catering, bringing together his two passions: food and business. His talent was quickly apparent. The Village of Winona approached him about opening a restaurant to anchor the Village’s shops. France was 23 years old. In 2006, Cerulean was born. Six years later, in 2012, France launched a second restaurant in Indianapolis (also called Cerulean). Then, in 2013, he started Light Rail Café and Roaster, which specializes in high-end coffee and artisan baked goods, next door to the original Cerulean.
What, we asked him, keeps him in Indiana—especially in a small community like Winona Lake?
Too often, France says, local people graduate and head to the big cities. France sees virtue in “taking what you’ve learned and making your own community a better place.”
His way of doing this is by bringing people together over great food. Th e aim of his restaurants, he explains, is summarized by a motto on the Cerulean website: “communication, communion and joy, while encouraging a modern sensibility that inspires.”
Now 32, France and his wife, Courtney, are parents of a new baby and deeply rooted in the community that they have helped to create. France sees a growing identity in the region around food and says that many local people are asking themselves, “What does it mean to eat and live in Indiana?”
He smiles and ponders his own question.
“We have,” he observes, “such great things here.”
Thanks to Caleb France and crew, yes, we do.