A 1986 cookbook recipe from St. Anthony Catholic School in southside Des Moines offers an early glimpse of the culinary ambitions of a pair of students who have gone on to become metro dining entrepreneurs.
“A Collection of Favorite Recipes” from the students includes contributions from Tony Lemmo, who is now owner of Aposto at The Scala House in Sherman Hill, and Emily Gross, who along with her sister Andrea Williams operates catering service Taste to Go and its signature event space, Curate, in the East Village.
Tom Sacco of Des Moines discovered the cookbook in a pile at a St. Vincent de Paul thrift store. Sacco said he looked through the book because he had previously coached track and field at the school and wanted to see if there were any familiar names. After recognizing the names of local dining professionals, Sacco said he’d thought he’d share the story with others, including the Des Moines Register.
“I just thought it was kind of an interesting,” he said.
Lemmo’s restaurant, temporarily on hiatus, offers entrees like duck risotto and house-made triangoli pasta with gorgonzola, parmesan and fontina, brown butter, walnuts, rosemary and pancetta. Gross’ menus include dishes such as beef demi-glace with crispy shallot and bacon-wrapped figs stuffed with blue cheese.
But 35 years ago, the two elementary school students were fashioning their creations from a far more basic ingredient: peanut butter.
Third-grader Gross (who then went by Emily Frommelt) submitted a recipe for peanut butter balls, consisting of Rice Krispies, chocolate chips, butter, powdered sugar and, of course, a cup of peanut butter. The balls “may be frozen,” Gross wrote at the time.
Second-grader Lemmo presented a recipe for peanut butter cookies which followed a three-step process: “Mix thoroughly” the wet ingredients (peanut butter, shortening and eggs) with sugar; “sift & stir in” the dry ingredients, like flour and baking soda; then form them into cookies.
Both recipes, though for simple foods, showed some sophistication: Gross’ called for using “parafin” (sic) to form a hard chocolate shell for the peanut butter balls, while Lemmo’s suggested an artistic touch: making a criss-cross pattern on the cookies with a floured fork before popping them into the oven.
Each recipe carried the contributor’s signature.
“It cracks me up just looking at it. I love seeing the signature that’s on that, being third grade,” Gross said of her contribution to the cookbook. “That was one of my favorite recipes my mom used to make, probably at the holidays or something. I’m not sure it was her favorite, but it was always my favorite.”
Lemmo said that he felt “goosebumps” looking at his recipe, which encouraged him to get back in touch with people from school.
Lemmo and Gross found their love for cooking later in life
Although the cookbook may have showed Lemmo and Gross’ potential in the dining field, both said they actually found their passion for cooking later in their life.
“Our family always loved cooking together, and I’ve always enjoyed food and experiencing food,” Gross said. “I just didn’t think of it as something I would do as any sort of career or anything right away.”
She said she had started out post-college working for then-U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin in Des Moines until she decided a few years in that she would join her sister to work on a catering service.
Gross said she had initially intended just to help her sister out for some time, but it turned into a career.
Lemmo said his passion for cooking also came later in life, when he was in college, although many of his family members were no strangers to the restaurant industry. He said he was a “conventional jock” in his teenage years, and he headed to the University of Northern Iowa to play football until quitting to pivot to a new interest: food. After that, he said, he allocated one-third of his life to studying, another third to working, and the rest to cooking.
Aposto may be his flagship, but he also has his hands in many parts of the Des Moines restaurant scene. He is a part-owner of Gusto Pizza Co. and the Juniper Moon cocktail bar, both on Ingersoll Ave, in addition to the El Guapo’s Tequila + Tacos in West Des Moines and the new Breakfast Club in the East Village.
Finding a human connection through food
Lemmo, who said he “jokingly” calls himself the “maestro,” called interacting with guests his favorite part of the restaurant businesses.
“I have my core recipes that are who I am and what my family taught me. And then I have these amazing chefs who create wonderful seasonal dishes,” Lemmo said. “While I love to cook, and I love matching food to wine, I really love the front of the house … grabbing food out of the kitchen and bringing (it) to the guests, pairing wine with it, that’s my strength.”
Lemmo acknowledged that operating a restaurant is hard work.
“Every single day is different, so it takes a lot of tenacity and takes a lot of grit. It takes a really well-thought-out vision. It takes a lot of emotional intelligence,” he said.
But the rewards are clear.
“It’s a lot of work to get to the reward. But it is absolutely a rush to have a packed house and have all these different ingredients and staff and lighting levels and music all synched up together,” he said. “I want people to walk in here and feel better than how they (were) feeling walking in.”
Gross said that while she may not have aspired as a student to be a chef, she, too, was drawn to the rituals of hospitality.
“We just show love for one another through food,” Gross said. “You have friends over, you provide food for them, and drinks for them. It’s just part of how it was growing up, I guess.”