- A new restaurant in the Drake neighborhood serves barbecue and Liberian food.
Ten years ago, Romeo Diahn was draped in a printed sweatshirt with a white v-neck t-shirt underneath performing “Is This Love?” of Bob Marley on the set of the “American Idol” singing competition in Portland, Oregon.
The 22-year-old shared his life story of leaving Liberia alongside his family as a refugee before the show’s panel, which included longtime “Idol” judge Randy Jackson, rocker of Aerosmith Steven Tyler and A-list actress and singer Jennifer Lopez.
After receiving a gold paper ticket to the Hollywood Week tours during the show’s 11th season, Diahn walked up to the camera and said, “America, I’m coming, I’m coming.”
Next, Lopez turned to Jackson and joked that Diahn had “a different vibe than anyone we’ve seen” as the Rose City Steel Bridge served as the backdrop.
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Diahn, or “Chef Tony” in culinary uniform, decided to choose a life with the culinary arts as his main course and pushed singing onto the side dish menu in the years after “Idol.”
Now Diahn is coming to the Drake neighborhood with a new Thursday-only restaurant called Chef Tony’s Culinary Delights, housed in the Kitchen Spaces kitchen rental building at 1139 24th St., featuring barbecue and dishes inspired by his Liberian childhood. .
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“The refugee camp was horrible, but we are refugees from Liberia,” Diahn said in a Sept. 1 interview at the University Zone. “So we were able to be resettled to America via Ghana.”
Diahn’s family left Liberia after the country’s civil war in 1990. The family later fled to neighboring Ghana and lived in a refugee camp.
The former “Idol” contestant shared his family’s story of wartime survival on season 11 of the reality TV singing competition, which featured eventual winner Phillip Phillips. Diahn made it to the show’s top 100 contestants before being eliminated by the trio of judges.
The experience of appearing on national television was poor, he said, as he felt like he failed after being knocked out by Lopez, Jackson and Tyler.
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After Diahn’s family moved to Portland, Oregon, where he first auditioned for “Idol,” in 2001, the 33-year-old single father of four moved to the area Metropolitan Des Moines three years ago for a new beginning.
“My inspiration for cooking comes from my mother,” Diahn said.
The Le Cordon Bleu culinary school graduate said Chef Tony’s second act is inspired by his mother Alberta Ehrich, who worked long nights while he was growing up.
Diahn learned home cooking recipes and techniques because Ehrich regularly worked after midnight and he cooked his own meals instead of waiting for her to come home.
Diahn developed the idea of serving barbecue because he wanted a family-style restaurant for comfort food with a varied selection of options.
“I’m a cook, I’m not into ribs. People say to me, ‘Aren’t you from North Carolina or wherever they do ribs from?’ No,” Diahn said. “I’m a cook – I taste it and want to recreate it.”
Culinary delights on the menu include cassava leaf stew and steamed rice, “super hot and tasty” spicy habanero garlic sauce, barbecued pork ribs and dark meat barbecue chicken .
Diahn’s signature recipes also include a mixed green salad with diced cucumbers and tomatoes topped with a lemon-sweet brown sugar vinaigrette, baked barbecue chicken, and barbecue pulled pork sliders on rolls of Hawaiian style, as well as grilled BBQ pulled chicken and rib sandwiches.
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Southern-inspired sides include coleslaw, cornbread, mac and cheese, pasta and broccoli salads, seasoned beans and rice, and garlic parmesan mashed potatoes with sauce. Drinks include canned sodas like Sprite, mango flavored Pepsi and Coca-Cola as well as bottled water.
“I’m done crying, I’m not crying anymore,” Diahn said.
The tears of a legendary life have disappeared. Chef Tony’s is the next chapter.
Where to find Chef Tony’s culinary delights
Location: Kitchen Spaces building near Drake University, 1139 24th St.
Hours: Open Thursday only, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
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Jay Stahl is an entertainment reporter at the Des Moines Register. Follow him on Instagram, Twitteror contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
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