Chef Joel Mahr Blossoms: Big-City Flair, Small Town LivingApr 28, 2022 05:15PM ● By David Zorko
Photo by Bill Sitzmann
Corning, Iowa, has a population of around 1,500 people—and one fine-dining restaurant with a chef who has cooked at the James Beard House in New York.
“[Chef Joel Mahr] draws people to him. He has a need to learn and a willingness to teach, probably more than anyone else I know,” said Chef John Rea of Via Farina in describing his friend and former V. Mertz alum. Mahr is now the owner of Primrose, 619 Davis Ave. in Corning, Iowa.
Mahr’s beginnings were Wendy’s and KFC-type humble, but that start made an impression. He described “coordinated chaos…you got flames and people’s hands and knives moving all over and then, ya know, they just have this dance around themselves.” Mahr’s cooking roots go farther back than those fast food spots—he started learning from his grandmother, with whom he lived during his time as a latchkey kid while his mother was in nursing school.
Mahr fondly remembers helping to make gravy for Thanksgiving and pot roast. He said he misses those nights when it’s “crisp in the air and you get something nice, warm, and comforting.” Mahr described that pot roast as his “Anthony Bourdain-like last meal, death-row kinda thing.” He still has a spoon from his grandmother, his first mixing spoon. “It’s always kinda funny how chefs are with their spoons,” Mahr relayed. Mahr’s Irish grandmother imparted her tastes and technique; and his German grandfather influenced a love of cuts of meat known as offal, such as liver and tripe.
Mahr required hand surgery about 20 years ago, and in a conversation with a doctor regarding the motor skills in that hand, Mahr said, “Well, I can still cut garlic with it.” The doctor, curious about Mahr’s culinary skills, asked if he could cook. That doctor connected him with a chef who was working at a restaurant in Elkhorn, which is where Mahr honed his restaurant chops. He then cemented his education by attending the Metropolitan Community College Culinary Arts program. Mahr grew in friendship and knowledge at jobs from V. Mertz to the now-closed Lot 2. During his time at Lot 2, he was invited to cook for a special dinner at the aforementioned James Beard House. Then, Mahr took a significant step in setting out on his own.
Mahr had good influences. “My grandfather, he used to own a bar back in the day. I...never settled for all the places that I’ve worked at. I always wanted to grow, ya know somehow, pretty quickly. If I was the guy on the fryer, I wanted to be on sauté…then it was like oh there’s a sous chef…then…oh you wanna be an executive chef, yeah…Once I got to being a head chef it was like the next step was to be an owner.”
Mahr said in small-town Iowa, bankers think it humorous when approached about opening a restaurant. Banks number one through five turned him down. A loan officer at the fifth bank to turn them down had these cautionary words for Mahr: “Around here, nobody sees more than 50 people for lunch and about no more than 70 for supper. So I don’t know how you guys are planning on surviving.” Financing from bank number six helped prove them wrong. Primrose turned the tables and the covers that first day, as they served 95 tables, and one hour and 45 minutes after opening, they ran out of food. After that, Mahr reduced and refined the menu, as supplies can be harder to obtain away from the metro. As Mahr said, “It’s kind of an island out here.” The second day, Primrose sat around 70 tables, and they have continued to serve high numbers of customers.
Rea said about Mahr’s food, “It’s about the attention to detail. Taking something familiar, like fried chicken or a burger, and making it the best…you’ve ever had.” Primrose has a static lunch menu to satisfy the working person, and a seasonal menu in the evening. Mahr is able to keep things fresh with his rotating menu and his garden producing seasonal vegetables.
“Not everybody is as lucky as we are...Where I find inspiration is those Sundays that I have to work in the garden. Well, I don’t have to, I choose to. Those days are great…It’s backbreaking work. To have an understanding of something, a granule of peppercorn, you’re making sure that they’re the perfect size that you want,” Mahr said. It’s also very rewarding when you can pick stuff at its [peak]. When you can sit there and try to gauge it and cuss Mother Nature out and praise her when she wants to be nice.”
Mahr still loves offal cuts, and Rea recalled his memory of Mahr taking “beef blends from scraps at the end of the night just to perfect the mix he wanted to use.” Yet he has been playing with vegetables as the main focus as of late.
Those seasonal ingredients are an opportunity in time to capture something special. Mahr’s philosophy about respecting ingredients is, “Whatever that ingredient is, [it] should be the star of it and then things that go along with that should coexist. Food should have a texture…maybe a cold element…something acidic…maybe something fatty.”
He continued, “There’s times where I want to make Clayton Chapman-type, [gourmet] food all the time and then there’s times where some people just want a good cheeseburger and I can respect that.”
Mahr’s food—like the chef—is familiar, and agreeable.
Visit @primrosecorning on Facebook for more information.
This article originally appeared in the May 2022 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.