Enjoy the experience

Empyrean Cafe a breakfast, lunch event

Empyrean Cafe's potato leek soup with crispy prosciutto, photography by Neal Bruns
Empyrean Cafe's roasted chicken in a tomato wrap and purple Peruvian potato salad, photography by Neal Bruns

The sense of things – interesting things – happening is clear the moment you enter Empyrean Cafe at the Foellinger-Freimann Botanical Conservatory, and it’s more than the happy bustle of a place where people come and go picking out food for their breakfast and lunch.

It’s an event.

The match of Empyrean with the conservatory is an excellent one because a visit to the conservatory, even just its lovely, airy lobby where Empyrean diners can sit to enjoy their food, is always an event. It’s also because the cafe management thinks of and works the cafe from the frame of reference of the overarching wing of its business, Empyrean Events and Catering.

The difference is subtle but meaningful. A restaurant, even a lunch counter-style place like this cafe, succeeds when it gives each individual customer whatever was chosen from the menu quickly and perfectly. But an events and catering company wants the food to be part of an overall and delightful experience.

That’s why Empyrean Cafe looks the way it does, functions the way it does, interacts with the people who come in for breakfast and lunch the way it does and is the way it is.

“That was the entire reason behind it,” said Renée Miner, chief event designer, “street level and some accessibility for clients who continued to ask how do we experience this on a day-to-day level and ‘where can we get this cheesecake? I want to buy it.'”

The cheesecakes in a jar came to the cafe after being so popular at wedding celebrations that guests would sneak them out, she said, and they adapted the potato-leek soup and Caesar salad recipes for the cafe, too. The cooking processes they use are the same, as are the methods and standards for service.

“It’s still that same Empyrean experience when you come in,” she said. “We definitely wanted to keep that.”

The conservatory venue was a “huge draw,” she said, and the timing was good for Empyrean, which has benefited from Fort Wayne’s downtown renaissance ever since it opened in the former Summit Club in 2013.

Interacting with customers in the cafe “also gives us a unique opportunity to get feedback immediately from clients and guests as we are getting new items out and tweaking them,” said Jeremy Miner, sommelier. He and Renée are married and became part of the management team that opened Empyrean with owner Gary Probst and co-owner and president Julie Fiechter after moving here from Chicago. Renée’s events and design career had taken her to Chicago, as did Jeremy’s cooking, restaurant management and staffing career. She grew up in Huntington, and he grew up on Hamilton Lake, and they met working at a restaurant in Fort Wayne.

Empyrean Cafe is unusual among lunch counters because it has no flattop grill, which was a drawback for other potential users of the space. But not for Empyrean, which uses sous vide cooking, a meticulously temperature-controlled method of cooking food sealed in vacuum packages with seasonings in a water bath.

A new item on this fall’s cafe menu takes advantage of the sous vide method, the ham-and-cheese plus omelette breakfast sandwich. The eggs are cooked sous vide. Also on the fall menu are the always-popular chicken wrap sandwich, the breakfast jars (though the chia seed pudding will now be topped with fall seasonal fruit) and the Caesar salad.

The turkey sandwich will switch to being served with a cranberry aioli on brioche, and the ham sandwich will switch from pumpernickel to marble rye bread with raspberry mustard.

“It’s delicious,” he said. He knows because he is the one who had to figure out Renée’s late Grandpa Kenny’s ham recipe from family memories. They use that ham at the cafe. Jeremy duplicated the recipe so well he is now the go-to guy to provide ham for all family celebrations.

“There’s a lot of holidays,” he said.

Renée just laughs.

Empyrean Cafe

1100 S. Calhoun St. • (260) 424-2233
Hours: Open for breakfast and lunch Tues.-Sun., dinner Thurs.
Specialties: Waffles, quiche, salads and sandwiches, plus juices, coffees and teas, all made from scratch.

Empyrean Cafe Potato Leek Soup

Makes 6 quarts

2 ounces butter
1 tablespoon minced fresh garlic
4½ pounds leeks, cleaned and green removed, chopped
4½ pounds Idaho potatoes, peeled and roughly chopped
3 ounces white wine
1½ bay leaves
4½ quarts vegetable stock
1 quart heavy cream
Kosher salt, to taste
Ground white pepper, to taste
For garnish: frizzled leeks, thinly sliced chives

1. In a stockpot, melt the butter, add the garlic and cook until tender.

2. Add wine and deglaze. Reduce wine by half. Add leek, potato and bay leaf. Season with salt.

3. Add stock and simmer until potatoes are cooked through.

4. Add cream and bring up to heat. Season with salt and pepper.

5. Remove from heat, and in small batches puree in a blender until smooth. You may serve now or chill and reserve until a later serving time.

6. Optional: Garnish each serving with chives and frizzled leeks tossed together. Frizzled leeks are the tender green parts of leeks cut into thin lengths or rings and fried in vegetable oil until golden and crispy.

First appeared in the October 2016 issue of Fort Wayne Magazine.


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