Do the right thing

Valparaiso’s Valley restaurant makes simple dishes shine
By David Hoppe | Photography by Martin Buechley

“My marketing strategyis surprise and delight,” says Cory Muro, a founder and executive chef of Valley, a farm-to-fork restaurant on the leading edge of a culinary renaissance beginning to take hold in the Michiana region of northwest Indiana. 

That sense of delight begins at Valley’s kitchen bar, where diners are encouraged to chat with the cooks preparing such distinctive dishes as crispy fairy tale pumpkin ravioli, featuring house-made semolina ravioli with a red onion-balsamic puree, brie, apple and pumpkin seed granola; or winter white chicken, prepared with caramelized carrots and broccoli, crispy red potatoes, a white wine-shallot sauce, capers and croissant crumbs.

Open for just over two years in downtown Valparaiso, Valley, named after Valparaiso’s nickname, “Vale of Paradise,” serves food that is local, fresh and affordable. Thanks to Muro and his team, including co-executive chef Jason Rudy, Valley’s offerings also taste superb.

Muro’s story begins along the Gulf Coast on Florida’s Panhandle. He was raised by three women there, including his great-grandmother, Gertrude. She hailed from New Orleans, and by the time Muro was 10, she had taught him to make sausage, pasta and a variety of sauces.

Muro landed his first restaurant gig at 14, making sandwiches in a sub shop. Then he found a job in a bakery and, after that, a pizza place.

Instead of enrolling in culinary school, Muro set about creating his own apprenticeship program by getting himself hired at the best restaurant he could find, which happened to be Sweet Basil, in Vail, Colo. “I worked a lot, and I worked for free when I could,” he says. “I let them know I really wanted to learn.”

Muro would work a seven-hour shift, then come back on his own time to help some more. “I learned whatever they had to teach me. They saw how committed I was.”

In Vail, Muro also met his future wife, Blair. A Hoosier, whose father farmed outside Valparaiso, Blair was a graduate of Purdue University’s hospitality program. She introduced Muro to Indiana’s food ways.

Meanwhile, he was becoming an executive chef at Honga’s Lotus Petal, a high-end Pan Asian restaurant in Telluride, Colo., that had just undergone a significant expansion and was having money troubles. Muro cut waste, got a grip on expenses and brought Honga’s back to profitability.

This experience convinced him that he could run his own place. But start-up costs and competition in Colorado were prohibitive. Northwest Indiana beckoned.

“I’d been coming here and farming with [Blair’s] dad and really liked the community a lot,” Muro recalls. He could also see that Valparaiso was investing in its downtown, placing a special emphasis on encouraging restaurant development. “For me, this is the most sense of community I’ve ever had. It’s a place where I felt I could start a business and establish a family. It was attractive for me, and the city made it attractive as well.”

Muro has established Valley as a farm-to-fork destination. He and the Valley team are offering a creative take on what may still be one of America’s great culinary mysteries: Midwestern cuisine.

“I feel Midwest cuisine is simple and fresh, nutritious and minimally processed, if at all,” Muro says. “We have to make simple things shine.”

This begins with sourcing foods from farmers who operate as close to Valparaiso as possible. A list of farmers from Indiana, Illinois and Michigan who provide food for the restaurant is proudly posted on a chalkboard displayed inside Valley’s down-home, yet elegant, entryway. Pork comes from Birky’s Family Farms in Kouts; Scherf Farms in Michigan City provides dairy; Burek Farms in La Porte offers sweet corn; and poultry is delivered by Miller’s Amish Country. In all cases, products are free of additives, pesticides and other compromising ingredients. Muro considers these farmers his partners and makes a point of visiting every farm he features.

“I always say I’m not a very good cook, I just have really good ingredients,” he says. “When we can get asparagus that’s hand-picked that morning — we wash it three times, coat it slightly in olive oil, salt and pepper, and grill it for about 10 seconds — then it goes to your table. That’s something you’ll never experience from a grocery store or a food distributor. If you keep it simple, you don’t have to do a lot to it.”

This approach is reflected in Valley’s to-the-point menu. Everything fits on a single page. “It’s really short and matter-of-fact,” says Muro. “That gives us the ability to focus on what we’re doing. Then if we want to do specials, we have that ability. We’re not tied to so many items we’re spreading ourselves thin.”

Muro’s sense of focus is heightened by his decision to make Valley a dinner-only establishment. “We get here between 10 and noon every day of the week. We prep all the way up until 4, and then we cook for four hours.”

When Valley first opened, Muro designed his menu around the seasons. But that grew stale — for the Valley’s kitchen team, as well as for the restaurant’s growing number of regular customers — so he now changes things on what amounts to a monthly basis, with plenty of allowance for specials, like his take on such classic dishes as veal scaloppine, substituting pork for veal.  

Surviving the winter months, he says, is getting easier, thanks to an increasing number of greenhouse growers in the region. And even mega-food distributor Sysco now offers a list of Michigan growers. “I can say, ‘What’s on the Michigan-grown list this week?’ And it’s parsnips, it’s turnips, it’s rutabaga,” he explains.

Whatever the time of year, Muro makes sure his menu includes certain favorites, like his cowboy cut pork chop, prepared with honey-apple cider pan sauce, butternut squash, pickled mustard seed and twice-baked potatoes; or a fish dish utilizing yellow perch from Bell Aquaculture in Red Key. Lately, fresh shrimp has been finding its way onto the Valley menu, by way of the Valparaiso Shrimp Co., a local grower specializing in salt water shrimp raised in a clear water system without chemicals, hormones or antibiotics.

Muro is proud to offer a menu that emphasizes quality, while still managing to be affordable. Appetizers like the truffle fries (natural cut fries in white truffle oil with parmesan and parsley), crispy chicken tacos (pulled chicken in a fried gyoza wrapper with sweet chili sauce, radishes, pickled jalapeno and basil), or pig pen (pork belly and stone-ground white grits with house ricotta, organic spinach, preserved lemon and onion haystack) are meant to be shared and are priced up to about $12; while entrees, on average, will run around $20.

Service is another way Valley strikes a Midwestern chord. Since the restaurant has never advertised, relying for growth on word-of-mouth, Muro emphasizes the importance of Hoosier hospitality. “As long as we can deliver the product with a smile, be polite, use our manners — really fundamentally basic things — that’s my recipe for success. It’s super simple,” he explains.

“It boils down to stuff my great-grandmother drilled into me: Be nice to people; do the right thing.”