Walking into the Rhythm Kitchen Music Cafe is like stepping on a plane and flying down to New Orleans.
The brick walls are covered with artwork, there is a lingering aroma of freshly-made gumbo and a quiet jazz plays in the background, all of which together come to give the restaurant a relaxed spunk and charm.
The Rhythm Kitchen, located at 305 S.W. Water Street at the Riverfront, has been providing Peoria a taste of New Orleans for over 17 years. Working to make the authentic dishes is head chef Jason Zeck, who has been with Rhythm Kitchen for more than five years.
Zeck said the theme for the restaurant was developed by the owner, Shelley Lenzini.
“The owner, Shelley, was a huge admirer and fan, just a lover of all things New Orleans, and also she was a big fan of Jamaica,” Zeck said. “She had been to Jamaica a few times … and she goes to New Orleans once or twice a year. She brought a lot of that influence back. The influence is mainly southern … but it is not just held to New Orleans.”
Cooking southern food was a novelty for Zeck when he began his time at Rhythm Kitchen, so he took it upon himself to study the culture of the food.
“I had never cooked southern [food] before I started working here. I was overtaken by it,” Zeck said. “I got down to New Orleans, and I just wanted to get lost. So, I started researching and studying.”
However, providing authentic food isn’t the only priority at Rhythm Kitchen. Owners and staff also try to dish out a homey experience.
“The core of the Rhythm Kitchen is that we want people to feel like they are coming home. We do a lot of home-cooked meals, it’s traditional,” Zeck said. “It is coming to grandma’s house when everyone is gathered around the table. At the core, that is what the Rhythm Kitchen is and that is what we strive for.”
The combination of the quality of the food and the down-home feel keep regular customers walking through the door and new customers sitting down to give the Rhythm Kitchen a try.
“We have got regular customers who have been coming in since the doors opened,” Zeck said. “On top of that, there are always new faces. We always encourage people if it is your first time here, let us know.”
According to Zeck, having new customers become regulars is something that the staff at Rhythm Kitchen truly values.
“With all the restaurants that are open in Peoria from fast food to the chains to the independents to just everything else in between, to have members of the community suggest your place, that means something,” Zeck said. “We have a regular staff, we don’t have a huge amount of turnover. These are the people that our customers see on a regular basis… we build that rapport; we know a lot of the regulars by name.”
For Zeck, forming a genuine contact with customers is something that goes hand-in-hand with the homestyle experience that Rhythm Kitchen offers.
“In the age of social media and technology and disconnectivity, we have our Facebook page and our Google Business page, and that is it,” Zeck said. “We would much rather shake your hand. We would much rather be able to put our hand on your shoulder while you’re sitting down and ask you how the food is. I’ll come out of the kitchen a lot and make my way around [the restaurant].”
Having an open kitchen and allowing customers to interact with the owners poses a critical key in forming a relationship with the regular diners.
“Being an open kitchen, we have customers come up frequently to the counter and say, ‘Thanks,’ or ‘The food was good tonight,’ or they just want to chit chat, and that is infinitely more valuable to us than what we can do on Twitter,” Zeck said.
Rhythm Kitchen also hosts live music on Friday and Saturday nights from 8 to 11p.m., providing authenticity to the restaurant’s jazzy name. A stage for performers sits in one corner while a piano with a sign that invites diners to play it sits in the other.
The menu carries traditional New Orleans staples such as shrimp creole or gumbo ya-ya. However, items not specific to New Orleans can also be found on the menu such as the salmon B.L.T. or the hot chicken tostada. According to Zeck, putting effort into learning the background of every dish is what makes them work.
“Every dish has a fascinating history,” Zeck said. “To me, if you know that, you have a greater insight and respect for what you are putting out … it kind of goes along with coming home and knowing you’re getting a good meal.”
“I’ve been working in restaurants for 20 years; The five-plus that I have been working here have been the most enjoyable,” Zeck said. “The food has passion, it’s got a core, it’s got a spirit to it and it has got a history.”
From the passionate food to the live music to the warm atmosphere, Rhythm Kitchen provides a taste of New Orleans and a homestyle experience.