Read my New Horizons profile of Trebbien here.
Culinary artist Jim Trebbien: Lifelong love affair with food led to distinguished culinary arts education career at Metropolitan Community College
©by Leo Adam Biga
Appearing in the March 2015 issue of New Horizons
Food for life As Jim Trebbien retires from heading Metropolitan Community College’s well-regarded Institute for Culinary Arts, which he was instrumental in building, he leaves with the satisfaction of a job well done. That job was 35 years in the making. Fifty-two years counting the time he put in learning the culinary trade before joining Metro.
He began teaching in the then-fledgling program in 1980 and became its director in 1985. He brought years of experience on the line, working at iconic spots and training under demanding chefs. He brought considerable food management experience at institutions. He gained some of his chops as a U.S. Army cook.
At Metro Trebbien transformed a struggling program, growing it from a few dozen students to 700-plus, boosting its reputation and overseeing a major facilities upgrade. It was all capped by the construction of the $16 million Institute for Culinary Arts building. As soon as the glass-enclosed, state-of-the-art structure opened in 2009 it became the crown jewel and gateway of Metro’s Fort Omaha campus. Along the way, he and his staff put in prodigious time and effort to create a top-notch program that now owns the respect of prospective and current students as well as graduates and food service professionals.
“I feel really good about what’s been accomplished here,” Trebbien says. “I feel real good this is a name brand school that people come to from many miles away and from many states to attend. I feel good that people get a fantastic education here.”
For Trebbien, a 67-year-old father of three and grandfather of five, his passion for food has always been about making people happy. “Food is what gets people to talk around a table and to forget their troubles.” He says this idea of giving people a pleasurable experience over breaking bread is one he tried imparting to instructors and students.
“It’s not just about what happens at the stove, although flavorful food is really memorable. It’s the expectation of having good food that fits the occasion and it’s people sitting at a table, getting involved in that food, and talking. It’s all the conversation that goes on people remember.”
He says it’s no accident many religions connote paradise with a banquet. He grew up in homes with the image of “The Last Supper” hanging on walls.
For the cook who makes a banquet feast, he says, “it’s a high that gets repeated time after time after time.” The high comes just as surely for a home cook satisfying family and friends as it does for a chef pleasing paying customers. It’s all about doing a job well by serving people.
A work ethic was instilled in Trebbien growing up on an Iowa farm in the 1950s and 1960s. He recalls his father as “a complete farmer” who raised livestock and row crops, supplying homegrown meat, dairy and produce for family meals. The home cooking Trebbien’s mother and grandmother did with fresh, off-their-own-farm ingredients gave him an early appreciation for how good food is prepared and presented. The free-range chicken his mom pan fried still can’t be beat.
“You know what it was? Mom knew how to pan fry that chicken and dad raised that chicken and just the last week or so of its life he would feed it corn and that corn would put so much flavor in that chicken.”
Thus, long before the farm-to-table movement became fashionable with today’s foodies and restauranteurs, Trebbien lived it. He grew up knowing there’s no substitute for fresh, local food made with love. It’s something he championed at Metro, where the culinary and horticulture programs are closely aligned and the Sage Student Bistro serves seasonal-based menus utilizing the best local ingredients grown by Metro and area small producers.
“I always looked forward to Sunday dinner because that’s when we went to Grandma Winnie’s after church. She’d always had really good food – better food than you could get at your friend’s house.”
He’s practically rhapsodic about his mother’s potato salad. Her recipe, as with most of her dishes, isn’t written down anywhere. Trebbien, the formally-trained chef, finally found the secret but still can’t duplicate it.
“Nobody can make potato salad like my mom,” whom he calls the consummate cook. “I’ve even stood next to her while she made it to try and do everything she did. When she saw me cooling down the potatoes before adding the dressing, she said, ‘You ought to mix in the mayonnaise while they’re warm yet – just don’t stir them too much or you’ll have mashed potatoes.’ Instead of high-priced mustard she put in prepared mustard, which I consider yucky, but damn if that wasn’t what gave it that kick that made it good. Mom’s 89 years old and she still does a great job. She’s just got this understanding of flavors.”
Amateur or professional, he says good cooks share a knack for developing pleasing flavor profiles. It comes from experience and instinct but it’s all about love – for food and people. That kind of care will always translate into a good dish that makes a good meal.
“I think anybody’s who got a heart to do it can do it with enough practice and time.”
Cooking requires skill that’s part art and craft and gets better the more it’s applied. Learning the right techniques is where culinary training comes in. Where technique leaves off, inspiration takes over.
“I think it goes back to education,” says Trebbien, noting “everybody” in Metro’s culinary program is “classically trained. We’re trained on the cooking methods and on the ingredients. For example, everybody knows how to sauté, when to add the milk to something to make a hollandaise sauce. But most chefs in most kitchens don’t have recipes. The only time you have a recipe is if you’re working for a corporate kitchen and you want that goulash to taste the same every time because people come to expect it. The same holds true for every franchise restaurant and place like that.
“But if you go to most fine dining restaurants you don’t necessarily expect it to taste exactly the same. It probably does because the chef’s back there anyway but maybe the chef has some fresh ingredient that just came in that day and so he’s going to use it a little bit.”
The addition of a new ingredient or the subtraction of an old one, the application of more or less seasoning, perhaps varying with the mood or whim of the chef that day, is bound to affect the flavor.
All these factors and many more enter into the equation of what makes food stand out enough to get people talking and coming back. The pursuit of that happiness is what’s driven Trebbien his whole career.
Though it took him a while to recognize it, he found his calling at 15, when he first worked in a commercial kitchen.
“I didn’t know it at the time, I really didn’t,” he says. “Even when you find your passion you don’t even know it’s your passion, you just show up for work every day and laugh hard.”
Earning his chops, paying his dues For that first food service job he made onion rings and malts at Rick’s Drive-In in Milford, Iowa near Lake Okoboji, where much of his early food apprenticeship played out. Even way back then, he was “intrigued” by what made people happy or dissatisfied customers.
He went from that dive to the fancy Highpoint Hacienda, where he learned to make a good steak. He worked at Boys Town’a summer camp at Okoboji. “That’s where I met the famous chef Pierre (Bossant).” Trwbbien says he learned culinary basics from the classically-trained French chef who taught him no matter who you cook for and what you make, “you should make it the best tasting you can.”
After graduating high school in the mid-1960s Trebbien let himself be talked into being a college math major, first at the University of Northern Iowa and then at Mankato (Minn.) State. He wasn’t sure what else to study. He was in college as much to avoid the military draft as anything. But Uncle Sam caught up with him and in 1969 this former anti-war protestor found himself in basic training. His kitchen background landed him cooking duty at the Army stockade in Fort Lewis, Washington. Hearing the stories of men who’d been in Vietnam but were now behind bars for violating Army rules, he began feeling “a sissy or a chicken for not wanting to go over there.” So he volunteered for Vietnam, twice, but was denied and assigned to Korea instead.
Livestock Exchange Building
J.L. Brandeis & Sons Department Store
With his two years up he came back home. He returned to the only work he knew besides farming (though by his admission he never was much of a farmer): food service. He was the assistant school dining hall manager at Boys Town, where he soon realized he was stuck in “a dead-end job,” saying, “I loved the people there and it was fascinating being around the boys, but I had to get out.” He saw an ad in the paper for a “night chef” at the Holiday Inn Central and applied despite warnings from colleagues he didn’t have the temperament to last under the tough executive chef there, Paul Goebel.
“I was a little scared when I went there, thinking, ‘What could this guy be like?’ The first night I report to his office he said, ‘I think you’re late.’ Well, he was late. He introduced me to his head sous chef, Ed Butterfield. ‘This is your new night cook.’ Well, I thought the title was night chef. Then he said to me, ‘I understand you won’t need a lot of training and that you’ve run a burner before. I said, ‘Definitely, where is the burner?’ and he said, ‘You’re looking at it.’ I didn’t even know where it was. I thought, Oh crap, I am really in trouble here. I didn’t know how stupid I was. Goebel yelled at me and after he left Ed said, ‘Don’t worry about it, you’ll be a good chef around here in no time.'”
Trebbien says the saving grace was, “I knew i could work hard, so I just worked hard and I got the system down.”
Goebel never became easy to work for but his perfectionism helped raise Trebbien’s own standards.
“Paul was always intimidating. There was one way of doing stuff and it was Paul’s way. But I kept in contact with that man over the years. Then I hired him to work for me out here (Metro). People that knew me and knew him asked, ‘Jim, did you hire Paul to get a little revenge?’ and I said, ‘Not at all, I treated him like my dad, I treated him with love and respect.’ People wondered why since he’d been so mean to me before – because Paul taught me an awful lot. He was so demanding that you figured out how to do it before he’d get there because you wanted to do it right and please him. I love the guy.”
While at the Holiday Inn Trebbien hired Danny Hunter, one of the first grads of the MCC culinary program, which started in 1974. “He was pretty good and so I thought, Well, maybe there’s something to it, so I came out here, met some people and started taking classes. I thought if I’m going to be in the industry I should get some training.” He was soon asked to serve on the advisory committee.
By the mid-1970s he dedicated himself to a food service career. He boosted his credentials earning an associate degree in Culinary Arts and Management and later being named a Certified Culinary Educator by the American Culinary Foundation (ACF). Many awards followed.
But when he broke the news to his family he was going to cook for a living not everyone rejoiced.
“When I told my grandma Winnie I was going to be a cook she cried.
She was totally disappointed. The images of cooks then was Mel’s Diner – short-order cooks in greasy spoons.”
Metro’s culinary program had a similarly negative reputation its first two decades, Trebbien didn’t know how poor it was until he tried attracting students and teachers. Before he took over there he worked at three Omaha institutions. The first was the Union Stockyards, where he ran the Livestock Exchange Building dining room.
“That was a booming place,” he says of the stockyards, “though I didn’t see the terribly booming years – I was right at the tail end of that.”
The dining room specialized in short ribs, minute steaks, hamburgers and an item featuring seasoned, battered and deep-fried calves’ testicles. “I didn’t know about Rocky Mountain Oysters until one of the guys out in the pens brought this bucket in and said, ‘Make that.'” The acquired taste delicacy was washed down with copious alcohol. Trebbien recalls, “Oh, God, people used to have good times down there. These farmers and ranchers would come in and they’d work so hard to get their livestock in there and either they were happy to get the price or not, and they’d have a drink or two or three and eat some good food. They’d have a great time. When they were through they’d maybe go to one of the restaurants or bars in South Omaha.”
When the dining room closed he went to work as food and beverage director at the gilded J.L Brandeis & Sons flagship department store, whose wide dining choices included a buffet-style cafeteria, diner-like counter service, a hot dog stand and the fancy Tea Room.
“I loved working at the downtown department store and the coolness of all that. A year and a day after I started my boss called me in his office and said, ‘Jim, we’re going to close this store. We can send you to Des Moines to work there.’ I didn’t want to move.”
And so the intrepid Trebbien adjusted his chef’s hat once again and reluctantly took the job of executive chef and production manager at Began Mercy Medical Center. The pay was much better than he’d been making but he didn’t like the bland, often subpar food that hospital and others settled for in appeasing dietary restrictions.
“God, it was so boring. You could work so hard and we did making the food better but the cooks, who had all been there a long time, all had reasons for why you couldn’t do certain things to enhance flavor.”
He pushed the staff.
“It was really hard to do. I always looked at that as a challenge – to try to make it better.”
He met his wife Patty, a dietician, at Bergan.
He’d been married before but his first wife, Daise, died of complications from an infection.
At Bergan Patty prodded Jim to accommodate patients’ special requests. At her urging, he recalls, “I started meeting some of these patients and they were real people with families. I went back and told my cooks, ‘We cant have these people upset about the food, it’s unacceptable, we’ve got to find a way to make them happy.’ I had them meet the patients, too.”
He had mixed success changing that rigid culture. But the principle underlying that experience applies to the entire food service field.
“You’ve got to get in the mind of the customer,” he says. “No matter what you want to do you’ve got to find out what your customers really want. You’ve got to listen to them carefully.”
The early Metro years and the steep ascent to excellence He was still at Bergan when he began teaching at Metro. The school’s culinary program was housed then in Building 5 but it originated at a 50th and Dodge storefront. The Dodge site, where CVS Pharmacy is now, is where Patricia Barron, aka Big Mama, attended. Culinary arts eventually moved into Building 10 and that’s where it stayed until Trebbien got its own building erected.
He admits being “petrified” the first class he taught. There were only four students and one lodged a complaint after he exhausted his flimsy notes in less than half the allotted four-hour time, whereupon he excused everyone to go home. A young woman complained she was being short-changed for her tuition.
“She didn’t care I was new and didn’t have time to prepare, she was still paying good money for an education, and she was right. From then on I always looked at things from the student’s point of view.”
More than one person warned Trebbien not to get too deeply involved with then-Metro Tech or its culinary program.
“I was told this place will never amount to anything. The program had a terrible reputation, too.”
He says an “absolute sweetheart” of a woman, Ada Max Brookover, ran the program when he joined the adjunct faculty but she struggled getting herself and the program taken seriously. It was more a home economics set-up than a professional kitchen. Trebbien says, “She had no backing in town whatsoever because she didn’t come up through the chef ranks, so she just wasn’t connected to those people she had to get connected with. She couldn’t get any money for what she needed and nobody understood what she needed.”
Things changed under former Metro president Richard Gilliland after he toured a successful culinary program at an Illinois community college. Ada was let go and Gilliand put out the word he was looking for someone with considerable industry experience. When her replacement didn’t work out Trebbien, tired of the hospital job, applied. Once again, people told him he was making a mistake. After getting the job and discovering just how monumental the challenge was, he had second thoughts. Despite it all, he stayed.
His willingness to stick it out, with a 50 percent pay cut, had much to do with his rearing.
“My dad always had high expectations. When putting hay in the barn there might have been a hundred bales and nobody expected you to do more than 50 but you got 70. Dad would say, ‘I think you could have got more of them, boys.’ And I’d be like, ‘Aw, I let my dad down, I could have got more done,’ And then he’d say something like, ‘You would have built-up a few more muscles, too,’ and I’d think, Yeah, I could have.’ So the next time I’d try to get a few more (bales).
“Failure never was an option. I learned you’ve got to try things. If you can’t do it, that’s fine, but if you say you’re going to do something, do it, and don’t do it half-way. That was the way we were all raised.”
Another factor that kept him from cutting and running, though tempted a few times, was his lifelong “desire to please other people.”
At the start, he says he had no grand vision for what Metro culinary arts could be and he didn’t necessarily see himself as its steward.
“I wish i could say, yes, but no I didn’t start out thinking that. It was more like, I’ll prove that guy wrong and I’ll prove other people wrong – we will make a go of it. But I really didn’t count on staying here. It was kind of a year to year thing with me. Each year I’d say, ‘Yeah, I’ll sign up one more year,’ and each year it got to be a little feeling of ownership. I got that feeling from Richard Gilliland. He’d tell all of us, no matter what our area, ‘Just run that program like it’s yours.’ So I always thought if it’s mine I’m not going to answer to anybody, I’m just going to do it. So I would just start doing stuff.”
One thing he did was check-out the thriving Johnson County Community College Culinary Arts Program in Overland Park, Kansas.
“i asked the director, Jerry Vincent, ‘How did you do this?’ and he said I should take care of my college president. Whatever the president says, he told me, do it, and sometimes suggest something you can do, but don’t try to take care of everybody else because you can’t. You’ve got to concentrate on who’s important. The same with the board of governors. He advised getting to know those people because they’re going to vote sometimes on funding for your program.”
Thus, Trebbien became a political animal. He made it his business to know the college’s decision-makers and the restaurant community in order to build a broad support base.
“So I joined the Omaha Restaurant Association (ORA) and did all that stuff I never thought I had time for or that I thought was stupid before.”
In cultivating friends and advocates Trebbien learned “what makes something good is when a lot of people say it’s good.” When he heard a radio report about a bowlers hall of fame it sparked an idea. “I thought, Why don’t we do that?”
During the annual ORA dinner at the French Cafe he and colleagues Linda Anania and Ron Samuelson formed the Omaha Hospitality Hall of Fame. The outreach and collegiality from that bolstered the culinary program’s profile. At the suggestion of colleague Arlene Jordan she and Trebbien paid early morning visits to local radio and television stations hoping to pitch the program on the air. They came up empty until realizing the way to the media’s heart is through their stomachs.
“Nobody would let us in the door, everyone turned us down, so finally Arlene said, ‘Why don’t we bake them some cinnamon rolls?’ We did and all of a sudden they all let us in. Once inside the door we’d usually talk ourselves into being on the air. Sometimes it’d be two minutes. We were on KQKQ one time all morning long, even after they changed DJs. What I learned from that is that we have a story to tell.”
Turning the corner Spreading the word little by little meant getting to know local food writers, speaking to community groups, recruiting students at high schools and schmoozing at parties with potential donors.
All the while he worked to raise standards.
“The first thing I could ever identify that turned it around was rewriting the curriculum and making it tough. Expectations changed. And just like that the enrollment went down but the reputation started going up.”
Then he started attracting better chef instructors. For years though he couldn’t get any local top chefs to even consider teaching there.
“They wouldn’t talk to me. This wasn’t a real culinary school to them and the trouble was we really weren’t. Tightening up the curriculum, being involved in national groups and the exposure from my touring over 20 states to meet chefs and restaurant owners really helped.
“The restaurant industry started to catch on that we placed good graduates and a lot of chefs began wanting to teach here where they didn’t want to be associated with us before ”
New kitchens were added in 1987.
And where school counselors once used culinary arts as a dumping ground for students who didn’t test well or place anywhere else, the program began to have its pick of motivated students.
For all the progress being made, one key element was still missing.
“We needed a building. People wanted a name, like the School of Culinary Arts, that lent it credibility and they wanted an impressive building or campus. Although the enrollment was increasing. it was so crazy, so crowded. Our kitchens were behind the cafeteria.”
Out of sight, out of mind.
“It just didn’t say magic, it didn’t say this place is quality.”
Trebbien and other Metro officials sold donors and the board on the dream. He campaigned for a new name commensurate with the new building, Former Metro president Jo Ann McDowell pushed for the project, which when built greatly expanded and updated the teaching kitchens and added many other amenities.
“The building made a big splash,” says Trebbien, who agreed with McDowell that the structure provided Metro a gleaming front entrance and anchor symbolizing excellence.
Enrollment went through the roof. It’s leveled off some since but interest remains high.
Looking back and ahead To Trebbien, the Institute’s success is emblematic of how Metro has come into its own as an educational engine that serves tens of thousands of students. Ground has been broken on a major expansion of the Fort Omaha campus that will add three new buildings. Just like culinary arts overcome negative perceptions, so did Metro as a whole.
Trebbien is a big believer in community colleges and specifically in Metro. He says MCC offers an outstanding education for a fraction of the cost of a four-year school and that it’s the area’s clear applied ed leader for certain careers.
“If you’re studying culinary arts, here’s where you come, You can learn it here, just like plumbing, construction, electrical –. you go to Metro.”
He’s proud the Institute’s produced scores of graduates doing great
things here and from coast to coast, even overseas. He feels comfortable saying its students have helped grow Omaha’s culinary scene, which is far more than steakhouses these days.
“Some graduates have opened their own chef-driven places, like Paul and Jessica Urban with Block 16. I would guess a lot of new restaurants wouldn’t have happened because where would they have found the kitchen staff who understood food enough to execute their concepts? Before the Institute came into its own, a lot of people working in restaurants just weren’t trained.”
Trebbien twice flirted with being a restaurant owner before backing out of deals he just didn’t feel right about. But within the last two years he’s become a food entrepreneur with a pair of businesses he co-owns, Chef Squared, a gourmet oil and vinegar shop in Midtown Crossing, and Omaha Culinary Tours. With his Metro tenure ending he’s devote more time to his booming business pursuits.
“Chef Squared had three profitable months last year and so we’re happy that we’ve turned the corner,” he says. “Omaha Culinary Tours ended with a very profitable year and we feel really good about that.”
Being a business owner has been a learning experience.
“Running a business is a little bit different than talking about it. You’ve got to apply all those principles you’ve taught. When you’re counting your dollars instead of somebody else’s its a lot different.”
He’s planning to develop a new business, this time a Web-based one-stop shop for all things food. “I’m just waiting to get the right people together. It’s going to be a big deal.”
Meanwhile, he walks away from Metro a departing patriarch anxious that the program he brought to maturation gets the TLC he feels it needs to sustain excellence.
“I don’t know if everybody realizes the building blocks. It’s easy to see what sits here now but what caused it to be is less obvious.”
He says to remain relevant and competitive it can’t sit pat or lose its edge but must maintain the energy and hunger that built it.
“All those principles still need to happen,” he says. “It needs to be rejuvenated all the time.”
Trebbien leaves on his own terms, content that the media now goes to the Institute for stories rather than the other way around. Since announcing his retirement, the media’s sought him out. That’s how he knows what he worked so hard to elevate has truly arrived.