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Chef Jason Hughes setting bold course at Happy Hollow Country Club

March 23, 2015 1 comment

Omaha’s culinary scene is still more pedestrian than foodies would like, but there’s no doubt the city offers an ever expanding and interesting mix of restaurants.  Many of Omaha’s best eating out options are chef-owned or chef-driven places that range from fine dining to relaxed operations.  Many of the chefs making names for themselves here are heavy into and helping lead the farm to table movement.  Good eats are a major part of Omaha’s popular cultural districts, including the Old Market, Midtown, Dundee, and Benson.  Some star chefs do their best work at well-reviewed venues in those very same hubs.  Now, don’t get me wrong, the Burbs have their share of worthy chefs and spots, too.  Some great food can also be had at Omaha hotels and country clubs.  In this Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/) article I wrote you can read about the bold course that Happy Hollow Country Club executive chef Jason Hughes is setting there.  I can’t say I’ve tried his food yet, but I look forward to it.  Hughes is a lot like his peers on the culinary scene today in that he has years of academic training and practical experience and he strives to make the freshest, most flavorful, and creative dishes he can, all of it infused with love and, as as nod to his roots, a Southern twist.

 

 

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Chef Jason Hughes setting bold course at Happy Hollow Country Club

©by Leo Adam Biga

©Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Originally appeared in Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/)

 

Since assuming the executive chef position at Happy Hollow Country Club in 2013 Jason Hughes has emerged as one of the city’s new culinary stars, introducing a strong farm-to-table regimen there.

Not only has his cuisine earned raves from club members but last year he won Omaha’s Pinot, Pigs & Poets chef competition for his dish, “Heads or Tails.” The prize-winning meal featured braised pork cheek and pig tail croquette, house-cured bacon and oregonzola bread pudding, charred brussels sprout leaves with dried fruits and macron almonds, pickled watermelon rind and tart cherry mustard natural jus.

His entry represented the same locally-vended approach he takes at the club.

“I use a lot of local products,” he says. “I try to find out where things are raised. It helps to know where your food came from. I think it makes it taste better when there’s a story behind it or you’re helping out a small farmer and making a difference in their lives by supporting what they do.”

He’s developed relationships with local purveyors, sourcing everything from organic produce to poultry, pork beef, cheese and other dairy items from them. He takes advantage, too, of a chef’s garden on a dedicated patch of land next to the club’s golf course.

He didn’t always do food this way.

The Nashville, Tenn. native got his earliest cooking chops watching his mother prepare Southern comfort meals for his large family (he’s one of eight siblings). By 15 he was already working in the only industry he’s ever known. He rose up the kitchen ranks to become a trainer for Outback Steakhouse, opening several franchise sites in the mid-1990s.

He attended Western Kentucky University, where he met his wife Brandi (the couple have two boys), and they moved to Colorado, where his training went to the next level. He graduated cum laude from the prestigious culinary program at Johnson & Wales University. Then he learned under a series of top Colo. chefs, including Scott Coulter

“He kind of opened my eyes that food can be a lot different than just your standard corporation steakhouse or restaurant. That you can have an identity and be creative and do whatever you want to do with food. That there’s no boundaries.”

Hughes has occupied the private country club niche since the mid-2000s. He credits executive chef John York at the five-star Belle Mead Country Club in his hometown Nashville as his main influence.

“He kind of brought me to the level I’m at today. He made it a point to tell me there’s no reason I cant be doing what he’s doing and he gave me the private club chef head hunter that brought me to Omaha.”

Getting the Happy Hollow job required Hughes impress a search committee in the interview process and a Food Network-style blind cook-off that saw him prepare a gourmet meal for several folks on a tight deadline. He worked his magic with the ingredients provided, including cedar smoked pork tenderloin. He made a five onion bisque with smoked walleye and pike and grilled corn. He also did a beat carpaccio salad with cherries and smoked blue cheese.

His dazzling fare and Southern charm won over the committee and he’s been winning over members ever since.

“Jason’s impact has been astonishing. He’s elevated our culinary program and the culture of our club,” says general manager Jim Williamsen, who admires his passion. “This is just not what he does for a living, it’s clearly what he loves to do. He is a special talent.”

Hughes enjoys being in a niche where his abilities are appreciated.

“What I like about country clubs is you don’t have to be roped into one kind of cuisine. We have over 1,200 members here and there’s such a diversity of tastes and dislikes that we do different kinds of cuisines instead of just focused in on one,” says Hughes.

He recently returned from France and Spain with new recipes inspired by those national cuisines.

The “blase” stigma that once attended country club cuisine is no more.
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His prize-winning “Heads or Tails” dish in Omaha’s Pinot, Pigs & Poets chef competition

Braised pork cheek and pig tail croquette
House cured bacon and oregonzola bread pudding
Charred brussel sprout leaves with dried fruits and marcona almonds pickled watermelon rind
Tart cherry mustard natural jus

 

“There’s some people putting it out there in country clubs that could compete with anybody in any city,” he says,

He likes being in competitions to showcase his wares and “just to show that country clubs can cook, too.” He not only enjoys competing with fellow Omaha chefs like Clayton Chapman and Paul Kulik, but engaging them as peers. He finds the chef “camaraderie” here unique.

“Everybody’s really down-to-earth and wants everybody to do well. It’s not like they’re afraid to show you something or tell you about a product they’re getting. Everybody seems really friendly and wide open here compared to any other cities I’ve been. It’s just a cool scene as far as the chefs go in Omaha. It’s really neat”

Hughes also loves having a budget that allows him to hire the best staff – “I have a great team here” – and to fly in fresh seafood, for example, nearly every day from Maine, Florida, Hawaii.

His team extends to wife Brandi, without whose support and sacrifice, he says, “I would not be where I am today.” They love the outdoors and have their sons help in the garden. A year-plus in Omaha and Hughes is sure he’s found the right fit for him and his family with the vibrant culinary-culture scene, the warm people and the great schools.

“This place grows on you, for sure. It’s a great city.”

 

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Culinary artist Jim Trebbien: Lifelong love affair with food led to distinguished culinary arts education career at Metropolitan Community College


Jim Trebbien is one of those good-natured personalities you meet in the course of a working life who remind you that nice guys can finish on top. He’s had plenty of success as an executive chef and as the leader who grew Metropolitan Community College’s Institute for the Culinary Arts in every way possible. Under his reign ICA made great strides in terms of academics, facilties, student enrollment, and industry perception. He faced many challenges trying to elevate the fledgling program he took over in 1985 into a full-fledged institute. But as he retires this spring he leaves knowing he established it as a nationally respected and relevant institute. It took lobbying, pleading, strategizing, and good-old fashioned hard work. The educator and entrepreneur is still an integral part of Omaha’s maturing culinary scene through his Chef Squared and Omaha Culinary Tours businesses.

Read my New Horizons profile of Trebbien here.
Cover Photo

 

 

 

 

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.”

 

New Horizons Newspaper's photo.

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.

 

 

 

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.”

 

 

New Horizons Newspaper's photo.

 

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.

 

 

Omaha Culinary Tours: New company hopes to make Omaha’s burgeoning food culture a tourist attraction

February 5, 2014 Leave a comment

It wasn’t so long ago that when you thought about food and Omaha your palate memory went to steakhouses, Italian restaurants, a few other Old World ethnic eateries, and the usual assemblage of local diners, drive-ins, and dives.  Fine dining options were, well, rather limited.  With a few exceptions, it was a bland, one or two note  food landscape dominated by Euro-American influences.  Locally owned, chef-led restaurants were relatively few and far between.  Food trends took a long time to get here.  The use of locally produced fresh food products was rare.  Innovation and experimentation was not much on the menu.  There was a dearth of food from Africa, South America, Asia, India, et cetera.  Many ethnic foods simply couldn’t be found here.  But as the Omaha cultural scene has blossomed the last two decades, so has the local food culture and scene, so much so that you can now pretty much find anything here that you can find anywhere else in the States, with the possible exception of New York City or Los Angeles.  The cuisine has dramatically increased in terms of, variety, nationality, daring, and quality.  I don’t claim to know all the reasons for this phenomenon but a few may be:  The Insitute for Culinary Arts at Metropolitan Community College is a feeder of highly trained chefs; Omaha’s seen an influx of new immigrants from many different parts of the world and their national dishes have been introduced here; more and more Omahans travel for busines and pleasure and they bring back a demand for the eclectic flavors, ingredients, and dishes they sample; social media and the Food Network have similarly opened the horizons of diners and proprietors alike to vast possibiltiies in food; more chef-owned eating spots have opened under the direction of cutting-edge artists who craft meals to appeal to the growing foodie population and their ever broader, more sophisticated tastes.  These same trends apply to a growing number of gourmet and specialty food stores here.  A local startup, Omaha Culinary Tours, is taking full advantage of these trends by making the burgeoning food culture a tourist attraction.  Learn about this company in my Reader (www.thereader.com) story below.  Look for a coming cover piece that attempts to take stock of how Omaha’s gone from a food deadend to a food mecca.

 

 

 

 

Omaha Culinary Tours: New company hopes to make Omaha’s burgeoning food culture a tourist attraction

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

The recently launched Omaha Culinary Tours looks to capture foodies and urban explorers alike.

Owners Jim Trebbien, Jen Valandra and Suzanne Allen are banking this town’s rich culinary scene is destination worthy enough to support their business. For a fee OCT offers guided tours of locally owned restaurants and food stores and the historic districts they reside in.

Satisfied with test tours conducted in December, OCT is now taking reservations for walking tours that are also urban adventures. Its Midtown tour is the lone active trek right now but new ones are in the works for the Old Market, Dundee, Benson and downtown. A craft beer and pizza tour is likely to be a staple along with a ballpark fare tour come College World Series time.

A Valentine’s tour is also being planned.

Transportation-provided journeys will be offered, including steakhouse and comfort food tours.

Each walking tour covers about a mile while visiting six or seven venues in a span of 2 1/2 to 3 hours. At each stop guests sample food prepared fresh on-site just for the visit and meet the venue’s owner, chef or manager.

A well-informed guide leads the way, sharing back stories about the food places and the neighborhoods. OCT limits public tours to groups of 6 to 16. Private tours can accommodate more guests. Private tours can be designed to fit whatever theme clients desire.

 

 

 

 

The set Midtown tour features Chef2 (Trebbien is part owner), Brix, The Crescent Moon, The Grey Plum, Marrakech and Wohlner’s. In addition to tasting different cuisines it’s a sampling of three distinct districts – Blackstone, Gold Coast and Gifford Park.

On the December 28 Midtown tour superstar Grey Plume chef-owner Clayton Chapman personally greeted guests and intro’d the tastings menu served. He even stuck around to answer questions. It’s all part of what Allen calls an “interactive thing.” ”

Valandra says, “Part of the experience is seeing the pride in the owners when they talk about their food and tell their stories. They’re sharing part of themselves.”

“It’s communion, it’s sharing food and conversation with other people and community. You learn about an area, you sample the food there, you meet some of the people there,” says Trebbien.

Allen says OCT’s getting strong buy-in from venue owners.

“They want to be a part of it, they see the value of it. They’re getting potential customers. They’re getting a chance to wow people that maybe wouldn’t have walked through the door before.”

“A “novice foodie” with “an appreciation for the culinary scene,” Allen holds a regular job doing sales and heads OCT’s marketing efforts. She got the idea for a food tour company on her travels across the U.S. She noted food tourism’s a popular activity for folks to explore the cultural landscape of cities they inhabit or visit.

“More of the masses are wanting food as as event. I’ve taken these tours around the country and I’ve loved the experience. I thought Omaha’s ready for this.”

 

 

 

 

Trebbien and Valandra felt the same way and began pursuing the same vision. He’s dean of culinary arts at Metropolitan Community College and an Omaha Hospitality Hall of Fame.inductee. She’s an MCC culinary arts graduate and works under Trebbien as culinary project coordinator. She previously ran the Medusa Project, a now defunct local presenting arts organization. The self-described “serial entrepreneur” has established several startups. The first time the pair heard of Allen is when she called for advice on her planned food tour startup. Rather than compete, the threesome decided to partner.

“It became obvious we needed each other,” says Valandra. “We work really well together and complement each other.”

“We have three different skill sets that intertwine,” says Trebbien.

“It was very clear we could get a lot more accomplished together than we could alone,” says Allen. “it’s taken off since we came together.”

Allen says they share a bullish passion for Omaha’s assets. They feel the depth of the emergent food scene and resurgent urban environment may be what finally puts Omaha on the map, It’s why they’ve moved fast since forming the company in August. Sporadic tastings and festivals may celebrate food here but they say there hasn’t been a dedicated food tour operation. Noting that successful food tourism businesses operate all over, even Des Moines and Kansas City, they feel the local market’s overdue to be tapped.

“Years ago in Omaha if you wanted to go out for fine dining you were pretty much confined to a steakhouse and now fine dining is the best cuisine from anywhere,” says Trebbien. “There’s a number of James Beard Award nominated chefs around town. The culinary scene has changed tremendously and it changes tremendously every year. Omaha’s being discovered for its amenities and food is part of that.”

 

 

 

 

Allen says OCT’s not just for visitors but for locals.

“Omahans have their favorites but taking a tour like this allows them to get out and experience six or seven new places in one afternoon or evening. They can find a new favorite or add a couple new places to their comfort zone.”

While not a progressive dinner, the food served on OCT tours should fill most guests, the owners say. Then there’s the added sustenance of discovering new places and learning some history along the way.

“It’s part of the culture,” says Allen.

For schedule and booking details, visit http://www.omahaculinarytours.com.

Two Old Market Fixtures Celebrate Milestones

January 18, 2013 2 comments

The Old Market in Omaha is a both major attraction and a laidback state of mind that’s made up of the places and personalities, past and present, expressed there.  Two of this historic arts and culture district’s longest sustained restaurants, M’s Pub and Vivace, share the same owners and executive chef, and in 2013 these each of these eateries celebrates a milestone anniversary.  M’s Pub is 40 years old and Vivace 20 years old.  Owners Ann Mellen and Ron Samuelson discuss their successful enterprises in the following story I did for The Reader (www.thereader.com) and along with Old Market pioneer Roger duRand they look back at the force of nature who started M’s, Mary Vogel, and who personified the visionaries and characters that have made the Market the singular destination and experience that it is.

 

 

 

 

Two Old Market Fixtures Celebrate Milestones

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Signature Old Market spot M’s Pub celebrates 40 years in business this year. It’s a milestone for any independently owned restaurant. But reaching four decades takes on added meaning because when M’s opened in 1973 (a planned 1972 opening was delayed), the fledgling Market’s survival looked unsure.

The Market though went from counter culture social experiment to mixed use success story. M’s owners Ann Mellen and Ron Samuelson doubly appreciate a thriving Market as their highly reviewed eatery is a fixture along with a second respected restaurant they own there, Vivace, which marks its 20th anniversary this fall. The establishments are emblems of the district’s sustainability and growth.

The well-connected woman who founded “M’s” and was its namesake, the late Mary Vogel, wanted to be part of the emerging Market scene. She commissioned architect John Morford from the Omaha firm headed by Cedric Hartman, who designed the French Cafe, to transform the former Sortino Fruit Company warehouse into a sophisticated, cozy environs inspired by her favorite dining-drinking nooks from around the globe, particularly the pubs of England and Washington DC. Some argue M’s is more bistro than pub but whatever it is M’s owns a reputation for quality food, superior service and laid-back charm that’s both cosmopolitan chic and homespun Midwest.

The small space is dominated by a three-sided green marble topped bar, exposed white brick work, a high ceiling, large mirrors, which make the room seem bigger, and picture windows that provide a glimpse of 11th Street on the east and peer into Nouvelle Eve on the south. The open kitchen is about the size and shape of a train’s dining car and overflows with activity, though the culinary action mostly happens in the downstairs prep rooms.

“It’s just a great open plan,” says Samuelson. “Timeless. And that’s why we don’t change anything about it because we see a lot of fads come and go and as tempting as you might be to say, ‘Well, it seems like that’s what everybody’s doing today – maybe we should try that,’ it’s not going to work here.”

 

 

 

 

M’s is indelibly of the Old Market. Like its neighbor shops it resides in a historic, 19th century building that exudes character earned with age. It adheres to tradition. It pays attention to detail. Its personality can’t be replicated or franchised.

“I don’t think we could take our sign and throw it in a place out west or anywhere else really,” Samuelson says. “I just don’t think it would transfer.”

The affable, attentive, knowledgable wait staff wear crisp white and black uniforms with none of the attendant starch.

Samuelson says, “We’ve worked really hard for a really long time to position ourselves as a place where you can come sit by side with the table that has a $150 bottle of wine and a couple steaks and you can have a beer and a Greek sandwich and not be treated any differently by the waiter. A lot of our people have been around here for a really long time. We have people that we trust.”

When Vogel sold M’s in 1979 to Mellen’s parents Floyd and Kate Mellen she stayed on as hostess and matriarch. Ann Mellen began working there around then and she soon grew fond of this force of nature.

“She would sit at the bar every day after lunch and count how many drinks we sold,” Mellen says of Vogel. “She was a trip. A very energetic lady, very world traveled, very knowledgable, very opinionated. But very helpful – when things went wrong here she knew who to call.

“She had a passion for this place. She knew exactly what she wanted it to be and she did it right. She totally designed M’s after her favorite places all over the world. She was like the mother of M’s pub. It was her baby.”

Market pioneer Roger duRand writes:

“Mary Vogel was a dame, A socialite with a heart of brass (polished). Mary was equal parts Mayflower pedigree, finishing school gloss and ribald cocktail raconteur. When she courageously cast her lot with the Old Market demimonde of 1972, she found a welcoming environment among the artists and adventurers. Her vision of a tearoom for ‘ladies who lunch’ that doubled as a bistro for ‘lads who lust’ became the elegant and reliably satisfying M’s Pub that remains little changed from its first days.”

Samuelson, who went to work there in 1986 after restaurant experience in Omaha, Texas and Colorado and then quickly partnered with Mellen, admired Vogel’s “indomitable spirit,” adding, “I think she was way ahead of her time. I think that’s probably why she got along with the Mercers so well. They needed people like that to incubate ideas and to establish a core of anchor businesses.”

Mellen’s parents, who’d never operated a restaurant before, bought it with the intent of their restauranteur son Joe running it  but when he passed Ann stepped in to lend her folks a hand. Her passion for the business bloomed.

“I liked working for myself basically,” says Mellen, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln journalism grad who worked as a reporter and advertising copywriter before M’s.  “Then I came here and never left.”

She and Samuelson pride themselves on being hands-on owners. One or the other  or both are at their restaurants most days. A tunnel connects the two sites.

Though an institution today, M’s first decade was a struggle.

“Times were hard,” she says. “The Old Market was a totally different place then.

The Omaha (homeless) mission was just up the street. A lot of people were afraid of the Old Market. But even then it had a family, neighborhood feeling and I liked that a lot.”

“It gets under your skin,” Samuelson says of the Market.

By the early ’80s, Mellen determined the Market was here to stay.

“It just got busier and busier and we saw more tourists coming to the area. You could just tell it was an exciting, upcoming area.”

She and Samuelson, both Omaha natives, make a good team.

“We’re a good fit personality-wise and professionally,” he says. “We share the same passion for the Old Market and the same visions and goals for M’s and Vivace. It’s rare we have a disagreement about and when we do we do it respectfully.”

“I don’t want to seem like an old married couple but a lot of people think we’re married. We’re not,” says Mellen.

She does all the books. An acknowledged foodie, he deals more with the culinary side. Both partners enjoy engaging with people.

“We feel the same way about how to treat people – our clientele as well as our employees,” he says.

 

 

 

 

The fierce devotion of M’s regulars is appreciated but it can be too much.

“Somebody who’s been coming here for awhile may have an opinion about what you’re doing and if you don’t take their advice you can ruffle some feathers that way,” says Samuelson. “We listen to people a lot and we always end up making decisions based on the good of the whole, which I think is responsible ownership.”

He says that with M’s “in good hands” he and Mellen decided to launch Vivace in 1993 ” to fill a gap we saw in the landscape of the restaurant scene in Omaha for Mediterranean-influenced Italian food. We wanted to fill a niche for the community but also complement what we do at M’s.” He’s proud of its pasta and pizza.

Vivace’s larger space is perhaps warmer than M’s but not as intimate.

Executive chef Bobby Mekiney is in charge of both kitchens. “He’s young and kind of bridges the generation gap for us in a lot of ways,” says Samuelson. “He’s as talented a guy as we’ve ever had here. He makes it work.”

Samuelson’s proud that M’s Pub and Vivace express the same “meticulously adhered-to, single-minded vision of passionate, locally-owned” venues that make the Market “a community treasure.”

For hours and menus, visit http://www.mspubomaha.com and http://www.vivaceomaha.com.

Chocolate Gone Wild

November 24, 2012 2 comments

 

Chocolate.  Say no more.  This delectable indulgence makes anyone with a taste for it weak in the knees with anticipation.  Count me among the afflicted.  When I heard about a local festival dedicated to chocolate I thought perhaps I had died and gone to heaven.  This is a story I did advance of the most recent Great Omaha Chocolate Festival held earlier this fall.

 

 

 

 

Chocolate Gone Wild

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader

 

Year two of the Great Omaha Chocolate Festival at UNO celebrates one of popular culture’s great food indulgences.

Organizers of the September 30 event, which benefits the Omaha Section of the National Council of Jewish Women, say chocolate’s diversity will be highlighted in displays by 44 vendors. Sample wares ranging from cupcakes to cookies to candies to frozen yogurt to dog treats. Chocolate lotions, candles and clothing items, along with cookware, will also be available.

Big O 101.9-FM radio personality Dave Wingert will emcee the proceedings.

Bakers Candies of Greenwood, Neb, is the corporate sponsor and its general manager Todd Baker says the event will offer “chocolate made to almost every conceivable taste, from the highest end elite artisan confections all the way down to the mass produced broadly available consumer products.”

Festival co-chairs Beth Friedman and Joanie Jacobson, who’ve partnered on several NCJW projects together, say whether you’re a connoisseur or not the fest’s Willy Wonka-like sampling should please anyone looking to get their chocolate fix.

“It’s the variety,” says Friedman, a Brooklyn transplant. “I think it’s the fact that no matter what you may want you can find something to satisfy your chocolate fancy. A lot of it is about the vendors, we could never ever do it without the vendors’ participation and support. They provide the samples that fuel the festival.”

Jacobson, a Des Moines native, doesn’t believe the strong response to last year’s inaugural fest, which drew 2,200 people, has anything to do with a foodie fad.

“I just think chocolate is the ultimate, quintessential comfort food,” she says. “It is ambrosia. It’s this staple that’s a part of people’s lives. There’s T-shirts and mugs and greeting cards and lewd magazines that talk about chocolate. Chocolate’s everywhere and I think it always will be because I don’t know anything else like it.

“It’s amazing the appeal of chocolate. It makes people happy.”

Jacobson’s enthusiasm for the subject is personal.

“I’m a registered, card-carrying chocoholic. I’m 66 years old, so I’ve been eating chocolate for a long long time and I really believe with all my heart and chocolate soul that a good 75  80 percent of the public is in love with chocolate.”

 

©photo The Jewish Press

 

 

 

Todd Baker says while chocolate never goes out of style there are trends and the festival showcases what’s new or hot in the chocolate universe.

“The festival will be a great place for not only vendors but the general public to see what’s happening within the industry,” he says. “What you’ll continue to see this year and actually got a hint of last year is really unprecedented manufacturing attention in the field of dark chocolate. As the American palette has matured more Americans have developed a taste for dark chocolate.

“Industry studies also point to the superlative health benefits of dark chocolate – everything from lowering blood pressure and stroke risk to increasing happiness and well being. The only thing people needed to eat more chocolate was an excuse and the studies have provided that for us.”

 

 

 

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He says Bakers will not only scout for new products and ideas there but introduce new flavors at the company’s own booth.

“We’ve worked very hard on three new meltaway chocolate flavors to debut at the chocolate festival this year, which is the most new flavors we’ve ever added in any one year.”

In 2011, he says, “Bakers Candies became the first candy company in the world to mass produce a chocolate potato chip cluster.” It was introduced at the fest, where samplers were blissfully unaware of the logistics behind it. “It took a tremendous amount of work on the automated production technology side to get potato chips and chocolate solidified before they got soggy and ruined the formula,” he says.

Baker, whose father Kevin launched the company after a career as a missile defense contractor, realizes most chocolate lovers don’t care about where the chocolate they enjoy comes from. But Baker says they might be interested to know the U.S. now has “access to all kinds of coca we’ve never had access to before,” adding, “The variety of chocolate available to the American consumer is unprecedented anywhere in the world. It’s quite fantastic.”

It’s why he says there’s never been a better time to be a chocolate fan, though he says the automation that’s allowed companies like his family’s to grow comes with the price of compromising the flavor of old-time, hand-made recipes. On the other hand, he says some of the best chocolate innovators are small shops just like the ones slated for the festival.

Proceeds support local social action projects by the Omaha Section of NCJW, whose mission, Friedman says, is improving the lives of women, children and families. While she concede chocolate won’t fix bullying or domestic violence, it’s a safe, fun, family-centric thing. The Iowa Western Community College Culinary Arts program will offer hands-on chocolate activities for kids along with The Cordial Cherry. Cooking demonstrations are planned too.

The noon to 5 p.m. event takes place at the University of Nebraska at Omaha Field House. The $5 admission includes buys five samples. Children under 10 get in for $3 and receive tickets for three samples. Extra samples may be purchased.

The irony for Friedman is that since becoming co-chair she’s been diagnosed as pre-diabetic, meaning she’s had to eliminate all sweets from her diet. No matter, she’s just glad to carry the chocolate banner for a good cause.

For details, visit http://www.omahachocolatefestival.com.

 

A Different Kind of Bistro

November 23, 2012 Leave a comment

 

For a long time I had in mind experiencing the Sage Student Bistro that’s part of the Institute for Culinary Arts at Metropolitan Community College in Omaha, Neb.  It’s reputation for fine dining precedes it.  I finally got around to eating there late this past summer and the experience fulfilled all the expectations I had built up over time.  You can read all about my experience there in the following piece that I filed for The Reader (www.thereader.com).   The food is entirely prepared by Metro culinary students under the supervision of instructors.  The results are divine.  A visit to this different kind of bistro is well worth it.

 

 

 

A Different Kind of Bistro

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Among the first things you notice at Sage Student Bistro is the staff’s earnestness. Greeters, servers and cooks are all students in Metropolitan Community College’s respected Institute for Culinary Arts, whose sleek building is the face of the Fort Omaha campus’ south entrance.

This hidden dining gem occupies an intimate corner space just off the lobby. The contemporary, neo-industrial decor is accented by warm touches. Windows help open up the room and overlook the horticulture department greenhouse, the main supplier of Sage’s locally-sourced produce. Some of that fresh goodness is grown in a herb garden surrounding a small, semi-secluded patio outside the bistro.

Culinary students rotate from kitchen to dining room any given night as part of a well-rounded experience both in back and in front of the house. Students don’t have to worry about job security there but their performance in this live, public venue is graded and has everything to do with getting them ready for food industry careers. That aspirational motivation translates into eager-to-please service.

Diners are asked to fill out an evaluation form to offer much-valued criticism.

“Sage Student Bistro is an essential part of the student curriculum here. Having a paying customer that expects a restaurant quality meal makes for some honest and direct feedback,” says chef instructor Oystein Solberg, “Giving students as close to as possible real life experience hopefully takes away some of the dear-in-the-headlight feel once they’re out in the world getting paid for their craft.”

If you go on a slow night as I did you’re in for a pampered, privileged fine dining experience that could easily spoil you for your next eating-out adventure. The set-up included white linen tablecloths, lit candles and soft recorded music.

Wait staff did a good job explaining the menu’s dishes, including ingredients, preparations and techniques. For an appetizer I chose the bistro’s play on a BLT, a delightful deconstruction of the staple sandwich with bacon, toasted brioche, tomato relish and shredded butterhead lettuce.

The entree selections variously featured chicken, beef, salmon and duck. Following my servers’ suggestions, I ordered the free range chicken breast, well-complemented by chipolata apple sausage and a nice medley of beets and broccoli flowers, all tied together by an apple gastrique. Everything practically melted in my mouth.

A basket of piping hot brioche spread with sage butter added a final satisfying note.

The gourmet meals and sensible portions are reasonably priced, with appetizers at $5 or $6 and entrees from $16 to $18.

 

 

 

 

I found my table-side servers engaging. For instance, I learned my charming wait person, Yuka VanNorman, is from Okinawa, Japan. She says she was attracted to come from half way around the world to train at the Institute by the quality and affordability of its offerings. My other server, Forrest Whitaker-look-alike Jason Mackey, is a well-traveled Omaha native who one day hopes to impress diners like me at his own eatery. Their heart and passion overflowed.

All of it, the ambition and proving ground and attention to detail, result in a one-of-a-kind, give-and-take transaction that found me rooting for the students to wow me. If my one visit is any indication, they have the chops to pull it off, too. By the end, I felt as invested in the students as they seemed invested in me and this practicum.

It’s just what Metro’s culinary faculty hope for.

“I really believe culinary arts education must be guest-entered in order to be effective,” says chef instructor Brian O’Malley. “We have to learn to ply our craft to the expectations of others and Sage has grown to really drive that home throughout our curriculum.”

He says the bistro’s come a long way from its predecessor student operation, which served mainly Metro students and faculty in a no-frills cafeteria-like setting in Building 10 and was only “a side piece” of the culinary program. Now it’s a full-fledged public forum and integral training component all students participate in.

O’Malley, who helped found Sage, says, “It moves the classroom into a working restaurant-like environment. It brings an enormous sense of realism without actually being the real thing. As an industry professional I saw the great deficiency in culinary school grads was knowledge without application, and here we’ve worked hard to move towards that application. We’ve added this very deep middle layer (between test kitchen and internship) of operating a restaurant in-house.”

There’s a fine balance at play to make sure students are challenged, not crushed.

“We want them to get their butt kicked, we want it to be tough and difficult and hold their feet to the fire but we don’t want them to actually get burned,” is how O’Malley puts it. “We’re supposed to still be a safe place for a student to kind of push and grow and develop, so when they fall down it’s supposed to still be quiet to the rest of the world.”If missteps happen, and they do, he says “we kind of have to ask for your forgiveness.”

An OpenTable poll recently named Sage the best overall restaurant in Nebraska, a recognition Solberg says “we don’t like dwelling on” and he takes with a grain of salt given the small voter pool. Just as Solberg finds surprisingly few people in the metro know about the Institute, O’Malley says Sage is a best-kept secret on purpose.

“We certainly want to be known,” he says. “I mean, there’s a piece of the reputation of the school that rides on the quality of Sage, so we want it to be excellent, but we also don’t really want it to be crowded. We’re not trying to run Upstream Brewing company, we’re trying to get our students ready to work at Upstream.”

He says Sage does enjoy a regular following and business generally picks up as the quarter moves on and word gets out the bistro’s open again (it closes when school’s not in session). Thirty dollar prix fixe five-course dinners, resuming in October, have proven popular.

Sage is open Monday through Thursday for breakfast, lunch and dinner. For hours and menu details, visit http://www.mccneb.edu/bistro.

 

Chef Mike Does a Rebirth at the Community Cafe

June 22, 2011 5 comments

Mike Whitner is one of several small business owners fighting the good fight by trying to inject some new commerce into the economically depressed northeast Omaha community. His Chef’s Mike Community Cafe is the type of going concern the district desperately needs but is woefully lacking. As with anybody, he has a story. Specifically, there’s a story behind how and why he became a chef and located his business in the heart of an area with great, though as yet unrealized promise, a situation that’s defined the area since its decline in the 1960s and ’70s. My story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) appeared shortly after Chef Mike opened his place. The good news is he’s still in business and the area is targeted for massive redevelopment. The bad news is that much of that development is still some years away. But every little anchor and magnet business like his can make a difference, especially if there becomes a critical mass of them.

 

 

 

 

Chef Mike Does a Rebirth at the Community Cafe

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.threader.com)

“I’m doing a rebirth,” said Mike Whitner, a.k.a. Chef Mike, as he pointed to the colorful sidewalk/window signs outside his Community Cafe in the Family Housing Advisory Services building at 24th and Lake in north Omaha. “I’m taking what I learned from my roots and putting it in like a nouvelle style kind of soul food. I keep it traditional, but I add the new wave in it, like using a lot of smoked turkey in my greens (instead of ham hocks), where it’s going to be healthy for you.”

A solid block of a man who brightens his white chef’s smock with Pollock splattered pants and jaunty berets, Whitner grew up in a rough section of far northeast Omaha’s “Flatlands.” He ran with a gang. He learned to defend himself. As the youngest of seven siblings he spent a lot of time watching his mother cook. He paid close attention. He’ll tell you the secret to soul food is made-from-scratch cooking whose deeply imbued flavors build in stages, over time.

“It’s a process,” he said. One that can’t be rushed. No shortcuts please.

Another “mentor” is Charles Hall, owner/head cook of the now defunct Fair Deal Cafe on North 24th Street. Whitner’s smothered pork steak is a homage to Hall’s classic smothered pork chop.

“I slow cook it like he used to,” Whitner said. “I cook it in its juices with peppers and onions. When you do it right, it just melts in your mouth, baby.”

As a kid Whitner earned extra money making sandwiches/dinners and hawking them to working men on the north side. Before becoming a chef though, he had some living to do. He played college and semi-pro football, bounced at clubs, provided personal security to clients and collected for others. Once, a guy pulled a gun and shot him. A bullet grazed his head. He still managed to break the shooter’s wrist down, wrest the gun away and beat him with it.

Incidents like these convinced him “it was time to grow up and get away from all that and stop taking care of other people’s business. My mother slept better.”

He got a taste of the restaurant game working at Boston Sea Party and L and N Seafood Grill. A move to Denver in the early 1990s launched him on his career. He learned the trade at the famed Wynkoop Brewing Company, which sponsored his training in the Chefs de Cuisine Association. Working chef’s license in hand, he helped Wynkoop become an anchor of the Mile High City’s trendy LoDo district.

Back home by the mid ‘90s, he entered the Omaha catering scene. He was on the team that opened Rick’s Boatyard Cafe. A parting of the ways found him catering again, this time out of trucks doing a tidy trade on the streets. When the spot he’s in now came open, he went after it.

“One of the promises I made when I became a chef,” he said, “was to bring everything I learned back to the Flatlands. I wanted to be here.”

His fusion of soul with gourmet adds new twists to old favs: sauteed baby bay shrimp with collard greens; roast beef with a demi-glace or mirepoix-based sauce; and jalapeno cheddar corn bread. Every day he does theme dishes — from blackened beef or fish to pasta to tacos to soul food staples to whole catfish filets. He has his signature Black Angus dogs, reubens, gyros and Philly steak and cheese. Some items, like his sweet potatoes, are from his own garden. He buys from local growers.

 

 

 

 

Open weekdays for breakfast, when you can get grits and biscuits, and lunch, most meals there run well under $6. The one day he’s open late, Fridays, he offers a prime rib or salmon dinner for $13, with live jazz by Hopie Bronson. The cafe’s “transformed” then into an intimate club with low lights, linen table cloths, votive candles. There’s free parking in an adjacent lighted lot.

For Whitner, who still has his own catering biz, his place is a symbol of what he sees as North 24th’s rebirth.

“This area was rich in jazz and blues. In those days businesses were booming. Everybody was coming down here enjoying 24th Street. That’s what I want again,” he said.

It’s why his menu is a melange of old and new.

“I want to represent where I come from,” he said of his soul food roots. But, he added, “you gotta mix it up. It’s an area that’s been heavy with soul food places. You can’t eat soul food every day. It’s not good for you. You gotta give this area food it’s never had before…that’s different. Folks love being able to have that kind of cuisine down here.”

Business isn’t as brisk as he’d like, but he’s set on staying to help spark a renaissance.

“Eventually this area is going to be the educational, arts, music district” of north Omaha, he said. “That’s where’s it’s going. You can feel it. When you get the jazz and blues down here you can feel it coming. It’s coming for sure.”

The Community Cafe, 2401 Lake St., is open Monday through Friday, 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Breakfast from 7:30 to 11 a.m. and lunch then on. Friday dinners with live jazz from 7 to 11 p.m. For details and take out orders, call 964-2037.

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