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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.

All Trussed Up with Somewhere to Go, Metropolitan Community College’s Institute for Culinary Arts Takes Another Leap Forward with its New Building on the Fort Omaha Campus

May 12, 2011 7 comments

This article appeared a couple years ago on the occasion of the opening of the new Institute for Culinary Arts building at Metropolitan Community College‘s Fort Omaha campus.  The institute has long enjoyed a national reputation and now it has a facility commensurate with its good name.  It’s an impressive structure for what is probably the college’s signature program, and the new quarters, complete with every cooking tool imaginable, and associated landscaping form a grand new front door or entrance for this community college that’s come into its own in the last two decades.

 

 

 

 

All Trussed Up with Somewhere to Go, Metropolitan Community College‘s Institute for Culinary Arts Takes Another Leap Forward with its New Building on the Fort Omaha Campus 

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

The opening of Metropolitan Community College’s new $16 million Institute for Culinary Arts building last November gave the culinary program a spacious, state-of-the-art home and the school a new gateway to the Fort Omaha campus.

On March 22 the glass and brick structure designed by HDR Architecture of Omaha has its official dedication.

The public event starts at 4:30 with tours and a reception. The ceremonial opening is at 5:30.

The Institute is the attractive anchor for the college’s new main entrance at 32nd and Sorenson Parkway. Passersby can even glimpse food production and preparation training through the west bank of windows.

Executive director Jim Trebbien has led ICA during a period of substantial growth the past 22 years. He’s seen ICA earn national accreditations and increase enrollment from a few dozen students to more than 600. He’s seen it become Metro’s marquee academic program and  “come of age” along with the college.

 

 

Jim Trebbien

 

He said all four Metro presidents he’s reported to have “backed us and let us do what we do well because we know what we’re doing.”

The new digs, with seven kitchens compared to one in the old makeshift quarters and boasting all new equipment, surpasses even Trebbien’s wildest hopes.

“I never in my mind envisioned something like this,” he said. “Surreal is the word for it. To me, it’s another step. It fulfills the dreams of a lot of people in this city of having a place where the restaurant community comes together. Omaha needs this, too. Education is an important part of developing our work force here.”

Indeed, he said the facilities stack up with the best anywhere. A program long known for excellence, he said, finally has a home commensurate with its standing.

“We’re good at what we do,” he said. “We made it happen before. We’ve still got pretty much the same faculty, which are really the backbone of making a good school . The same high standards went on in the old kitchen, and without a promise of a new kitchen. But the old site was getting to the end. You can only push something so far, and where that breaking point is you never know for sure, but we could have been really close to it, And now here we are all of a sudden with a new face and more space.”

ICA can now accommodate 1,000 students. No more must students squeeze into tight confines or instructors stagger  classes and projects at odd hours seven days a week to handle demand. No more problems finding enough or the right equipment, much less room to store it in.

The main production kitchen would be the envy of any upscale eatery.

“It’s a dream kitchen,” said service chef coordinator and ICA grad Brian Young. “Everything anybody would ever need is here at our fingertips. It just makes the educational opportunities that much better. It gives students a chance to be on an actual line. I’ve watched the program grow and develop into a great, great curriculum. I’m actually jealous of the students going through now and the amazing facility they have to work in.”

Chef-instructor Oystein Solberg added, “It’s any chef’s wet dream.”

 

 

 

 

There’s more, though. The building and its richly outfitted features befit the name Institute and the seriousness it connotes. “That’s exactly what it is, too, it’s really serious,” said Trebbien. He said the new facilities make a statement that  “we’ve got a real culinary institute right here.” He said everyone who sees it, from prospective students to veteran Omaha restauranteurs, “are mesmerized.”

“Any student that now leaves Omaha to go to culinary school has to want to either spend a lot of money or get away out of town,” he said. “The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park does a fantastic job and you’re going to get everything you pay for, but here you’re going to get 95 percent of what you get out there and we’re going to do it for probably one-seventh of the money.”

He said more than low out-of-state tuition accounts for ICA having students from 27 states and nine countries.

“When people come here they see what we do, how we do it and our dedication, they see that we place our people well, they see the Omaha community and restaurant industry embrace us well.”

ICA doesn’t need to take a backseat to anyone. “I can given students all the opportunities now,” Trebbien said. It’s all made an impression on students and faculty. “It certainly gives you a feeling of grandeur,” said student Dawn Cisney. “It’s beautiful here. It’s unbelievable seeing how far we’ve come from the old building to now.” Chef-instructor Brian O’Malley calls it “a transformation. You can really finally start to see what’s possible. One of the biggest changes is a general increase of the level of respect that everyone is walking around with.” It’s pride, said Cisney.

The building also holds possibilities for more community engagement via a  conference center that can host banquets and a culinary theater/demonstration kitchen with production capability to broadcast training classes and cooking shows.

This spring ICA’s first produce garden will be planted outside the building, one of many Trebbien envisions. He wants ICA and the associated horticultural program to actively partner with the North Omaha community gardens movement. By late summer or early fall, he said, a culinary store will open in the renovated old mule barn adjacent to the Institute. The public will be able to purchase take-home entrees and other products prepared by students. Food-related items will be sold.

The Sage Student Bistro at the Institute offers a fine-dining experience to the public with meals prepared by students using local, artisan ingredients.

All of it is part of a sustainable food chain ICA wishes to model. The Institute already employs an integrated system that cycles food from its pantries and coolers for use throughout the building.

Said Trebbien, “We want to be the place that teaches people to plant, grow, harvest, sell, market and cook good, healthy food. That’s what we want to add back to the community, and this building is the start of that.”

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Favorite Sons, Weekly Omaha Pasta Feeds at Sons of Italy Hall in, Where Else?, Little Italy

April 28, 2011 4 comments

I am part Italian. More precisely, I am half Italian on my mother’s side, and half Polish on my father’s side . When in Omaha‘s Little Italy  or when with that strain of the family I make like a good paisan and summon the Calabrese in me. To be honest, I have never gone in much for affiliating myself with groups of any kind, much less with those that celebrate Italian heritage. Don’t misunderstand – I am proud of my heritage and I certainly indulge a love for Italian food, but I don’t go out of my way to cultivate cultural associations or observances. Omaha is home to a chapter of the national Sons of Italy fraternal organization and this chapter’s headquarters operates out of a social hall that’s locally famous for the pasta feeds it puts on. Most of the clientele at these lunches and dinners are non-Italian, but most of the men and women serving and cooking there are.  As for myself, I have eaten there many dozens, perhaps even a few hundred times over the course of 30-odd years. And even though I have been a writer that entire period this is the first time I’ve written about the Sons of Italy experience. The following article for The Reader (www.thereader.com) tries to express how they roll at Sons.
Favorite Sons, Weekly Omaha Pasta Feeds at Sons of Italy Hall  In, Where Else?, Little Italy

©by Leo Adam Biga

As appears in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

If you go to Sons of Italy expecting a “Jersey Shore” or Goodfellas scene, you’ll leave disappointed. If you anticipate a square meal and a fair deal, minus any drama, you’ll leave satisfied, and probably stuffed.

The Nebraska chapter of this national fraternal organization is famous for its Thursday pasta feeds. The weekly 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. lunches draw 600 to 800 diners, says its stout president, Charles “Butch” Turco.

They’ve been feeding folks like this since the early 1960s. At the start, only members, and exclusively men at that, could partake. As guests spread the word, lunches were opened to the public, but still not to women; that is until, Turco says, a threatened discrimination lawsuit prompted the lodge to open its doors to everyone.

There’s a rich history behind Sons dating to 1929. Early on it aided Italian immigrants getting settled. In 1954,world heavyweight boxing champion Rocky Marciano cut the ribbon for the newly remodeled digs. The original building, formerly a horse stable, has been renovated and added onto many times, all the work done by members skilled in various trades.

Today, Sons is a social and community service club. The meals not only help celebrate Italian heritage, but proceeds from the Thursday lunches as well as from weekly Friday night dinners and special fundraisers go to charitable causes, including St. Frances Cabrini Church across the street.

Sons of Italy reeks with nostalgia, right down to the sauce, whose recipe, Turco says, remains unchanged after all these years. Same with the sausage and meatballs. He and the tall kitchen boss, Sam Vazzano, are always around when these staples are made in big batches, to ensure quality and consistency or, as Turco puts it, “so nobody jacks around with it.” Turco won’t give up the secrets of the sauce, quipping, “Like my mother said, ‘When you’re done putting the ingredients in, you give it the sign of the cross.’”

This is not gourmet Italian, rather your nana’s home-cooked Sunday dinner Italian. Or a close approximation. Nothing fancy, just a straight up red sauce over pasta, spaghetti one week, mostaccicioli the next, served, alternately, with meatballs or sausage. There’s a full bar, too.

Turco says everything’s made from scratch (except the pasta and bread). He’s especially proud of the homemade sausage. Sausage days are the hall’s biggest draws.

The pasta may not be cooked al dente, the sauce leans toward bland, and the Iceberg salad drenched in oil and vinegar is overly wet and wilted, but these are quibbles that soon fade in light of the $7.50 price and the warm embrace of the people.

Ah, the people. It’s the kind of egalitarian joint that draws diners from all walks of life to feed at the same trough. Therefore, professionals in business suits chat or gorge beside laborers in overalls. Past and present Little Italy neighborhood residents mingle with downtown, Old Market and South Omaha denizens and artist types. Some suburbanites even make their way down. Judges, lawyers, politicos and businessmen are known to flock there. Regulars abound.

At peak time, 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m., expect elbow-to-elbow, shoulder-to-shoulder action. In the close confines, a bib or else stain-guard clothes are advisable to protect against spills and splatters. No worries though, your red stain’s a badge of honor.

Wall signs and floor workers remind you, “Don’t throw away the forks.”

It’s largely a 30-something, middle-aged and senior crowd. The same demographic applies to volunteers. Mostly retirees. Turco says the only paid help are four men from the Siena Francis House assigned heavy-lifting duties in the spacious commercial kitchen. The hot, steam-filled space is run with precision. Huge cauldrons of sauce bubble away, stirred with wooden paddles the size of small oars.

The kitchen crew is the heart of the operation. Jack, Pete and Tony work the takeout counter. The two Georges — Matuella and Grillo — are the salad kings. Short Sam and Ernie float from station to station. The average age may be 75. Turco himself is 70. Short Sam and Bernie are both 88. Sam Vazanno, 91. Joey “Bag of Donuts” Costanzo is the notable exception at 48. The men, along with women crew members like Marge Bruno, enjoy the “camaraderie” and “friendship.”

It’s family. It’s tradition. Turco’s father was active in Sons before him. His wife Ann is involved too. More than a few couples, along with parents and their adult children, belong and volunteer there. You don’t have to be Italian to join, just to vote.

Sons of Italy is at 1238 South 10th St. Call 402.345.4639 for the weekly menu. NOTE: The Thursday lunches take a hiatus June through August.

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