Posts Tagged ‘Omaha’

Blue Tango Project features mash-up fusion of Latin rhythms, jazz and blues at its only Omaha performance

October 13, 2015 Leave a comment

Blue Tango Project features mash-up fusion of Latin rhythms, jazz and blues at its only Omaha performance–

7 p.m., Friday, Oct. 16,

Joslyn Castle, Omaha, 3902 Davenport St.


On Friday, October 16 at 7 p.m., Argentine Latin Grammy nominee singer-songwriter-acoustic guartist María Volonté and acclaimed California harmonica player Kevin Carrel Footer bring their Blue Tango Project to the Joslyn Castle in Omaha.

It is one of only two Midwest stops on the Blue Tango tour.

Hailing from the colorful and gritty La Boca neighborhood of Buenos Aires, Blue Tango Project is a ground-breaking exploration of the emotional and musical crossroads where tango and the blues embrace.

Volonte has been dubbed “Tango’s shimmering star!” (Global Rhythm). A member of the Tango Hall of Fame, she’s gathered a fervent international following which keeps her touring constantly. She’s conquered the world of tango with numerous award-winning CDs. This musical innovator’s current projects explore the fusion of Argentine music with other Latin American rhythms, jazz and the blues.

Kevin Carrel Footer (KCF) is an artist deeply inspired by the intense passions of tango and Buenos Aires. In words, images and music, he explores those twin passions in unexpected ways. He is the author of the book “A Tango before I Die” (2013). His photographs have been published in international magazines and graced the covers of award-winning CDs.

These two artists innovative fusion of tango with the blues, their genre-bending compositions and passionate live performances have thrilled audiences on three continents. Their latest CD “Blue Tango” (2014) captures the raw intensity of their live shows.

Enjoy old and new world rhythms in the beauty of Omaha’s only Scottsh Baronial castle. Let the multicultural vibes run free! The Castle is located at 3902 Davenport Street.

For more info, visit

Tickets are available at Cost is $20 for general admission; $15 for seniors, students, & military.

Year of the Startup invites entrepreneurs to come on-a my house

October 12, 2015 Leave a comment

Omaha is all the rage as a burgeoning startup community and one of the latest hotbeds to emerge as an incubator and accelerator for entrepreneurs to grow their new ventures is the live-in model embodied by Year of he Startup.  Sebastian Hunt and Jason Feldman have created an urban visionhouse where a snall, curated group of entrepreneurs reside while they nurture and cultivate their startups.

Read my Omaha B2B Magazine ( story about how Hunt and Feldman have created this startup as a way to support fellow entrepreneurs and their startups in a communal setting that is residence, brainstorming center, vetting opportunity, office space, laboratory and discussion forum all in one.

Jason Feldman and Sabastian Hunt of Year of the Startup

Jason Feldman and Sebastian Hunt

Year of the Startup invites entrepreneurs to come on-a my house

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in Omaha B2B Magazine (

The emerging startup accelerator scene supports creative-minded risk-takers looking for an edge to follow their passion and to bring their ideas to fruition.

Sabastian Hunt. 25, is passionate about giving entrepreneurs like himself a nurturing space to test out their concepts. The University of Nebraska at Omaha economics graduate did internships with various local employers and surveyed the area startup community when an idea struck him for a by-application, curriculum-based residency program serving new entrepreneurs. That inspiration turned into Year of the Startup.

Since launching in 2014, the program’s operated out of a humble house at 4036 Burt Street in the St. Cecilia Cathedral neighborhood. Hunt and co-founder Jason Feldman, 28, room there with young residency fellows whose startup ventures range from making bio-fuels to providing night owl shuttle services. They are a millennial bunch who favors sneakers and sandals. They take informal meetings at nearby CaliCommons and Lisa’s Radial Cafe, They variously hunch over laptops or tablets and carry smart-phones as appendages.

This communal work-live space model for business mavericks is new to Omaha. The usual startup accelerator is a concentrated 90-day off-site program. Omaha has a few, notably Straight Shot. Hunt saw a need for a program that invites a broader range of people into the accelerator fold and that supports them much nearer the start of their dream than other programs typically do.

“We feel like we can take people very early stage because we are four times as long as the average program,” says Hunt, who adds that Year of the Startup is also not tech-centric like many programs tend to be. “In our model we substitute intensity for duration. I think a lot of the learning here comes through unstructured, serendipitous interactions we have that is not curriculum-based, it’s just happenstance.

“With a house there are so many different ways you can bring ideas and people together. I think that’s maybe that critical binding agent and sense of place that helps accomplish things.”

He says in this intimate environment “there’s no other choice but to immerse yourself in the setting,” adding, “We’re always hanging out in the living room or out back talking about startup stuff – monetization strategies, capitalization tables, vested equity entity structures.”

“It’s this immersive experience of camaraderie, of these natural flows and idea generation,” Feldman says.

Hunt says, “This is very difficult to get bored with because there’s always somebody whose business is either in crisis or growth stage or some interesting part of the curve.”

Cover Photo

“How could we get bored when we’re creating a platform with four startups and all we get to do is ideation,” Feldman says. “It’s a constant buzz we get from interacting with these startup founders and helping them build their ideas.”

Built into the program are activities that encourage fellows to break out of their comfort zone and to offer honest criticism of each other’s ideas.

Hunt compiles multiple data points on the startups.

“We’re developing really deep insight about how do people start successful businesses.”

The program utilizes mentors from the entrepreneurial community.

“We bring in people who are experts in specific areas to talk on those topics,” Feldman says.

“They get ideas flowing,” Hunt says of the mentors.

Feldman says he regularly covers with fellows “the major components of what you need to look at to start your business” and then mentors like Mike Kolker, owner of graphic design firm Simplify, teach lessons about operational efficiency and “how to simplify running a business.”

Hunt is a newcomer to all this and has gone by instinct as much as research to support his vision.

“I just had an irrational confidence, market insights and a great theoretical background thanks to primary research I completed and to lessons I learned from Phillip Phillips, Michael O’Hara and Art Diamond in UNO’s economics department. I read constantly about who the players were in the startup world, so I was fairly prepared.”

Even though he directs a startup program, he’s only now participating in one himself (Venture School). He acknowledges Year of the Startup is a by-the-seat-of-your-pants experiment.

“Coming out of college I had student loans and not a ton of money. I’ve held two jobs to finance the project. Now the project is financed by a combination of me working and renting out one room. One-hundred percent of the money our entrepreneurs pay in rent will be returned in full and so everybody has a strong incentive to follow through with the program. That may be what makes us sustainable.”

He’s working on securing corporate sponsorship for the program. Meanwhile, he wants to help get participating startups to the next level.

“We’re functioning like a pre-accelerator at this point. We want to get our startups profitable and then refer them to the Straight Shots, so they can focus on growth in a pure accelerator program.”

With Year of the Startup moving into a larger house in Omaha’s Little Italy district on July 1 and a new class of fellows arriving in the fall, Hunt says there are “interesting talks happening right now to bring this to other cities.” He and Feldman say economic development agencies are willing to pay a license fee for them to do startup houses in other cities. The partners are having proprietary software developed that will enable new startup houses to replicate their branded Omaha model.

They look forward to engaging with the emerging 10th Street cultural district but may keep the midtown house to accommodate growth.

Hunt and Feldman believe they’re catching the wave or tipping point of a big new startup rush and they’re betting their model is poised to be a niche player in this wild frontier of entrepreneurial prospecting.


Lit Fest delves into what we fear, how we relate in extremis

October 9, 2015 Leave a comment

By now, anyone familiar with the (downtown) Omaha Lit Fest knows that it is the epicurious and somewhat eccentric run off from whatever spills out of the overactive mind of founder-director Timothy Schaffert, who just happens to be one of America’s finest novelists.  His intellect, imagination and interests run deep, as do that of his writer friends, and so every year he concocts a distinclty stimulating event that plays very much like his own personal salon.  His 2015 Lit Fest on October 16-17 at the downtown W. Dale Clark Library features, as always, a diverse collection of national, regional and local authors who will participate in panels moderated by Schaffert himself.  There are also exhibitions and other activities centered around literature. The theme for this fest is Nervosa: Science, Psyche & Body and that’s just both specfic and open-ended enough to give writers and readers alike a fertile field to play in.

Lit Fest delves into what we fear, how we relate in extremis

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appearde iin The Reader (
The 2015 downtown Omaha Lit Fest, whose theme is “Nervosa: Science, Psych & Story,” celebrates the reflective power of literature to explore human vulnerability.

Worry over terrorism, the economy, climate change, the singularity, genetic engineering and zombie apocalypse dread is backdrop for the free Oct. 16-17 fest at the W. Dale Clark Library.

The 6:30-9:30 Friday night opening party, Anxiety, features the Poetry Brothel by burntdistrict literary journal, paintings and drawings by Eric and Shari Post and wire and book sculptures by Jay Cochrane.

Starting at 1 p.m. on Saturday founder-director-novelist Timothy Schaffert (The Swan Gondola) moderates panel discussions and interviews with local and visiting authors.

The intimate annual fest plays like Schaffert’s personal salon.

“If you don’t like me you probably won’t like the show,” he quips .”I have the freedom to develop it the way I want and I do so with the support of the Omaha Public Library. They let me invite who I want to invite, they provide the space and they promote the event. It’s exciting to take on a project that isn’t mired in bureaucracy.”

He arrived at this year’s theme by noting what authors in his lit circle were writing about. He feels these times induce a collective high tension literature’s better prepared to reflect than social media.

“Literature is really competing with the social networks for that immediate connection people are seeking with each other and their desire to remain on top of every horrifying incident that occurs in the world. Ultimately there can be this overwhelming sense of everything is treacherous, that there’s terror waiting at every turn.”

He says where online communiques incite anxiety, literature brings analysis and rumination.

“We read books differently than we read most other text. We immerse ourselves in the world of the story. We’re looking for authoritative voice, for unique and useful perspective, and that requires a great deal of attention. A book calls for you to put everything else aside to spend time with it and to let the writer speak. I think that has historically been soothing to readers.”

For the panel “Diagnosis” two Omaha doctor-authors will discuss drawing on medical backgrounds in writing.

Retired transplant surgeon Bud Shaw says, “My essay ‘My Night with Ellen Hutchison’ is about a devastating personal and professional episode in my early career.”

“As I sat down to write about it, I discovered just how stubbornly I still held onto a version of that story that blamed others, that let me off the hook for the death of a patient during a liver transplant. I had to revisit that night over and over again for weeks to reconstruct a view that wasn’t about the cause of the failure so much as it was about the results. It wasn’t easy. I needed a fresh and far more human perspective, and that required a lot of processing I hadn’t done before. Now I don’t seem able to stop.”

His new book is Last Night in the OR: A Transplant Surgeon’s Odyssey.

Practicing physician Lydia Kang writes young adult sci-fi novels and scientific thrillers (Catalyst, Control).

“I find myself drawn to particular stories and struggles and often there is a medical-forensic-genetics aspect that happens along the way.”

Researching a congenital breathing disorder led Kang to cast the hero of Control with that condition.

Kang says wanting to “explain the details, whys and hows of things” in prose can result in “too much info-dumping.” “Curating the details for the sake of smooth reading and the storyline must work in concert with doing factual justice to the fictional patient and scenario.” Through her blog she consults writers dealing with health-science matters.

Cover Photo

Schaffert is “fascinated by any effort to make science more readable and accessible.” At the University of Nebraska-Lincoln he teaches a Humanities in Medicine Minor course, “Illness and Health in Literature.”

“We look at everything from science journalism to personal essays.”

Another panel with Neb. writers will consider “Treachery” and outcasts. Novelist Douglas Otis Wesselman, aka radio host Otis Twelve, says, “Treachery is best understood by the old. We’ve had more practice at it – from both sides. We come to know we are betrayed and betrayers by nature. Our human lives seem to revolve around duplicity and it usually comes down to the ultimate deceit – our ability to lie to ourselves.”

In his new novel Tales of the Master a character deals with the anguish of undermining himself and others.

He says writers well fit the outcast bill – “at least if they write the truth.”

Ted Wheeler, author of the chapbook On the River, Down Where They Found Willy Brown and the related novel Kings of Broken Things, says, “So much of interesting literature is about social outcasts. I see that as the central duty of a writer – to tell the stories that shouldn’t be told, to make personal demons public, to dredge up buried history or explore the parts of society that have been pushed out to the margins. The literary writer’s job is to say what can’t be said in polite company.”

Schaffert says the work of Wheeler, Wesselman and fellow panelist Marilyn June Coffey has “a kind of mythology, whether folklore or historical incident or ancient mythology.”

Wheeler explores Will Brown’s 1919 lynching in Omaha.

“My main intention was to give it treatment in a way I hadn’t seen done in any history books. The trick wasn’t really in explaining why this horrible event happened here, but more about resisting the urge to rationalize a mass act of treachery by exploring what it was like to be at a race riot and get caught up it the swerve of violent extremism.

“What’s interesting to me and what’s unspeakable about it in a certain way is this point where mundane life intersects with a notorious crime.”

Coffey revisited Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate in an Atlantic Monthly cover article. She broke ground with her 1973 novel Marcella for its exploration of female autoeroticism. Her new book is Thieves, Rascals & Sore Losers: The Unsettling History of the Dirty Deals that Helped Settle Nebraska.

The panel “Empathy” will examine the psychology of identification.

“Reading literature builds empathy,” Lincoln, Neb. author Joy Castro says. “It asks us to imagine the lives and perspectives of people very different from ourselves, faced with situations we’ve never encountered. Entering into their stories expands our hearts. My new book How Winter Began is a collection of 28 short stories which pivot on the challenge of empathy.”

Arizona-based writer Julie Iromuanya, raised in Neb. by her Igo Nigernian immigrant parents, says, “To write, one has to practice the central feature of empathy – one has to imagine. It’s a complicated business to move beyond one’s subject position in order to inhabit the body of another. To me, beauty is about seeing characters in their most unvarnished form. My way into my characters is through their truth, but it’s a risky endeavor. Veer a little too far left and writing is sterile. Veer a little too far to the right and we’re left with sentimentality. Hit the right spot and there is a backdoor elegance.”

For her debut novel Mr. and Mrs. Doctor, she says, “One of the ways I leveraged this was through through humor, albeit dark humor, I’m both inside my characters and outside them. They act, they live their lives on the page, but I don’t let them get away with anything.”

Seattle writer Jennie Shortridge’s novel Love Water Memory considers the limits of love, trust and knowing through the prism of amnesia.

Schaffert will ask Canada native and New York City resident Emily St. John Mandel about the human psychology examined in her post-apocalyptic best-seller Station Eleven.

“It occurred to me an interesting way to consider the modern world would be to contemplate its absence,” Mandel says. “I was less interested in writing a narrative of collapse and more interested in writing about what comes next. The question I’ve attempted to address is, What remains? What might we long for and try to recreate if all of the trappings of the modern world were to fall away?”


Sam Meisels leads early childhood mission through Buffett Institute

October 9, 2015 Leave a comment

The more researchers explore the human brain the more evidence there is that very young children, even infants, learn from the very start of life and then so much of their continued development is dependent on how they are nurtured and stimulated and what they are exposed to.  The more enriching and interacive the environment it seems, the more children thrive and the better prepared they are to succeed as they progress through those critical developmental years.  Sam Meisels knows all about that and a lot more when it comes to early childhood.  He leads the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska and he and his staff work hard to make Nebraska the standard by which early childhood progams and initiaitives are judged.

Samuel J. Meisels

Sam Meisels

Sam Meisels leads early childhood mission through Buffett Institute

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (
Since Sam Meisels arrived in 2013 to head the Buffett Early Childhood Institute, he’s become the academic-based advocate ally to the socially conscious philanthropist who hired him, Susan A. Buffett.

The dynastic wealth of the Buffetts has always had a progressive bent, Billionaire investor Warren Bufffett’s first wife, the late Susan Thompson Buffett, gave generously to liberal causes.

The daughter has carried on this legacy by supporting quality education for children from low income families. Her Sherwood Foundation is a major player behind programs attempting to bridge achievement and opportunity gaps from birth through college. Her Buffett Early Childhood Fund backs Educare. The Fund created the Institute in partnership with the University of Nebraska.

The research, policy, outreach-armed Institute housed at the University of Nebraska at Omaha emerged from her conversations with NU-system leaders about the need to improve early childhood outcomes for at-risk populations. She and Meisels say since learning begins at birth any early deficits can contribute to later academic-reading struggles. That’s why enriching activities from infancy on are vital. As the Institute’s tag lines read: “Start Early, Start Well” and “All children need the opportunity to develop, learn and succeed in life.”

In Meisels, she tapped an early childhood guru as BECI’s founding executive director and as Neb.’s new Pied Piper for the cause.

“Sam is the real deal. He’s a world-class early childhood leader deeply committed to leveling the playing field for very young children growing up in families facing some very tough odds. Sam’s vision of making Neb. the best place in the country to be a baby is a vision inspiring more and more people, and I’m convinced we’ll get there,” she says.

“Children are born learning. Their earliest experiences set the trajectory for how they will succeed in school and life. Sam has put together a team at the Institute to help him and, really, to help all of us across the state close the student achievement gap and develop an early childhood workforce to do the critical work of nurturing Neb.’s youngest learners.”

Meisels came from Chicago, where he helped make Erikson Institute the nation’s leading graduate school in child development. Before joining Erikson in 2002, he held senior positions at prestigious schools.

The University of Rochester graduate with a master’s and Ph.D. from Harvard Graduate School of Education has ample experience with children both as a parent and as a former pre-school, kindergarten and first grade teacher. As a leading authority on the assessment of young children he’s spent much time observing early child ed programs.

Most of his time today is spent with stakeholders, including school district superintendents, education officials, legislators and philanthropists, as well as with fellow experts in devising strategies and policies for better assessment and training.

On September 11 the Buffett Institute and the Aspen Institute hosted a panel discussion featuring leading early childhood experts about the future of early childhood education and care.

Institute staff have traveled the state to meet with and speak to many constituencies. With the Buffett and NU names preceding them, Mesiels and Co. can get in any door and before any audience to advocate for quality, accessible early childhood programs that educate rather than warehouse, that have well-trained staff and that are accountable to state standards.

Meisels is impressed by the public-private support marshaled for early childhood efforts in Nebraska. Those initiatives are in part responses to societal failures. The state faces a crisis of young children living in poverty, a factor posing serious challenges for healthy development. The 2010 census showed 40 percent of all children birth through age 5 in the state meet the Nebraska Department of Education’s general at-risk criteria, including low income, English as a second language, having adolescent parents or being born prematurely. That percentage equates to 60,000 children statewide. The numbers keep growing.

These problems are magnified in families and communities lacking resources for quality out of home child ed and care. Meisels sees a need for more such programs wherever he visits.

“A lot of pre-schools I go into, not just in Neb. and certainly not just in Omaha, are places where kids spend time, but they don’t learn very much. They meet in places where there’s very little attention paid to something as simple as transitions, whether it’s from home to school or within school from one activity to another activity. Most very young children have trouble making transitions – being able to change what they’re doing into something else and do it in a way that makes sense in a group of 12 or 20 children.

“We’re talking also about relying not at all on television but relying instead on what takes place interactively. We’re talking about having art experiences, alphabet letters, displaying children’s work on the walls, having goals in the areas of social problem solving, literacy, math. Even for 3 year-olds and 4 year-olds you should have appropriate goals in those areas.”

A Vision of the Future

Meisels doesn’t often see those things in place. He also sees disturbing disconnects in the continuum of early childhood programs.

“Right now in this area we have a number of 4 year-old programs sponsored with public dollars but very, very few programs for 3 year- olds. It’s like having sixth grade and fourth grade but no fifth grade.
That doesn’t work.”

Meisels not only finds it illuminating but rejuventating to visit pre-schools in order to get a handle on what’s happening in settings where young children spend much of their time.

“When I go into a pre-school I actually feel transformed, honestly. I’m taken over by the environment. The first thing I do is look around and see how many adults are there and how many children are there. Then I just listen for a little bit to get the tone – how are children talking to each other, how are adults talking to children, how are children tailing to adults. I note the interactions and how problems are solved.

“Then I start to walk around and note what the materials are like – are children able to reach them, are they in good repair, is there a good variety. Do we just have a few books and counters for math or are there blocks, is there a dress-up corner for dramatic play. On and on and on. That gives me a pretty darn good idea.”

He says while most out of home providers are motivated by the right reasons, some cut corners rather than put children first.

“If you’re going to be very concerned about the bottom-line, you’re going to try to have to hold costs down, most of which are for the personnel, and to that extent you’re going to short change everybody.”

He says most providers pay relatively poor salaries – on average $28,000 – to child care educators.

“That’s a terrible salary given that who’s more important to us in the world than our children. We’re also paying it all out of our pocket. The amount of federal and state dollars that goes into early childhood is very, very small compared to what goes into K-12 education. So who pays for it? Parents pay for it.

“Salaries, work conditions and benefits are very, very bad and the status of that profession, my profession, is low as a result.”

All of which serves as a disincentive to enter the field, leaving many inner city and rural communities wanting because there aren’t enough early childhood educators to meet the need.

With providers charging a few hundred dollars to a thousand dollars or more a month, parents must make hard decisions and sacrifices, perhaps going well out of their way in order to access child ed or care.

“These are generally young people and they can’t be stretched very far,” Meisels says.

Parents of limited means sometimes choose the more expedient rather than best option, including in-home providers operating off the radar and therefore outside the eyes of regulators.

“Many people are unlicensed and then they’re totally unregulated,” Meisels says.

Since not all children who receive out of home child care are in licensed-regulated settings, he says, “We have to find ways of reaching out to them through professional development, improving the quality of the programs as a general rule.” He says, “For those programs that do enroll children who receive any kind of state subsidy the state now has a quality rating system and so those programs over the coming years will have to meet certain minimum requirements of quality, not just health and safety, and we will work with that and try to improve that.”


The Institute has launched the Early Childhood Workforce Development Program in order to raise the standards and skill levels of early childhood staffers. It is hosting higher education faculty from across the state October 5-6 for the conference “Transforming the Early Childhood Workforce in Nebraska.”

Meisels says another challenge posed by the early childhood arena is variable quality in day cares and after school programs. ”

Some of them have educational goals, some of them have more fun, play-based goals. It’s a big issue all around. Actually United Way of the Midland here is focusing more of their attention now on trying to improve after school programs.”

A formal approach to the issue is the Achievement Gap Challenge through the Superintendents’ Early Childhood Plan mandated by the Nebraska Legislature (LB 585). The plan will be funded for three years by the Learning Community of Douglas and Sarpy Counties. Created in collaboration with 11 metro area school districts, the plan aims to reduce achievement gaps for children birth through age 8. It emphasizes creating more quality pre-school for 3 and 4 year-olds and enhancing teaching and curriculum for pre-K through third grade.

Home visits will target at-risk kids up to age 3. The idea is to educate families about activities and resources that aid development in situations where children may not be getting the stimuli they need.

“For example, we know if children aren’t exposed to a lot of words early in life that even as early as 18 months they’re going to show a deficit in vocabulary that can persist all the way through third grade,” Meisels says. “And we know there’s a very tight correlation between vocabulary and learning to read.

“So we want to teach people to talk, to read and to sing to their kids. We want to help them learn how to help their children grow in terms of physical well-being, fine motor and gross motor skills, all aspects. We need to communicate to parents – what are our goals for learning. how well is your child doing in terms of what has he learned about this and about that. We particularly want the parent to have a strong relationship with the child. What takes place between the parent and child is the driving force in childhood development.”

He says it’s not only parents who can stand to be schooled about children’s age appropriate behavior.

“We need to teach parents about why play is a valuable avenue of learning for young children, why there’s always a surplus of activity level in children. We need to teach teachers that, too. Some kids getting expelled are not wanting to sit down all day long or for a few hours, which is what we would expect for a 4 or 5 year-old. Some people don’t know that.”

He says the Institute will monitor and support early elementary ed outcomes with schools, centers and families.

“We’ve got to think in terms of families rather than parents because a lot of children are raised by other family members. We have to think about the family with the child all the time. There’s no such thing as an isolated child because as humans cannot survive alone. That’s not just our physical needs but our emotional needs, our intellectual needs. We need to be supported, scaffolded all the way, for a long time.”

He says education intervention is generally well-received.

“Because you’re very alone when you’re the parent of a very young child and a new-born especially, you want someone to talk about it with. How you do it is very important. Finding someone from the community who understands what you’ve been through is very important.”


He says the early childhood field’s come a long way.

“We have learned what to do with kids, we’ve learned how to do it better. We’ve learned that children can learn a great deal. We’ve learned the first five years of life is when the greatest amount of brain growth occurs. All of that is supportive of what we’re doing. We can teach very young children about letters, about numbers, about shapes, about space, about all kinds of things like that.

“A more recent revolution is we’ve learned we need to teach them about non-cognitive things, too, like taking responsibility for their actions, relating to others, being cooperative. It’s these non-cognitive factors that have a lot to do with how well they succeed then in life. Much of the evidence behind that has grown out of what we’ve learned from early childhood programs as we follow kids longitudinally through their early adult years.”

He says early childhood has more visibility “than at any time” and
“the research is pretty clear that if we can be persistent in our effort we will experience the persistence of effect.”

When it comes to assessment, Meisels says No Child Left Behind initiated “more testing than we’ve ever seen and most of it has not been useful.” He adds, “A lot of it has been punitive in nature. I think something that is punitive is not educational.”

“The assessment work I do,” he says, “is based upon teachers observing, recording and comparing to standards in order to differentiate what they do with individual children. You have to have evidence-based data. We learn how to observe so that we have some reliability and repeatability. Based on that I can see this is a child who learns in this way but not so well in that way and I can use that to help the child develop and have success.

“It is more resource-intensive for a teacher but teaching’s a tough job and this actually improves your teaching.”

Another punitive thing that happens in pre-schools, he says, is children being suspended or expelled for behavioral issues.

“It is a national problem. Boys are more frequently expelled than girls.”

Some reports suggest boys of color are disproportionately impacted.
Meisels isn’t surprised it happens given that the overwhelming early childhood workforce is white females.

“There are problems of identification with an authority figure who looks so different and is so different. Children from minority backgrounds may not have encountered a white authority figure before.”

Samuel J. Meisels

He says the kinds of behaviors that can lead to disciplinary action are preventable and solvable.

“Often a teacher doesn’t know how to structure a physical space for pre-schoolers. Some kids will respond to your saying ‘no running,’ others won’t, they like to challenge, they like to test limits. which is a very natural healthy thing to do.

“It’s our job as adults to help the child cross that divide and we have to understand where the child is so we can be successful at that. It’s a huge responsibility for the teacher to bring a child into a learning world
and to expel a child at that age is a failure on the part of the teacher.”

Meisels sees a largely health early child landscape here.

“Some factors that led to the establishment of this Institute help Neb. stand out in a very positive way. That doesn’t mean we don’t have a lot of work to do, but it means there are points of excellence here. We have combined public-private programs focusing on the first three years of life that very few states have. We have four Educare schools. We have three colleges of education in the NU system.

“There are things that need to improve, too. We are a rural, low population state, so as you get into greater Neb. there are fewer people prepared at a high level. Our standards of qualification for taking care of children are not high. Some say if we made them too high we’d have nobody to serve the kids in need. We want to find ways of improving that situation. We have very few birth to 3 programs and very few programs for 3 year-olds.”

Overall, he says, “there’s room for a lot of improvement and there’s a lot of strength to build from.”

He says the investment made to support the Institute’s work sends a message that “the lives of young children at risk and their families are important enough that they would rise to be a priority of the university,” adding, “Most universities don’t do that and this is one saying that it’s important enough for us to do it.”

The Institute’s interdisciplinary-collaborative work spans across all four University of Nebraska campuses in Lincoln, Kearney and Omaha.

“What I say to the deans around these campuses is that we can identify where most of the children at risk are coming from and we want every single one of those children 18 years after they’re born to be eligible to apply and to be qualified to be accepted at the university.

“So in a way it’s a jobs program – that these kids should grow up and hold jobs and be real contributors here in this state. Early childhood I always say is not an inoculation, it’s an investment.”


Tim Christian: Changing the Face of Film in Nebraska

September 13, 2015 Leave a comment

Tim Christian may not look the part of a revolutionary figure in his three-piece suit and with his button-down manner, but what he’s doing in the film space in his hometown of Omaha is provocative enough to be considered far on the fringe stuff.  Well, at least it’s breaking new ground and shaking things up in this relative film financing wasteland.  My Omaha Magazine ( profile of Christian and what he’s doing that’s getting people’s attention follows.  Watch for a future story about Christian and his film endeavors on this blog. I have a distinct feeling I will be writing about him and his film projects for years to come.



Tim Christian

Tim Christian

Changing the Face of Film in Nebraska


September 9, 2015
Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Originally appeared in the September/October 2015 issue of Omaha Magazine (

Nebraska lacks an infrastructure to support a film industry. Omaha Creighton Prep graduate Timothy Christian is trying to change that. After years away pursuing a music industry and new media career, he’s returned to base his feature film financing and production company, Night Fox Entertainment, here.

Where most local film ventures are micro-sized with no-name talent, Christian backs real projects with $10 million-plus budgets boasting recognizable cast and crew. Case in point, Z for Zachariah. Shot in New Zealand, the post-apocalyptic drama stars Margot Robbie, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Chris Pine. It’s directed by Craig Zobel, whose 2012 Compliance made waves. Z netted strong reviews at Sundance and will get a 2015 theatrical release.

In post-production now is the thriller Headlock starring Andy Garcia, Justin Bartha, and Dianna Agron.

Night Fox further limits investor exposure by only financing pictures with strong pre-foreign sales, capping individual contributions, and spreading capital around several projects. That model is securing local movers and shakers to buy into projects, including Tenaska’s recently retired Paul Smith, also a Night Fox partner.

Christian says film financing can be a “tough sell to people who are of a conservative investment nature,” adding, “They need to see kind of black and white what you have, what you’re doing, how the money looks, so we have to make sure the approach is right.” Once it “makes sense,” he says investors “are all interested in being part of growing a business not prominent in Omaha.”

Besides, having a piece of a project with stars, premieres, awards, trailers, and posters has a “cool” factor other opportunities don’t offer.

More than anything, Christian says people invest in him.

“People have to like you. Even if they don’t like the other people involved, they have to like you. If they don’t like you, they’re not going to want to work with you or give you their money.”

Being a Nebraskan helps him relate to investors.

“They like to deal with someone away from that Hollywood mindset. They want a straight shooter, someone who they deem as honest and down-home who has Midwest values. That goes a long way.”

Upon meeting him for the first time, some folks reveal surprise that he’s African-American.

“Once they understand I know the business, I know what I’m talking about, I know how to protect their money, then all that goes out the window.”

As a Nebraska film financier, he’s already an outlier. As an African-American doing it, he’s pushing new boundaries.

“From a cultural standpoint I think it’s really significant because it gives some hope to other young African-Americans in terms of what they can do. That means a lot.”

Christian, married with one child, mentors at Jesuit Middle School in North Omaha.

An advantage to being in Nebraska (Night Fox also has an office in L.A.) is giving investors first shots at projects otherwise being shopped only on the coasts.

His next step in making the state a film player is East Texas Hot Links adapted from the Eugene Lee play. Omaha’s own John Beasley is a producer and actor in it. Samuel L. Jackson is an executive producer. The film may shoot in-state. If not, Christian’s committed to bringing future projects here as he believes film production can be an economic engine that employs people and boosts tourism.

Tim Christian 2

FINDING HOME: With its own home, the Blue Barn completes a long road to creating edgy theater

September 1, 2015 Leave a comment

Omaha has institutional-type theaters and grassroots-type theaters.  For most of its life the Blue Barn Theatre has been of the grassroots variety but now that a major capital campaign has allowed it to build its first permanent home, the Blue Barn is suddenly in a far more secure position than ever before.  Of course, that “suddenly” only came after decades of passion, struggle, invention and equity in building community capital.  And once the theater called in its chips and started rasing funds for the project, great pains were taken to retain its edgy, independent, homemade spirit in the beautiful new digs.  On a personal note, fate decreed that I write three stories about the Blue Barn’s momentous move into this new space, and for three separate publications no less, and all this after years of not writing about Blue Barn.  This is the second of those pieces and it appears in the September 2015 issue of The Reader (

FINDING HOME: With its own home, the Blue Barn completes a long road to creating edgy theater

Past, present, future converge in new space

Appeaing in the September 2015 issue of The Reader (

Until now the Blue Barn Theatre has been like Omaha’s many other small stage companies by operating on a shoestring in makeshift spaces. This grassroots passion project was born of a band of New York drama school transplants afire with the idea of starting their own troupe. Relying more on creativity, charity, thriftiness and ingenuity than real budgets, they mounted plays in rented and borrowed spaces.

Suddenly, Blue Barn’s done the unthinkable for such a by-the-seat-of-your-pants endeavor by parlaying years of scommunity equity and creative capital to build its own space. It’s Omaha’s first purpose-build independent theater to go up in decades. The arresting new digs at 10th and Pacific are the result of Blue Barn staying the course, remaining true to itself and letting philanthropists catch up to the edgy aesthetic that’s gained it a loyal following.

The theater occupied several improvised spaces from its start in 1988, never really securing a place to call its own. It did find stability at the 11th and Jackson Old Market warehouse site where it was housed the last several years. Though hamstrung by cramped quarters not really suited for theater and lacking amenities, Blue Barn made the intimate environment – exposed vents and all – work. Blue Barn personalized it with help from artists designing original posters and custom fixtures.

The new theater – part of a mixed used site with residential units, a restaurant and a public garden – features enlarged, upgraded facilities and a flex indoor-outdoor space opening onto the garden. As an ode to its name, the exterior evokes a hand-raised barn via weathered steel walls framed by rebar poles and the roof’s pitched gables. The interior captures the old Blue Barn in hand-crafted floor and wall elements. The theater seats are from the former site. The way the audience enters the auditorium follows the flow of the old space. Splashes of blue recur throughout.

The new theater is the culmination of a vision shared by original Blue Barners’ Kevin Lawler, Hughston Walkinshaw, Nils Haaland and Mary Theresa Green. Some took turns at the helm. Each moved on, though never breaking ties. All but Green attended the SUNY-Purchase theater school. Her then-marriage to Lawler brought her into the fold. As the legend goes, Lawler was visiting Omaha when Old Market denizens embraced his theater dream and offered space to realize it in. He got Walkinshaw and Haaland to come join him. Clement-Toberer arrived a year later. She’s now led Blue Barn longer than anyone.

Kevin Lawler

The group’s deep, familiar kinship was evident one August morning at the new space. Emotions ran high during a tour and roundtable discussion. All agree the site fulfills what they once only dared imagine.

“Yes, it is the embodiment of a dream,” Lawler said.. “It’s just glorious to see. When we were in school in New York we’d go to these small off-Broadway places and see incredible theater and I grew up in Minneapolis where there are a lot of small incredible theaters just like this. So that was always a dream and to see Susan be able to make that happen for the Blue Barn in Omaha is amazing.”

“Every dream we’ve had in our entire existence is embodied in this building and we can keep dreaming,” Walkinshaw said.

Realizing that dream has been replete with challenges, including one space that burned down and people who burned-out.

“It’s been a road,” Clement-Toberer said.

Keeping it going meant digging into personal finances.

“A lot of sacrifices, big life sacrifices,” Lawler said. “There’s blood, sweat and tears in here. Nobody at this table has a retirement account. Nobody at this table probably has a savings account. We’ve all given our adult lives into making this art. The rewards have been with each other and the people we’ve been able to share stories with, and you couldn’t ask for more than that. So, yeah, there’s a lot invested.”

Susan Clement-Toberer

Susan Clement-Toberer

They say it’s all been worth it, given how far Blue Barn’s come.

“There were times we were homeless and there were times where there was a real chance the theater wasn’t even going to survive.,” Walkinshaw said. “Now it has, and I’ll tell you what, I breathe a lot easier, I don’t have to worry about the Blue Barn sustaining. I feel relieved now – like the Blue Barn way will continue now permanentlyand all the sacrifices we made and the passion we gave now will live.

“We survived long enough that the town made this happen. It made Film Streams happen, it made Saddle Creek (Records) happen. It found those art forms a little bit earlier. Now it’s made this happen.”

For Clement-Toberer it means, “now we know we have a home that we can create in where we can dream big, we can dream in ways and forms of storytelling we were never able to do before.”

Walkinshaw said the new building is “the final stage” of Blue Barn’s evolution “in terms of having a permanent place to live, but this permanent place to live also has endless possibilities for what the Blue Barn can do in terms of storytelling and play production.”

“To have your own space is pretty phenomenal,” said Haaland, who acts there. “There’s a long list of people that have definitely helped us out. I can’t help but have tremendous respect for all those who have sort of paved the way. Mary and Kevin saved it a number of times out of their own pocket. Hughston stood up and was the leader for a long time. Kevin led for a very long time. And then I’m truly just humbled by what Susan has done. It does take one person to lead and she has done just an exemplary job. I mean, we are very fortunate to have her.”

Hughston Walkinshaw

Green said, “I’m very moved just by the generosity of everybody coming together to put this together. It’s breathtaking, really, the scope of how beautiful it is. It’s gorgeous. It’s a testament to the community’s support for the theater all of these years.”

The Blue Barn’s long been a darling of Omaha tastemakers, with the likes of Alexander Payne among its fan-support base. But it only recently got corporate sponsors such as Omaha Steaks and donors such as developer-philanthropist Nancy Mammel to buy in.

Despite many lean years the theater gained enough credibility to launch a capital campaign to fund construction of the new site as well as raise funds for an operating budget and endowment.

Clement-Toberer said that in the process of Blue Barn gaining its first permanent home her main concern was maintaining the theater’s funky, grassroots identity and intimate relationship with patrons.

“The biggest struggle for this building in creating our home has been to keep the Blue Barn voice clear and pure to who we are and to how we create theater. Everybody thinks they know what a theater should be and how we should produce theater. Even with this major transition of moving into our own space there have been times where people say, ‘But that’s not how you do that in theater, you need to do it this way.’ Well, we don’t have to do it that way.

“If we want to change something after we’ve opened, we change it because it’s not instinctually, organically right for the story.”

Cover Photo

Mary Theresa Green said the Blue Barn way is a process born of freedom, exploration and seizing inspiration where you find it, whether repurposing materials or calling in favors for props and set pieces.

“To me, it means producing something very organically and from a place of love and hope,” Green said. “Like the found objects and somebody who just happens to know somebody who has free things we can use and put together. Because everyone is so creative and imaginative and free and almost very childlike in creating the pieces, they become these deeply beautiful shows that really affect and touch people, way beyond just basic entertainment.

“I mean, a Blue Barn show to me is something where each audience member will take their own personal journey inside of themselves and connect with it on a really deep level personally.”

“A lot of times we are still scrapping, getting what we can to put up last minute stuff,” Haaland said. “But I think it’s really evolved now in that it’s much more methodical. With age there’s so much more experience, wisdom and maturity.”

Nils Haaland

 Nils Haaland

Lawler, now Great Plains Theatre Conference producing artistic director, described Blue Barn’s guiding ethos.

“There’s a certain type of show I think we all just loved when we saw it and if I had to put it into words, it’s like what any great work of art will do when you see it or partake in it, you walk away from it being cracked open as a person and looking at and feeling the world differently. Even if it’s an incremental amount of growth, it happens, and it’s very distinct. You can ask all of us and we all knew then this is what we wanted to facilitate with every show we put up.

“It’s like, we don’t have any money, all we have is ourselves, but somehow we’re going to get to the heart of this story so deeply it will facilitate this experience of opening up a compassion, and the people who come and share in the story will have that experience. That to me has been the seed of the whole thing from the beginning.

“And then all this has happened around it,” Lawler said.

Clement-Toberer, who with managing director Shannon Walenta built the theater’s business side to balance the artistic side, believes she knows why the community’s repeatedly come through with support.

“I think it’s pretty simple – it’s our mission. What we do on stage has not changed over the years. Matured a little bit, which I think is good. But I think it’s the stories we tell and the way we produce theater. And the way we built this theater is the way we also produce theater – the Blue Barn way, which is found objects that become magnificent and sets we build at cost but create a great vessel to tell a story. Our budget’s a little higher but I’m still digging through dumpsters.

“I think this building is a great manifestation of the history all of our work over the ears and of our training at Purchase. It’s been the common thread and people have connected to that. We know how to tell a great story and how to produce a show without forgetting the heart of the piece.”

She found the right interpreters to articulate these things in the building in Joshua Dachs from New York-based international theater space planning and consulting firm Fisher Dachs and in architect Jeff Day of the Omaha and San Francisco-based architectural firm MinDay.

Jeff Day

“I think she sensed I would understand where she was coming from, which I did,” Dachs said. “When I visited the Blue Barn it was clear it’s a kind of artisanal handmade theater company. The old space had amazing show posters designed by artist friends – beautiful woodcuts and lino-prints – as well as handmade ceramics by Susan’s husband (Dan Toberer) and a hand-carved wood counter by an artist friend.

“The whole place had this wonderful, very specific spirit. And the biggest fear she had and that I wanted to help her avoid is that in moving to a new building it would somehow get sterilized and become generic and no longer reflect the spirit of the company and the character of the place it’s built up over many years.”

The very things bound up in Blue Barn drew Dachs to the project.

“What captured my imagination was the special quality and character of the Blue Barn,” he said. “It’s incredibly unique. The sort of mythology of how it was born and all of the artists that have played a role in making it what it is. The idea that this kind of artisanal theater company was going to make itself a home and fight the urge to become grand and formal and all of the things that happen a lot.”

Dachs admires the uncompromising stand Clement-Toberer’s taken to stay true to Blue Barn and not go for the slick or the inflated, like the 300-seat theater some pressured her to pursue. The new theater accommodates about the same number of patrons, 96, as before.

“It takes a really strong leader to fight that inclination and to stay within your means and to build something that’s right-sized, so that it can endure and sustain itself into the future. That’s really hard to do. But she’s really smart.”

Architect Jeff Day said, “There was a very strict sense of budget, so we knew from the very beginning how much they could spend on the building, and Susan was really on top of things to make sure this was achievable. We had to cut things out here and there. She was willing to make sacrifices on things they don’t really need.

“It’s not a showy building in the sense of being super-refined. It’s really a place for improvisation. We’re trying to leave a certain amount of open-endedness to it. The intention is that the building will allow them to grow into it and modify it over time. It’s really an evolving space. We thought of it as a framework for them.”

Mary Theresa Green

Just as Dachs did, Day found the project appealing because of how the theater does things.

“Blue Barn likes to think of itself as experimental and challenging,” Day said. “They’re not afraid of doing edgier things that might shock people or cause people to think. Obviously for an architect that’s exciting because it sort of gives us justification to do things that are unfamiliar as well, which we love to do.

“From a planning standpoint probably the most unique feature is that the back of the stage can open up to the covered outdoor space – we call it a porch yard. Then that opens up to the garden, so you really get continuity from theater to city. They can close the doors and have an acoustically-sealed space that will work like a black box or studio theater or they can open it up and have these events with really unique stagings.”

Many ways were found to give the new site the handmade qualities that distinguished the previous venue.

“There’s a lot of character in that theater which draws directly from the Blue Barn’s old space,” Day said. “It was really an attempt to break away from the neutrality of the black box theater type. For example, the old Blue Barn had this warehouse column structure and without replicating we brought some large timbers into the space to help create a framed area around the seating.”

Clement-Toberer calls it “the nest.”

Blue Barn Theatre Omaha's photo.

“It brings the scale down to just slightly bigger than the old Blue Barn,” Day said. “It gives the sense of intimacy they’ve had while creating a sense of texture and character.”

Since collaboration is a hallmark of the company, the theater commissioned artists in different media to contribute their talents. The heavy timbers used in the new theater’s eight columns were salvaged and milled by Dan Toberer, a ceramist who collects felled trees and sawmill scraps he variously repurposes or uses in his wood-fired kiln.

“We identified different elements that could be turned over to artists and they weren’t working necessarily under our direction,” Day said.

Toberer also created original ceramic pieces and built the sinks in the bathrooms. He also sourced scrap wood that contractors used to clad the theater box in.

Omaha artist Michael Morgan did a piece of the lobby and vestibule in dark grey bricks with blue glazing.

Kris Kemp from the Hot Shops fabricated the enormous rear door that opens onto the green space.

Jim Woodhill of Kansas City, Mo. did lighting elements and furniture.

For Day, everything works together to create a mystique.

“I think of it as it almost being a character in a play. You can’t escape the fact this is the Blue Barn Theatre when you’re in there.”

Joshua Dachs

He said the theater’s been designed with the eclectic character of its delightfully messy residential-commercial surroundings in mind.

“It does replicate sort of in a way some of the forms you might find in this neighborhood, which is really mixed up. So the idea was to make this complex of buildings feel like it’s part of that.”

Much thought was put into the theater’s setting since it’s now part of a robust South 10th Corridor with the Old Market, the Durham Museum, the House of Loom, KETV, Little Italy, Cascio’s. No More Empty Cups and the Bancroft Street Market. Vic Gutman’s coming Omaha Market will be just to the south of the Blue Barn-Boxcar complex.

“It’s a site in the city that’s very prominent,” Day said. “It could be a demonstration for other ways Omaha could think about development. The fact that we essentially have three projects on one site all working together is quite unique. We’re thinking of this as a microcosm of the city that has public space, nonprofit cultural space and private space. We sought to design this as kind of an urban arts hub.”

Even with the new theater, Clement-Toberer’s wish list is not quite complete where the Blue Barn’s concerned. She said the family-like dynamic she and the founders used to fire their work together is something she’d like to recapture there.

“It makes me wish for an underwriter to underwrite something here like the Humana Festival in Louisville, Ky, where we all could be under this roof daily, creating. I’m waiting for the corporation in Omaha progressive enough to realize their connection with art will make whatever it is they do grow as well. I’m waiting – they’re out there.”

Blue Barn opens its 27th season on Sept. 24 with The Grown-Up. For details and tickets, visit


Omaha’s Culinary Culture Rises: Dedicated Local Chefs Elevate Your Dining Experience

August 30, 2015 Leave a comment

I don’t know if thinking about food a good deal of the time and preparing things from scratch once or twice a week qualifies me as a foodie, but in truth I am somewhere between the eating to live and living to eat camps.  Wherever I fall on the spectrum, I do know enough about good food to know when I see it and taste it.  And while my resources don’t allow me to dine out nearly as much as my curiosity and palate would have me, I try enough of the local culinary scene and read enough about it too to have a fair appreciation for what’s happening in terms of the players, the cuisines, the menus, and the venues that are trending hot.  Anyone with a pulse who’s paid attention and sampled even a small portion of Omaha’s culinary culture the past decade knows that the city is in the midst of a food renaissance of sorts that’s seeing more and more highly trained chef owners taking the farm to table movement seriously and serving up diverse offerings that highlight local, fresh, seasonal ingredients and products.   In that spirit, here is a new Reader ( feature story I did that explores some of what’s making the Omaha culinary culture a much discussed topic.  I sounded out some chef movers and shakers making it happen as well as others with a perspective on this fluid, dynamic scene.

Omaha’s Culinary Culture Rises

Dedicated Local Chefs Elevate Your Dining Experience

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the September 2015 issue of The Reader (

If you’re an Omaha foodie who believes as many do the local dining out experience has never been better, then you can thank an infusion of original chef-driven and chef-owned eateries for it.

Not coincidentally, many of these places are steeped in the locally-sourced, organic, farm-to-table, artisan, and made-from-scratch movements. Classically trained culinary artists have built relationships with area growers and producers, in some cases designing seasonal and even daily menus around what’s at its peak of freshness and flavor.

Grey Plume chef-owner Clayton Chapman, a strong adherent and leader of the sustainable model, says there are about 50 grower-producers he works with on a regular basis.

“It’s a good healthy number. Some folks grow seasonally, some grow year-round. Some are local, some are in western Nebraska, and some are in Iowa. We work with a few as far as Jefferson, SD and Caledonia, Minn. I feel like our list is vast and it continues to grow.”

The Omaha research and design collaborative, Emerging Terrain, helped bring chefs and purveyors together at two events; 2010’s Stored Potential’s Harvest Dinner and 2011’s Elevate, which some point to as tipping points.

“Those events were so ambitious, so crucial in interconnecting the community,” says Chef Paul Kulik, the driving force behind the Boiler Room and Le Bouillon. “I know we were introduced to a bunch of new suppliers and growers that were extremely helpful. That’s when I really saw through the looking glass.”

 Emerging Terrain dinner

The Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society holds similar events, including the annual Producers Choice and monthly Sustainability Happy Hour.

Metropolitan Community College’s marriage of its well-ranked Institute for Culinary Arts with its Horticulture Department is considered cutting-edge. MCC instructor chefs like Brian O’Malley champion a local foods infrastructure. ICA graduates permeate the local restaurant scene.

Chapman took things to the next level with his Grey Plume Provisions store which opened last summer.

“It only increases our network of farmers because of the volume we’re purchasing. We really wanted to be able to provide the Grey Plume quality of food – the marmalades, the jams, the preserves, our house-roasted coffees, our series of hand-crafted chocolate, the charcuterie – but in an every-day accessible retail format for the home consumer.”

The sustainable, farm-to-table culinary ethos is nothing new. It’s been around since the time of Escoffier, but largely dissolved in America, only to be rediscovered by Alice Waters in California in the late 1960s-early 1970s. In Omaha the trend never quite took hold until recently. Now local chefs such as Chapman, Kulik, and Bryce Coulton of the French Bulldog, are earning national attention for their rigorous and creative applications of old and new philosophies.

“It’s really supply and demand,” Chapman says. “It’s the demand of chefs because we want the best ingredients available. We want to know where our ingredients are coming from. We want to know the farmers, ranchers, and growers raising these products. I think there’s a lot of guest requests for us to procure these items. They want to see them on the menus, too, and it’s because the dining public has never been as educated into what they’re eating, and the health benefits of eating organic, local, or seasonal as they are now .

“There’s so much more attention to it in the media that it’s really kind of come full circle from consumer to chef to farmer, and it’s really kind of putting us all on the same playing field, which is neat.”

 Clayton Chapman

Whether Omaha truly has a signature culinary culture is debatable, but what’s not is that a city long pegged as a steakhouse town, albeit with some continental fine dining spots thrown in, has changed its profile. It’s hard imagining Omaha has ever boasted this depth of culinary talent and diversity of highly executed cuisines before. This critical mass of good food, served in settings that range from fine dining to ultra-casual, and found in virtually every part of the metro, comes just as customers are more discerning and demanding.

“There are a lot of wealthy Omahans who travel domestically and abroad and they see these things happening everywhere and they want it here,” says Dante Ristorante Pizzeria chef owner Nick Strawhecker, an evangelist for wood-fired Neapolitan pizza. “We have so many regulars, they’ve seen the light and they will not go back to the dark again, and it’s fantastic.”

Omaha is developing distinct dining districts to complement its one holdover, the Old Market. A local food tourism industry is in sight as Downtown, Midtown, Dundee, Benson, South Omaha and West Omaha roll out ever more interesting restaurants and food stores.

It’s a happy convergence of trends for diners, who have far more good options today than even five years ago. There is promise of more to come as some sous chefs and line cooks working at top end places invariably launch their own concepts.

“Because you are seeing more and more Omaha restaurants worthy of that type of apprenticeship or up to that sort of training challenge, it really creates a kind of self-sustaining circle of chefs,” Chapman says.

 Paul Kulik

Kulik agrees, saying, “They’re going to take these work habits into their take on a new place. This is why I think it’s not a flash in the pan but a durable change. You have enough people realizing that as an investor, you can probably make money in a restaurant that cares.”

Kulik has a long history on the Omaha culinary scene, and like many of his peers he left here to hone his craft under top chefs across America and Europe. He may best sum up the state of then and now with, “It’s really tough to say 10 years ago there was anything relevant to the national food conversation coming out of Omaha at all. The kind of dynamism and enthusiasm happening now is a trend I expect will continue. It’s just about as significant a turnaround as you can imagine.”

He suggests the culinary evolution has caught up with the arts-cultural-entrepreneurial growth that’s witnessed a more confident, vibrant city.

“About 20 years ago the conversation around town amongst people who cared about cooking and restaurants was whether Omaha was ready for this or for that. Fifteen years later we opened the Boiler Room and that conversation hadn’t changed one iota. The reality is, much like any professional field, it is incumbent on the professionals to maintain the highest level of continuing education, curiosity, development, enrichment, energy, focus and drive to keep the conversation moving forward.

“The food scene cannot simply wait for the sea of change to happen from the customer first, it has to be driven by professionals.”

His declaration of principles, or food manifesto, is shared by many.

“We’re trying to update the dining culture to make it so that it’s kind of entered into the 21st century and in some ways returned to the 19th century, which is to say going back to real products,” Kulik says.

He believes it didn’t happen earlier here because of “a prevailing sentiment in the market to simply continue on and customers settling for what they were accustomed to getting. I think that lethargy of curiosity bled over to the culinary, professional side, where any white table cloth, continental cuisine kitchen was essentially serving the same dish, buying product from the same two or three vendors, with almost no thought about the distinguishing traits of regionalism, of raw products, of raw food techniques, which is taking food that came of the earth that day and maximizing its potential on the plate.”

Life many of his contemporaries, he’s excited by the sophisticated beverage and craft cocktail programs to have emerged in Omaha. He says until now “beverage programs tailored to menus didn’t exist here,” adding, “So now what’s really thrilling is you have determined, in some cases courageous or stubborn cooks and chefs offering the food and the menus they feel most passionate about and are most excited to offer their guests.”

“You don’t go to every restaurant and expect to receive an identical menu,” Kulik says. “Restaurants now can be distinguishable from each other. When that happens you have specialization of labor. Someone can do a particular brand or type of food enough times to become a true expert at that skill set. This is what’s happening now and it’s happening to such a degree that you’re not only getting the chefs doing this but the rest of the kitchen staff. It’s having the ability to do a product thousands and thousands of times, whether it’s the right kind of bread or pizza crust or house made pasta or charcuterie or butchering whole animals or working with farmers.”

Bryce Coulton

Bryce Coulton, whose French Bulldog has won awards for its charcuterie, brought authentic influences here from training he did abroad. He’s bullish on the quality of diverse culinary traditions available.

“We now have Omakase (style of sushi) in Benson. Charcuterie is quite commonplace and has more options than just old-school butcher options African cuisine is now within reach. Pastas are handmade and dishes are just as would be found in Italy, and I lived in Puglia for five years. The whole animal concept is a matter-of-course and it’s not just ribeye, New York strip, et cetera as our steak options. This diversity is part of what has made the culinary scene better. That we’re focusing on local products is another aspect that forces cooks to be more aware of the seasons and prepare a menu and dishes accordingly.”

Bosnian native Dario Schicke, chef-owner of Dario’s Brassiere and Avoli Osteria, has seen a big difference since moving to Omaha in 2002.

“You’d have a really hard time even finding fresh mozzarella on the market. Now restaurants are serving more fresh ingredients we can get from either coast shipped overnight and utilize them in our menu as soon as the next day. That’s a huge improvement in the aspect of all ingredients being available to us. More farmers are being more restaurant-oriented and it’s kind of pushing local chefs, including myself, to use better, fresher local ingredients.”

Dario Schicke


Kukik describes the benefits a diner like himself experiences at a place featuring this considered, well-articulated approach.

“I’m someone who loves to get taken care of at a restaurant, and I love to be able to have a conversation with the sommelier or the bartender about what beverage makes sense with this, what’s on their bar back, why are they pouring this, why are they into sour beer or cider. These are all parts of the conversation I get to have now because they cared enough, they spent enough time

and energy and money to educate themselves for my benefit.”

“For me, as a diner I can’t imagine anything more rewarding than going to a place and understanding that the people working there care more about my experience than I do. Now there are all these people who are so committed to their craft that it matters deeply and personally if they haven’t given the experience the guest wanted. This is such a huge change compared to before, when after service everyone was partying until 4 in the morning and dragging themselves back to work the next day to deal with the rigors of service or being in the industry, throwing around those terms like a badge of courage – when the challenge is to be excellent despite all the pressures not to be.”

It’s not that Omaha’s past food scene was bereft of quality or care. The now defunct French Cafe, Cafe de Paris, Old Vienna Cafe and Marino’s Italian Restaurant, for example, delivered countless great meals. Mainstays like M’s Pub continue long traditions of excellence. Overall, though, it was a spotty scene and in some instances things began slipping as cooks or owners turned to “shortcuts.”

“A lot of Italian restaurants got away from using real, authentic, high quality ingredients,” says Schicke.

Kulik says, “A lot of white table cloth places became sort of really derivative and unmotivated and there was almost no room for thoughtful casual places.”

Fine dining can be found at select steakhouses, French and Italian restaurants and Asian spots. High concept casual places, especially those doing killer fresh, from-scratch comfort food, abound.

Chefs, along with veteran area food writers Nichole Aksamit and Summer Miller, say the real difference from then to now are the new chef-driven and chef-owned places that display an enthusiastic, even obsessive embrace of well-prepared fresh foods that don’t skimp on technique or flavor. Free of corporate pressures, these chefs truly are the masters of their own kitchens as well as the front of their houses and therefore they can stay absolutely true to their vision and passion, including working closely with purveyors to get the best ingredients for their in-house creations.

Brian O’Malley

Brian O’Malley says rather than a culinary culture, there is an identifiable Omaha culinary school.

“If I were to give it four words to define its primary tenets, they would be: Rustic, honest, beholden and Brave. Omaha’s food is getting better because Omaha’s craftsmen are getting better. We are growing from the knowledge and skills handed to us, and beat into us, by the craftsmen that came before us. We are not magic. We hold no newer, grander philosophical approaches to food than did our predecessors. We are stewards of the craftsmanship we cherish.”

“We have more and more people that care a great deal about their food. This pushes the producers, chefs, and restaurateurs in a loving way to be more respectful of the ingredients and how they are prepared.”

Some local culinary stars are leading the way, and nearly all have come up through the ranks of Omaha’s finer dining establishments.

“Five years ago Paul Kulik down at the Boiler Room was kind of a lone wolf in regards to his sourcing and his menu practices,” Chapman says. “Then we opened and a lot of other people opened after we did, but the availability and the accessibility of those ingredients when we first opened was far less significant than it is now.”

Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society executive director William Powers says, “Numerous chefs have really gotten behind this idea of an Omaha food culture that works hand-in-hand with local farmers who embody the idea of community and culture. Clayton Chapman at Grey Plume, Nick Strawhecker at Dante Ristorante Pizzeria, Joel Mahr at Lot 2 and Paul Kulik of Le Bouillon and Boiler Room are leaders in this good food revolution.

“OverEasy, Kitchen Table, and Block 16 are all great examples of new restaurants embracing this food culture. At the root of this is a sustainable agriculture predicated on supporting local and craft ideals. Farmers and chefs continue to cultivate the relationships through conversations that, in too many restaurants. never happen because the sourcing unfortunately is not as important. But a good chef, like a good farmer, knows the value of creating and growing a product representative of the ideals and culture they’re trying to create.”

Kulik says, “If it’s not the Boiler Room at the tip of the spear then it’s Dante. It’s people coming back in the midst of the economic downturn or Grey Plume opening and offering another white table cloth experience with an overt and extremely full-throated support for local purchasing and sustainable farming practices. It’s Bryce (Coulton) at the French Bulldog with his charcuterie program. Or it’s (chef) Joel Mahr and (owners and sommeliers) Brad and Johanna Marr at Lot 2 being a little bit fresher and more progressive in a revived Benson. Or it’s the Duggans (Colin and Jessica) moving back from San Francisco and opening Kitchen Table.

“All these things coincide with each other but it starts when somebody says, “I’m not going to dilute the message of my product.'”

Several chefs applaud the camaraderie present on the scene.

“Due to the collaborative nature of the culinary environment here, we share experiences, knowledge-technique and farmer-rancher contacts,” Coulton says. “Unless we’re resistant to new ideas, we’re bound to take input from other cooks and further develop ourselves professionally, which leads to dishes that possess a bold creativity, yet with a Midwestern reserve.”

Chapman says, “We’re all kind of rooted in some type of approach. A lot of what we do is rooted in French technique but we combine New American type flavors or presentations. I think it’s allowed everybody to develop their own styles but it’s also created a universal thread. It’s helped build the expectation for the guest, which is probably the most important thing. When we say Contemporary American or New American it just help gives the guest insight into what we do.

“A lot of it is diner or guest awareness. The more educated the home consumer, even the more they cook meals from scratch themselves at home, the more they’re going to appreciate meals from scratch when they go out to eat and the more they’re going to look for it. I think that’s huge and I definitely think that’s where the market is headed.”

“But really what drives it is the reward, the satisfaction you get for giving a value-added experience that’s appreciated,” Kulik says. “When enough guests say, ‘I had no idea it could ever be like this,’ boy are you ever emboldened and want to step it up. It’s like a drug and you so desperately want to offer that experience all the time.

That’s how it really pushes the expectations higher.”

Nick Strawhecker, ©photos by Dana Damwood from the book New Prairie Kitchen by author Summer Miller

The recognition some Omaha chefs have received, including James Beard nominations, can rub off on others.

“I’m a firm believer in a high tide raising all ships,” Chapman says.

“As one chef gains acknowledgment for a job well done, it forces the rest of the chefs to want to step up their game as well,” Coulton says.

Kulik says where only a few years ago he struggled naming even a few places to steer big city visitors to, he has a ready list today.

“What’s awesome now is I can say, ‘You need to go here for brunch, here for lunch, here for dinner, here for this kind of meal, there for that kind of meal, this place is great for this or the other thing.’ There’s like 12 to 18 places I can recommend, from rehabilitated places like V Mertz that’s turned this corner and become a really interesting and inspiring restaurant, or Taita, the best restaurant in town nobody’s heard of, Lot 2, Kitchen Table, Block 16, the French Bulldog, Avoli, Dario’s, the Boiler Room, Le Bouillon, the Grey Plume, Dante…”

Other spots getting love include Mark’s Bistro. DixieQuicks, Le Voltaire, Laos Thai, China Garden, Taqueria Tijuana and Metro’s Sage Student Bistro. Enzo’s and Mouth of the South are new players in underserved North Omaha (Florence).

“What are you in for? Where are you staying? That’s the whole point right? That there’s food to be had all over town that’s going to stay with you,” Kulik says.

Strawhecker says, “I’m definitely a lot more proud about our culinary scene than before. When I was in Chicago I balked at moving back because I was like, ‘There’s no place for me to eat’. It was kind of bleak. Now there’s like 10 joints I go to on a regular basis that are fantastic. That’s just from a personal standpoint but that overlaps professionally because of the discerning guests who have to have certain things we now have in Omaha to offer.”

Omaha may be an emerging regional food destination but everyone agrees it has room to grow in terms of more markets and eateries that feature fresh products and authentic ethnic choices.

“If there’s food tourism coming then that’s because we’re not only participating in the national conversation about food but in fact we’re also directing a portion of that conversation,” says Kulik. “That’s where I hope we can take what we do here.”

Vic Gutman, the man behind the metro’s largest farmers markets, is planning what may be the next big catalyst on the local food scene – the Omaha Market, an under-one-roof fresh foods hub.


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