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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.

 

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Writing close to her heart: Author Joy Castro

November 23, 2012 1 comment

Joy Castro is a writer to be reckoned with.  I’ve had the pleasure now of interviewing her twice and I trust more interviews will follow in the future.  Her work is widely recognized.  And while she has until recently published memoirs and personal essays she’s now established herself as a mystery writer with her debut novel, Hell or High Water.  That book may be turned into a movie.  I finally had the pleasure of meeting Joy (our interviews have been by phone) when she generously attended a talk and reading I gave at Indigo Bridge Books in Lincoln, Neb. for my new Alexander Payne book.  She even bought three copies.  What a sweet thing to do for someone of her stature.  It’s a lesson in how we fellow writers need to support each other.

 

Writing close to her heart:

Author Joy Castro

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in El Perico

 

University of Nebraska-Lincoln associate professor of English Joy Castro made her mark as a short story writerand essayist before her acclaimed 2005 memoir The Truth Book: Escaping a Childhood of Abuse Among the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Now she’s being hailed for her debut novel, Hell or High Water, set in post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans. Mystery author superstar Dennis Lehane (Mystic River) calls it “a terrific thriller.

Her new book of personal essays, Island of Bones is “getting some really nice press,” she says, adding, “The book critic Rigoberto Gonzalez, who writes for the El Paso Times and is part of the National Book Critics Circle, wrote a really nice review.” Island of Bones takes up where The Truth Book left off.

Castro often lectures and writes about her Cuban-American heritage and journey through poverty into academia and stability.

“Much of my work focuses on bringing attention to economic injustice as well as racism and sexism. I’m lucky and grateful to be someone who has made it out of poverty, abuse and voicelessness – to a position where I have a voice. It’s an important responsibility. My own published fiction, nonfiction and poetry all concern issues of poverty and I make a point of teaching literature by poor people in the university classroom.”

Castro shares much in common with her novel’s protagonist, Nola, a female Cuban-American reporter from a poor background. Just as Castro once sought to keep her own roots secret, so does Nola. Just as Castro explored abuse, Nola investigates sexual predators.

“Nola comes from the projects. She’s trying to pass among her colleagues and friends. She doesn’t want anybody to pity her and she doesn’t really want it to be known at all. So she’s struggling to sort of keep up with the Joneses while dealing with the after-effects of her difficult past, all while researching this creepy story.”

Hell or High Water’s been optioned as a film-television drama and Castro’s writing a sequel with Nola as the main character again.

She says, “The two artists associated with the project right now are both really fantastic Latina actresses – Zoe Saldana and Gina Rodriguez. And I’m really excited about having a mystery series with a Latino protagonist.”

Now that Castro’s own story is out there, she’s over any sense of shame.

“When you’re hiding something, the feeling you have is a tremendous anxiety that revealing it will destroy you or someone else,” she says. “After you’ve had a little practice at disclosing, you realize it’s not quite that life-or-death a situation.”

Writing The Truth Book and Island of Bones proved cathartic.

“Laying it all out in book form, I came to respect the difficulty of what I’d had to navigate. In some ways, my journey was as challenging as moving from one country, one culture to another. All the new customs have to be learned.

“For the most part, I earned and climbed my way out of trauma and poverty by myself. My family was too shattered, scattered and dysfunctional to support anyone. I’ve been on my own since I was 16. There were counselors who helped me change, sure, and thank goodness, but I paid for them, and I did the emotional work. No one stepped in and said, ‘Here, let me lighten the load.’ That’s the hard truth of it. No one’s going to do it for you, no one’s going to hold your hand.

“But the important thing to remember is that it’s your life and if you want to change it you have to put in the hours and the labor and the love. Your life is worth it, you’re worth it. Even in the bleakest of circumstances, it’s worth doing, and it’s possible.”

 

 

 

Joy Castro and Amelia Montes for release of Island of Bones at Indigo Bridge Books, ©labloga.blogspot.com

 

 

Her interest in Spanish-speaking cultures and identities infuses her work.

“Latinidad is hugely important to me, and it is definitely connected with class and gender. Because of the great wave of well-to-do Cuban immigrants who came to the USA when Fidel Castro took power, many people assume all Cuban-Americans are wealthy and right-leaning. That wasn’t the case for my family, who had been in Key West since the 1800s and were working-class and lefty-liberal.”

Island of Bones explores that little-known history.

“My father experienced racism and police abuse in Miami in the 1950s, after which he tried very hard to assimilate and be ‘American’ in ways ultimately painful for him and for us.”

Her father, a conch diver as a boy, moved north as a young man seeking adventure and a wider life.  As The Keys became an expensive resort playground that priced old-line residents out, some family relatives were forced to leave.

Her father committed suicide in 2002. One of her essays deals with the aftermath.

“For my brother Tony and me, our father’s life is a cautionary tale about the costs of shame and of trying to erase who you are. We raised our children to be proud of their heritage. My son is fluent in Spanish, for example, which my father refused to speak at home.”

What it means to be Latina and the roles Latinas play are also primary concerns.

“I’m glad to say things are changing. But despite many advances in women’s rights, Latinas are often pushed, even today, to put men first, to have babies, to love the church without question, to be submissive and obedient to authority. It took me a long time to crawl out from under the expectations I was raised with.”

View more about the author’s work at joycastro.com.

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