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Pot Liquor Love: Chef-Owner Jared Clarke Goes Wood-Fired

April 17, 2017 Leave a comment

Food, wonderful food. If I’m not eating, then I’m thinking about eating, which is to say I’m thinking about food. Writng about food is the next best thing to actually enjoying a good meal because I get to visualize it and challenge myself to describing it, although writing about food on an empty stomach is not recommended because it can lead to overindulging when I do satisfy my appetite. Here, in my latest piece for Food & Spirits Magazine (http://fsmomaha.com/), I feature chef-owner Jared Clarke and his Timber Wood Fire Grill, which is the latest expression of his own journey in food. Follow my Pot Liquor Love food blogging at leoadambiga.com and on Facebook at My Inside Stories. And since food and movies are such a good pair, remember to follow my Hot Movie Takes on the same two social media platforms.

 

Pot Liquor Love:

Chef-Owner Jared Clarke Goes Wood-Fired

Chef-Owner Jared Clarke Goes Wood-Fired

Chef-owner Jared Clarke found a niche with his Railcar Modern American Kitchen in northwest Omaha. With it now well-established, he hankered trying a new concept with Timber Wood Fire Bistro in Countryside Village. Since opening in 2016 at the former site of The Bookworm, this extreme open-kitchen, wood-fired menu restaurant has added a signature spot in the heart of Omaha.

Like many young chefs, the 30-something Clarke is an interesting mix of traditional and contemporary influences. He borrows a little from many cuisines for his take on American comfort food rooted in French technique, all accented by a touch of super-hot oak-fired flame to enhance not obscure ingredients’ optimal flavor.

“The hardest thing as a chef is to choose to follow trends or not. I’ve always done comfort food. I grew up on the farm eating from-scratch meals and enjoyed it. I like making things very comforting and warming to your soul. When I was a young chef I was all over the place because I wanted to learn as much as possible. Japanese, Thai, I’ve learned how to make all those cuisines.”

But he always found himself coming back to comfort food, which has become a ubiquitous descriptor of what countless eateries serve.

“I don’t know if this trend will go away or if it’s even really a trend. It’s always been there.”

Clarke is a rarity in these parts as both a certified chef and a trained food scientist. His knowledge about the chemistry of food pairs with his talent and experience in the kitchen to maximize flavor combinations and freshness.

“I do have a better understanding of things. It helps making better sauces or extracting more flavor out of bones. It’s knowing when to season and not to season. It’s knowing where to start and stop your food. There’s science to back these things up.”

Far from being stuck in a laboratory in his formative culinary years, he began cooking professionally in his late teens. He earned his chef certification at Southeast Community College near his hometown of Fairbury, Nebraska and his culinology degree at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Unlike other food science students, he had no interest in doing test kitchen work for ConAgra or Kraft.

“My goal was to get better at my job as a restaurant chef. A lot of my professors were like, ‘What are you thinking?’ ‘I’m thinking about making better food.’

In college he worked at Chili’s and Misty’s in Lincoln. After college he moved to Chicago to work at Lettuce Entertain You and Cooper’s Hawk Winery and Restaurant.

He made a splash upon returning to Nebraska as executive chef at Blue Sushi Sake Grill in Omaha. Already on the short list of top new local chefs, he announced himself a chef-owner to watch with Railcar.

His coast-to-coast travels across America for business and pleasure find him learning new techniques and trends as well as tried and true things he then melds into what he does at his two restaurants.

“I’m always trying to make myself better as a chef.”

Railcar’s success emboldened him to try Timber Wood.

“I’ve always wanted to do my own wood-fired cuisine – something fully wood-fired, not a wood-fired oven and then finish it off on the grill. I wanted something where I could incorporate a lot of different cuisines with the kiss of the wood flavor. Give that campfire flavor with more refined food. I try to do more French techniques with food off grill in the oven, rather than going straight Midwestern cuisine or doing cowboy style food.

“Some people ask, ‘Why don’t you do barbecue?’ Well, that’s not the idea. The idea is to do more refined food off the wood fire. I’m not looking to smoke the food. I’m not going to be using a hickory or an applewood because I’m not looking to really change the flavor of the food – I’m looking to enhance it. I use oak because, to me, it adds an extra layer of seasoning that kind of sets the food apart. But the roast chicken still tastes like roast chicken.”

He went against the grain of what most of us associate with wood-fire.

“I didn’t want to focus strictly on pizzas because everybody thinks wood fire and pizza. I wanted to do something different here than make pizza like everyone else is doing. We have a small selection of French-style pizzas – pissaladière – on our menu. French-style pizzas don’t have a lot of sauce. Some don’t have any sauce at all – they might just have some herb oil. We use a lot of high-end ingredients on it. It’s not your normal pizza. It’s a cross between Neapolitan style pizza and the focaccia. You have a cracker crust on the outside but it puffs out enough where you get these airy bubbles. It’s chewy on the inside and crispy on the outside.

“The traditional Provencal-style pizza we do has a lot of lavender and thyme, caramelized onions, anchovies, salt cured olives. We do a little frisee salad on top with shaved pecorino and a sherry vinaigrette.

 

Jared Clarke

 

That’s a pretty classical combination for the Provence region. As chefs we have to be food historians, too. If you don’t know where your food comes from or how it came to be that cuisine, it’s hard to understand the food you’re putting forward.”

He became sold on the open-kitchen concept after seeing it in action on food travels.

“The aroma, the food coming out of there, talking to the cooks, having a great time – I thought this might be a fun concept to try in Omaha.

We designed it to give people the ability to sit at the counter or walk by and really see the show. Other open kitchens in Omaha are still closed off to the public – you can’t walk right next to the line and peek in and talk to the guys and interact if you want to.

“Here, you can interact with us.”

The show diners are treated to is a fast-paced ballet of efficient movements by the head chef, sous chef and support crew, variously working at a 900-degree cast-iron grill and oven and on the six-burner stove.

“On a busy weekend we pump out a hundred meals in less than an hour. Customers are like, ‘Wow, you guys are fast. How do you do that?’ They’re intrigued with how we’re able to put food out because they don’t really get to see it anywhere else. To me, that’s the fun part of it – people get to see what we do. When we have 300 or 400 people on a Friday or Saturday night they can see us working hard, getting the orders out right. They see there’s a lot involved with their food.”

Clarke’s impressive chops are an amalgam of his many gigs and stops. He said the local chef community is much more generous today than when he came up.

“You were just doing whatever you thought was right and nobody ever really taught you. Back then a lot of the chefs here were not interested in teaching other people. They felt like if they taught you how to do their job they would lose their job. When I was in Chicago it was the other way around. If they taught you how to do your job, then their job just got easier. It all trickled down. If everyone has the same mentality and you’ve given them the tools to be great, then you don’t have to be there every day.”

Having two restaurants now, he said, is “a little trying.” He spends most of his time these days at the start-up, Timber Wood. He said, “Railcar is what got us here and we want to make sure that continues to be successful, so we make sure we have the right people over there. My ultimate goal is to spend time at both places so nobody feels neglected. Chefs that I have at both restaurants are going to guide things moving forward.

“It’s tough though because you have to figure out where you want to be, what you want to do, and I like being on-the-line. I will eventually be off-the-line a lot more. I want to be cooking more, but you’ve got to manage things, too.”

The satisfaction he finds in his work, which is also a lifestyle, is fundamental.

“It’s the artistic approach to it because I really enjoy being creative. I grew up in an artistic family (his mother was an art and music teacher and his father a farmer) and this is my outlet now in just being creative and free. When I’m on-the-line I’m in a happy place – I’m making food for people, and at the end of the day, that’s what I want.”

He fell in love with locating Timber Wood in the old Bookworm space, he said, because of the “great windows, openness, and natural light.” Following a much beloved business is not a bad thing. “The Bookworm was here for I don’t know how many years, so this space has really good memories and feelings for people. If there had been eight restaurants here I probably would never have come to this space.”

Ultimately, it’s the food, not the brick-and-mortar that matters, and like many of his colleagues he strives for fresh, local, sustainable.

“The biggest thing is making sure suppliers are providing you with the best product possible at the right time. As spring rolls around we’ll start really getting the produce. The goal is to try to bring forth as many fresh products as possible and get it from as close as you can. It supports the community a lot more.

“The amount of options you can buy from has increased. We’re starting to see more cheese, dairy and poultry farms. Ten years ago we didn’t have this even though producers had the ability to do it.”

Meanwhile, as if he doesn’t have enough going on with two restaurants, a wife and three kids, he’s visioning new eateries.

“I already know what they’re going to be. As a guy who used to play a lot of chess, I’m always thinking four or five moves ahead of the game to see what else is available when the time’s right.”

Clarke’s proud to be a player in this ever more dynamic food scene that’s gotten some of his friends and colleagues national attention.

“I don’t think Omaha is a flyover city anymore. People are excited to actually be here.”

Hours for Timber Wood, 8702 Pacific Street, are: 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to close on Friday. And 9 a.m. to close on Saturday and Sunday.

Visit https://timberomaha.com or call 402-964-2227.

 

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Pot Liquor Love: Chef-owner Jenny Coco proves she can hang with the boys

December 27, 2016 Leave a comment

Jenny Coco is well aware she’s an outlier as a female chef in a profession that’s still very much a man’s world, but she hasn’t let it deter her from carving out a successful niche in Omaha’s dynamic restaurant scene. After making a name for herself and her food at the Flatiron Cafe, she’s made her mark as chef-owner of J Coco, where she does American comfort cuisine in a fine dining way, and now she’s embarking on a second restaurant that will feature a distinct concept all its own. Chefs are artists and just like visual and performing artists, they develop a following and fan base, and Jenny Coco has cultivated a large and loyal group of foodies who’ve followed her from V Mertz to the Flatiron to J Coco. They will no doubt support her new as yet unnamed new place as well. My profile of Jenny for Food & Spirits Magazine (http://fsmomaha.com/) charts some of her journey and what makes her passionate about what she does.

Follow my Pot Liquor Love food blogging at leoadambiga.com and on Facebook at My Inside Stories. And since food and movies are such a good pair, remember to follow my Hot Movie Takes on the same two social media platforms.

 

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Pot Liquor Love:

Chef-owner Jenny Coco proves she can hang with the boys

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appeared in 2016-2017 winter issue of Food & Spirits Magazine (http://fsmomaha.com/)

 

In the male-dominated culinary field men get the lion’s share of attention. In Omaha, Clayton Chapman and Paul Kulik headline a deep roster of acclaimed chefs. But at least one woman, Jenny Coco, has proved her chops compare with anyone’s, regardless of gender.

Coco doesn’t make a big deal about breaking down the doors to this exclsuive boys club.

“It takes a certain personality, male or female, to do this and we all have the same type of mentality I think,” she said. “Since our brains are wired very similarly, it doesn’t matter that I’m a woman. I mean, if I wasn’t meant to be doing this, I wouldn’t be doing it.”

Besides, she added, “I know I can hang with them.”

Like the best of her male colleagues in town, she’s been nominated for the prestigious James Beard prize. Unlike them, she never went to culinary school. She’s learned everything she knows working on the line, reading and absorbing things where she finds them. The Omaha native paid her dues at landmark Omaha eateries. She did her first professional cooking at the Baking Company in an all women-staffed kitchen – a rarity then and now.

Though she doesn’t consider herself a trailblazer, she’s well aware that women chefs are still few and far between and often face a tough road.

“I don’t want to see that keeping other women from jumping in and I’m finally seeing that change,” she said. “I can count on one hand how many women I worked with after the Baking Company 30 years ago. There’s just not a lot of women chefs. A lot of them still do pastry.

There’s so much more, there’s so much talent.”

She’s heartened by the many talents, male and female, emerging from Metropolitan Community College’s Institute for Culinary Arts.

“They’re woven into the fabric of kitchens all over the city.”

“There’s so many restaurants in this town,” she said, that opportunities abound for young chefs starting out here or going away for more experience and coming back to make their mark.

Coco really honed her skills at V. Mertz and the Flatiron Cafe, where she developed a following.

Then, in 2012, ready to break from her chef-for-hire career, she opened her own J. Coco restaurant. The chic, not fussy spot at 5203 Leavenworth is all about her fresh take on traditional dishes using refined yet simple techniques and fresh, quality ingredients. Like so many of her contemporaries, she passionately elevates American comfort food to new heights, whether the espresso and chili-rubbed pork chop or peppercorn and porcini-dusted ribeye.

Directly across the street is a venerable bakery and cafe, Gerda’s, that features a German slant on comfort food. It’s namesake proprietor is also female. Indeed, Coco said the stretch of Leavenworth from 52nd to 48th Streets includes more than a dozen female-owned businesses.

It’s a full circle life for Coco. As a girl she ate home-cooked meals that her mother, Joan Militti, who went from lunch lady to school District 66 food services manager, prepared. Now Coco’s putting a gourmet stamp on things like oxtails, short ribs and mac and cheese that she grew up eating.

“It’s just taking what everybody recognizes and maybe showing them   something different or doing a new twist on things. I want to make sure my food is prepared properly and is as approachable and clean and simple as possible, so that we’re always on people’s radar. Maybe we’re not breaking down the culinary walls, but you’re going to get a wonderful meal here and we work very hard at that.”

Tradition is important to Coco, who located her restaurant in the former Wohlner’s grocery store. The iconic Wohlner’s occupied the brick building from the 1940s until moving a few years back. Before that, the structure housed another grocer, Newman’s. All this matters to Coco because her great-grandfather was part owner of Kotera & Sloup Staple and Fancy Groceries generations ago. A blown-up black and white photograph of that store’s proprietors proudly standing in front of their wares pops at one end of J. Coco. Adorning another wall are oversized prints picturing vintage goods from Wohlner’s.

Always wanting a neighborhood place of her own, she knew she wanted the Aksarben-Elmwood space as soon as it became available.

“It’s a beautiful building with a good history to it. We wanted to keep the neighborhood connection. There were such strong feelings after the store left. People were so mad. They liked seeing their neighbors here.

They liked coming every day and grabbing the food for that evening’s dinner. It was part of their thing, their day, their routine and then it was gone and being in this neighborhood here I know that’s who’s going to support us here day in and day out.

“Residents of this neighborhood and surrounding neighborhoods are dedicated, devoted, supportive. They prove it over and over again.

They’re not going past 72nd (Street) – they’re here and they don’t want to go anywhere else.”

She said she’s taken pains to make her place “very comfortable,” adding, “It’s like eating in my dining room at my house. We have family pictures up at home, so why wouldn’t we here?”

With J. Coco established, she’s about to open a second, as-yet-unnamed, spot on the southeast corner of 50th and Underwood, in a building that’s seen much turnover and recently suffered a fire.

 

“It’s a big space we’re planning on dividing to have two concepts under one roof. One side will be a lounge-bar with craft cocktails and late night food. That’s where the restaurant side comes in. It will keep regular restaurant hours and then close down, but the bar side will be able to serve food later. There’s nobody doing late night food.

“What I’d like to move into now is more playful. Like doing a food truck inside that serves street cuisine or updating the Cheese Frenchee. I want to feature small plates that people can share. That’s how my friends and I eat when we go out.”

She said she meant to take J. Coco in a similar direction, though she has pared down its entrees and expanded the starters, but she and her patrons weren’t ready for it.

“I wanted this to be a complete break from what I’ve always done

but the customers wanted to see an extension of Flatiron. That was my comfort zone, too. I knew how to cook that style of food.”

Having her own branded place in J. Coco meant quite a leap for her.

“After spending 20 years hiding in the kitchen to now having my name on the wall has been different. People expect to see me when they come. They want to talk to me. So, now I split my time half and half between the kitchen and the front of the house. It was difficult at first. But if people can’t put the face to the experience, they’re not coming back. They like that connection. They like you to remember their name or their favorite drink or entree, and that’s nice, too, because people have been supporting me for so many years. It’s just a small gesture to be able to thank them face to face.”

She’s out front more, too, because she’s overseeing construction of the second restaurant, which she expects to open May 1 or after.

Another reason her kitchen time’s reduced these days is that she has a capable cook in Pedro Garcia, who was with her many years at Flatiron before following her to J. Coco. Another member of the kitchen team she led at Flatiron also followed her to her restaurant.

“They’re just blossoming and that was my goal. At Flatiron I got to spread my wings and experiment and teach myself and that’s the kind of kitchen I want here. While I might not be cooking every day, I’m a resource. But mainly it’s their turn and they’re taking the ball and running with it. If I’m there blocking their rise, then what’s the point.”

She said whether cooking in the back or meeting-greeting up front, it’s evident how much more sophisticated diners’ palates have become.

“The Food Network and Food Channel have brought a great education to everybody,” she said. “People are more engaged with what they’re eating. They want to talk it about more. They want more explanation.

People want to know what they’re eating, where it’s from. They want to feel involved, where years ago I think they just wanted to be told what to eat. They just don’t want to be told anymore.”

She said diners want farm to table food that showcase fresh, local, organic, sustainable products, which are the same things Coco strives to provide with the help of area small growers and producers. While she said ingredients once difficult to find here are now available, more work needs to be done to cultivate farmer-chef relationships in order to take full advantage of Nebraska’s vast arable land.

Coco said the restaurant business isn’t for everyone because of the long, crazy hours that mean missing family events.

“I know what I’ve given up,” said Coco, who’s married with two step-daughters.

Knowing that her artistry satisfies patrons makes it all worthwhile.

“When people love it, well, what could be better. I have a talent, a gift and I want to share it and when people love it that’s pretty amazing. When the room’s humming, it’s a pretty awesome feeling, it really is.

There’s like no better feeling.”

Coco’s never been tempted to try her hand outside her hometown.

“I don’t mind being in a little pond if I can be a little bit bigger fish.”

Now that J. Coco’s going on five years, she wants it to be an institution.

“I want to be here for the long haul. We don’t have to be top of the heap – we just want to be part of the heap. Slow and steady wins the race, We’re here to finish.”

Business is good.

“I think we’re doing okay. Our weekends are always booked. You always need reservations.”

Frequent parties and a brisk catering trade boost revenues.

Though several blocks south of the hot Dundee food strip that has Mark’s, Dario’s, Avoli, Pitch, Paragon, Amsterdam Falafel and others, J. Coco’s benefits from the foodies those places draw,

“Dundee had paved the way.They were already bringing people to the area when we opened. That was a big thing. We need more. That’s what makes it all work.”

Meanwhile, Coco’s doing her part for girl power on Leavenworth.

J. Coco is open for lunch Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and for dinner Monday through Saturday from 5 p.m. to close.

Call or 402-884-2626 or visit jcocoomaha.com.

Pot Liquor Love: Doing things the Dario Way nets Omaha two of its most distinctive restaurants

December 27, 2016 Leave a comment

As anyone who’s even a little familiar with the evolution of the Omaha culinary scene knows,  this burg has seen an elevation in quality and variety of cuisines, especially in chef-owner eateries that routinely push the envelope. One of the leaders in this movement has been Dario Schicke, a native of Bosnia who learned his craft in Europe and New York before making a dramatic impact here, first with Dario’s Brassiere, which continues strong, and now with his second place, Avoli Osteria. Two eateries within a block apart in Dundee, which boasts the best strip of restaurants in town can outside the Old Market, with two totally different cuisines and aesthetics. Dario has a big personality and a big story to match. This is my profile of him in the winter 2016/2017 issue of Food & Spirits Magazine.

Follow my Pot Liquor Love food blogging at leoadambiga.com and on Facebook at My Inside Stories. And since food and movies are such a good pair, remember to follow my Hot Movie Takes on the same two social media platforms.

 

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Pot Liquor Love:

Doing things the Dario way nets Omaha two of its most distinctive restaurants

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appeared in winter 2016/2017 issue of Food & Spirits Magazine (http://fsmomaha.com/)

 

Half measures don’t cut it with Dario Schicke, the Bosnian chef-owner who bears a striking resemblance to Alec Baldwin. Schicke’s helped raise the Omaha culinary scene through a pair of Dundee restaurants dedicated to distinct, authentic European cuisines.

His Dario’s Brassiere and Avoli Osteria located within a block of each other on Underwood Avenue represent unique concepts at the upper end of casual fine dining. Dario’s features a French and Belgian-influenced menu complemented by imported beers. Avoli’s features northern Italian fare paired with wines of the region.

Each eatery contributes to Dundee’s foodie haven reputation. Though widely acclaimed, including a James Beard nomination for Dario’s, they were risky niche ventures made more risky by Schicke adamantly sticking to his vision. He admits he used to be even “more hardcore” demanding things be done his way but he’s relaxed some since putting together systems and staff that execute his vision.

His stubborn refusal to compromise makes sense when you understand all he went through to earn the right to do things his own way. He fled his homeland at age 20 only a few months after the Bosnian War erupted. His refugee experience began in Croatia before he moved to Germany and reunited with fellow refugees who could work but couldn’t travel. He met his wife Amy, a native of Kearney, Nebraska, at a Munich beer house where he worked.

He grew up in a restaurant family in Sarajevo. While surviving in Germany he worked various food jobs. Then he and Amy moved to New York City, where they soon took over a Greek deli that sold imported beers he set about studying. That search led him to train at the French Culinary Institute and he used those skills to transform the deli into a French bistro. The couple planned moving to the south of France when Amy got pregnant. The first of their two daughters was born in NYC. Amy got pregnant again. Then 9/11 happened – with the twin towers collapsing less than a mile away. The business suffered and the trauma led Amy and the girls to resettle in Omaha while a shell-shocked Schicke tried salvaging the business, then searching for a buyer until recouping his investment and joining his family here.

He briefly worked at the French Cafe before landing at the Market Basket. His classically prepared chef dinners found enough of a following that he and Amy invested everything they owned in order to open Dario’s. Its staple entrees and beers set it apart. For less adventurous diners it proved too much an outlier.

“At the beginning it wasn’t easy. I can’t tell you how many people would look at our menu and just walk out,” Schicke said. “We didn’t sell  anything but Belgian beers, That was unheard of at the time. We lost a lot of business but it was the only way I could push our waiters and front of house staff to learn about those beers. All those beers didn’t exist in Nebraska, We had to special order them.”

Some customers resisted the hefty prices but he explained these hearty brews are far different than even domestic crafts. Besides, he argues, you get more for your money at Dario’s.

“Nobody has a problem paying $6 or $7 for a glass of so-so house wine with their meal, but in this case you get 11 ounces of the best of the best beer.”

People who tried it, invariably liked it. The same with the well north of $10 burger and fries, “I knew our burger and fries were going to be a hit because they’re delicious, but if we sold that for $6.99 that’s all we were going to sell. We had duck breast and scallops and mussels and crepes and chicken and pork chop. We brought our sandwich and entree prices as close as we could so we didn’t turn into a burger joint.

But even if you order a hamburger you’re still going to get braisserie service – you’re going to get bread and butter, a huge beer glass and water glass, both hand-washed and polished. You’re going to get all that, plus fries, for $11. Our fries are hand-peeled, hand-cut, soaked in water overnight, then blanched. You get what you pay for. There was nothing to compare to it at the time.”

He recalled a disgruntled customer who complained about a burger, fries and beer costing nearly $30 with tax.

“This guy told me, ‘I’m not happy.’ I was like, ‘Sorry.’ Two days later the same guy came in, even angrier, saying, ‘Damn it. I couldn’t stop thinking about that burger and fries.’ Exactly. So we just stuck with our passion and now the culture’s caught up with us.”

Then, with Avoli, he filled a local gap in northern Italian food. In keeping with that cuisine’s tenets, there’s no pizza or lasagna or spaghetti and meatballs on the menu, rather a curated selection of fresh, homemade and imported dry pasta dishes.

“Both of our places are focused on a region in Europe and that’s what we’ve stayed true to from day one. Dario’s ten years now and three and a half years with Avoli. We don’t change for any trends or influences. That was the idea. As a chef and restaurant owner I really want to commit to the style and region we’re going to represent. We don’t want to deviate in any way.”

He couldn’t have crested more different eateries.

“They are so opposite these two restaurants that I can’t even mix a single person working in both places,” Schicke said. “Everything about them is different. There’s no overlapping menu items. I went so extreme even our security companies and computer systems are different. I didn’t want to open a second Dario’s – I wanted to start       something new.”

Besides, he said, “the only way for me to step outside of Dario’s was to do something else.” With Dario’s already well-established and having a “great crew there,” he devotes more of his hands-on time to supporting Avoli with its complex menu and larger kitchen and dining room. But he still starts and ends every night at his namesake spot, Dario’s.

He, Amy and friends did the interior designs of both places themselves.

“It’s very personal to us. Why pay somebody a lot of money to tell you what you like?”

Schicke’s passion for getting thing right and his hunger for always learning new things finds him taking off to hone his craft at restaurants. To prep for Avoli, he said, “I went to italy and worked in a whole bunch of Italian restaurants because I wanted to do it right. I wanted to do what today’s Italian food is. So I went all the way down deep, from product to menu to how people eat, what they eat, how they source and how we translate that in Omaha.”

There are no fussy fusions at his restaurants. The dishes are created using the same ingredients and preparations as in Europe.

“At Avoli we use only Prosciutto di Parma and Prosciutto di San Daniele. We don’t cut our parmesan, we get a wheel of parmesan every few months that’s about 95 to 110 pounds. It’s like a $1,200 to $1,400 piece of cheese. That’s what we use exclusively. When we grate our parmesan it’s like snow flakes and it just melts into the pasta. It’s a huge difference. We use certified olive oils. We went out and sourced authentic Italian olive oils. We get double zero flour from Italy. San Marzano tomatoes, farm fresh eggs. That’s what we do.”

He acknowledges his ability to adhere to such standards is made possible by the independence he maintains.

“I’m really lucky I have people at home supporting me because it could easily be a situation where partners say, “We could be making a lot more money serving something else.’ But we don’t have investors – we don’t have a lot of people involved. I don’t have anybody telling me what to do.”

If he took shortcuts, it would only spoil things for this perfectionist and traditionalist.

“I do this for passion but also you have to make a living doing it. I have a family to raise, I have a house. You have to be able to build a life around it. It’s exciting and challenging. Running a restaurant, dealing  with business aspects, being creative and cooking every day for two places, not easy, and a lot of times not fun. To mix all that in one bowl, it’s rough. That’s when those Belgian beers come in handy.

“Raising teenage girls – I need stronger than Belgian beer to get over that,” he said, laughing.

In the restaurant business there’s no option but to be committed,

“There’s too many moving parts, it’s too expensive,” he said. “Our art is probably the most expensive art in the world. We have to have heat, air conditioning, plumbing, electrical. insurance, all this stuff to practice our art. You need like a thousand bucks a day to practice, so you have to be smart about it. I tell people, if you don’t have passion, just don’t do it, do something else.

“Otherwise, you’ll get burned out.”

He said the success of his restaurants is simply a function of “our crazy passion and not giving up – we just do what we do and I’m very proud of what we’ve done.”

Even though both places feature staples that never change, Schicke allows himself and his chefs freedom to experiment with new dishes. He recently introduced Avoli staff and diners to Croatian pasta.

“You make like a bread dough, roll it really thin, then bake it. Then you break it into pieces and cook it like pasta, so it’s twice-cooked pasta that has like a bread quality. We’re going to serve goose and the dried pasta’s going to be rehydrated and cooked in those goose juices, with

chestnuts and all that stuff. That’s my comfort food.”

Some inspiration is tied to the seasons. At Avoli, for example, he said, “You get to the summer and it’s all about great olive oil, vinegars, tomatoes, basil. You can’t help it. But as soon as it gets colder, the nights are a little longer, that’s when I shine with flavorful marinades and braises. A little more complex food – using less expensive ingredients and making them luxurious,”

Meanwhile, he’ll keep pushing his skills by guest working in kitchens.

“It’s fun, it keeps me excited, I learn to do things better. Then I come back here torturing everybody with what I saw.”

 

Dario’s, 4920 Underwood Ave.

Tuesday-Sunday, Dinner, 5-10 p.m.

Saturday Brunch: 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m.

Sunday Brunch: 10 a.m.-2 p.m.

402-933-0799

 

Avoli Osteria, 5013 Underwood Ave.

Tuesday-Sunday, Dinner, 5-10 p.m.

402-933-7400

 

Visit http://www.dariosbrasserie.com and http://www.avoliosteria.com.

Pot Liquor Love: 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 (www.thereader.com) 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.

Follow my Pot Liquor Love food blogging at leoadambiga.com and on Facebook at My Inside Stories. And since food and movies are such a good pair, remember to follow my Hot Movie Takes on the same two social media platforms.

Pot Liquor Love:

Omaha’s Culinary Culture Rises

Dedicated Local Chefs Elevate Your Dining Experience

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appeared in the September 2015 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

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.”

 

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.

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

Dario

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.

Chef Jason Hughes setting bold course at Happy Hollow Country Club

March 23, 2015 1 comment

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

 

 

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Chef Jason Hughes setting bold course at Happy Hollow Country Club

©by Leo Adam Biga

©Photography by Bill Sitzmann

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

He didn’t always do food this way.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The “blase” stigma that once attended country club cuisine is no more.
image-2

His prize-winning “Heads or Tails” dish in Omaha’s Pinot, Pigs & Poets chef competition

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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