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Back to the future: Anne and Craig McVeigh bring Beacon Hills take on American comfort cuisine back to where their food careers started

December 27, 2016 Leave a comment

Anne and Craig McVeigh both got their restaurant starts in Omaha but it was in Lincoln they made their mark on the area culinary scene with their Beacon Hills restaurant and after a long, succesful run there they’ve closed it and opened a new Beacon Hills in Omaha’s emerging destination place, Aksarben Village. Like so many restauranters today, the McVeighs do their variation on American comfort food by adding fresh, refined touches to familiar old dishes. This profile I wrote for Food & Spirits Magazine (http://fsmomaha.com/) covers their journey in the industry from worker bees learning the ropes to entrepreneurs spinning their own take on food that makes us happy.

 

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Anne and Craig McVeigh bring Beacon Hills take on American comfort cuisine back to where their food careers started 

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

It is back to the future for Anne and Craig McVeigh and their new Beacon Hills restaurant at 6750 Mercy Road in Aksarben Village.

The restauranteurs got their industry start at M’s Pub and the Garden Cafe in Omaha before moving to Lincoln. As franchisees, they opened two successful Gardens in the capital city and eventually their own signature place – the original Beacon Hills.

They did American comfort food before it turned trendy. That was Garden’s staple brand and the couple refined the cuisine concept at Beacon Hills.

Craig McVeigh, who supervises the kitchen, said he and his wife are bemused by the whole comfort food revolution that’s made the tried-and-true cuisine fashionable.

“We’re not trying to catch up, we’re trying to just keep doing what we’ve been doing. We’ve been doing it all along. We were doing it without even realizing the comfort food march was going on. It was cool way before it got cool.”

Anne McVeigh said, “I look at what other people are doing but I’m more concerned with what we’re doing and the product we put out.”

They long ago sold their Garden Cafes. This past summer they closed the old Beacon Hills after a 16-year run. Now the pair’s trying to make magic again with their Omaha eatery. The combined restaurant, catering operation and banquet facility opened in the Pacific Life building on October 14. Stinson Park is just to the south and Baxter Arena just beyond it. The Keystone Trail and College of St. Mary campus are to the west. A large patio features a stone fireplace, decorative pavers and a distinctive wrought-iron gate. The relaxed outdoor area is just off the Elmwood Room, an informal Beacon Hills party space that can accommodate 72 seated diners.

The Elmwood Room and main dining area feature a wood and stone motif of earthen-colors. The exposed, industrial ceiling is given warmth and texture by a fan of big wood beams and stone-splashed walls. Salvaged artifacts serve as vintage wall art. Mounted in the dining room are weathered windmill blades. Between the restrooms’ hangs an old unpainted barn door. On a back wall are splays of Spanish oak branches.

“We didn’t want to do anything cookie-cutter,” Anne said. “We’re not just going to throw something up to throw something up. We’re going to put stuff up we really like .”

The dining room is dominated by the granite-topped bar. The Elmwood Room features an over-sized credenza. Large windows let in ample light throughout.

Anne, who runs the front of the house with daughter Beth, said diners like the intended cozy, neighborhood feel. Comfort is behind much of Beacon Hills. It’s in the homey, familiar dishes like meatloaf, fried chicken, chicken pot pie, pot roast, mac and chess and crab cakes. A signature dish is the garlic-mustard-butter sauced sirloin steak.

Craig said, “The comfort food thing – it’s just good food that doesn’t go out of style. I think sometimes it goes away for a little while. But it you get a slice of perfectly baked meatloaf or fried chicken that’s crispy not soggy, who’s not going to like that. My description has always been we take the classics and put our spin on them.”

Anne said, “There’s a lot of things on this menu we’ve been doing since the first menu (in Lincoln). It all started with the crab cakes. People love them. The recipe comes from a 1940s-era Maryland cookbook. Our crab cakes are very simple. Crab meat is the star.

“Friends say that Craig and I are together because of his crab rangoon. They’re so delicious. They’re super-stuffed with real crab.”

“On the creative side,” she said “we have pretty good palates. We are not fussy people but we try to put selections on our menu that everybody will like. Our chef Elizabeth Reissig-Anderson has worked for us for 25 years. The three of us bring all of our unique backgrounds together to put together menus.”

Since their Garden Cafe adventures until now, the McVeighs have worked virtually every day together for 30 years

“Most people would say that’s insane,” Anne said, “but the reason it works so well is that what Craig does he does very well and what I do I think I do very well but we don’t do the same job. It’s always his decision when it comes to anything in the kitchen. He’s the wheel or the ramrod.”

As the expeditor, no order leaves the kitchen without Craig’s approval. Anne handles the business side, writing all the checks. It’s not to say they never butt heads.

“Now. have we had some spirited conversations from time to time? I think so,” she said, smiling.

The key is letting the small stuff go and getting together on the big stuff. It helps that they both thrive on hard work and in putting customers first.

“This comes with our shared Midwestern upbringing and value system. Nobody works as hard as Craig and I do,” she said.

The point of putting in long hours and seeing to every detail is customer satisfaction.

“When we can be part of making people’s day a little bit better for the short time they’re here with us, that really makes us happy,” Anne said.

Just as in Lincoln. their new Beacon Hills is already drawing notables and creating regulars. Craig said the goal is giving everyone, no matter who you are, the same quality service and experience.

“We just want you to come back.”

He was born and raised in Tekamah, Nebraska. Anne, in Omaha. He came here as a young man to help his brother frame houses. He did that by day and at night worked food jobs. He learned the kitchen ropes at the old Playboy Club and the Acapulco, then did a stint at Bonanza, before a chance meeting with an M’s co-owner got him hired there.

He acknowledges he “fibbed a bit” about his skill set. But with help from his old boss at the club he learned the essentials of food costing and executing fancy culinary techniques.

Meanwhile, Anne’s grandfather and father were cattle brokers at the Omaha stockyards, where she spent much time as a girl. She traces her love of restaurants to Sunday family dinners at Johnny’s Cafe. Anne worked her way through college waitressing at various venues before joining M’s, which is where she and Craig met. They both mourn the loss of M’s to fire in 2015. The “anchor” Old Market spot gave many others their start in the food industry.

The ambitious couple then caught on with Garden Cafe just as the Omaha-based business begun by Ron Popp (Wheafields) began expanding and franchising.

“We got in on the ground floor,” Craig said.

They moved quickly up the corporate ladder before seizing an opportunity they saw to buy the franchise rights for Lincoln. While other Garden Cafes struggled and the company downsized, the McVeighs’ first facility was such a hit that they built a second.

Lincoln developer Larry Price asked them to do a new venture tied to a hotel complex under construction. He died before its completion but a new developer finished the project and invited the McVeighs to open their Beacon Hills restaurant there on a handshake deal.

Developers came to them, Anne said, “because we’d established ourselves as good operators.” Craig said their Garden Cafes “did numbers that I don’t know we’ll ever match anywhere again – Lincoln was so ripe for that (concept) at the time.”

Beacon Hills cultivated many loyal restaurant, catering and banquet customers. The McVeighs’ experience helping Garden Cafe grow prepared them for having their own food ventures. It helps that Craig enjoys working through challenges until he finds solutions.

“I like problem-solving. Because of how fast Garden Cafe moved, we spent every day solving growth problems. I wasn’t involved in planning new stores but once new ones came on board I was involved in hiring people in and getting things organized.”

He said the hardest transition they ever undertook was implementing PSO or Point of Sell. Twenty years he devised a custom system he still uses today that automatically updates food costs as prices change.

The couple meant to keep the flagship Lincoln store even after deciding to open the new one in Omaha. But the hotel their Lincoln facility rented space in changed ownership and when lease negotiations stalled, Craig said “we saw the writing on the wall.” The couple have brought some veteran Lincoln staff to Omaha

Aksarben was their choice for the Omaha startup because of its dense residential-commercial surroundings, high traffic and vibrant goings-on.

“This is an A plus location and it’s only going to get better with the new HDR headquarters and the new hotel coming in,” Craig said. “Our location in Lincoln was a C.”

Being at historic Aksarben is full-circle for Anne, whose family has long ties to the rodeo, coronation and ball and foundation. She loves “the symmetry of it all,” adding, “I just love being back at home.”

The couple didn’t doubt they wanted to do a new Beacon Hills, but Anne said, “we weren’t sure we could do this again physically – we’re not young.” They’ve proved they can. Besides, not much can throw them by now. As she put it, “We’ve seen it all.”

While she appreciates imitation is high flattery, she believes some local eateries copied Beacon Hills dishes without crediting the source and, as her cattle broker family used to say, “It chaps my hide.”

But as the McVeighs know, all is fair in love, war and restaurant competition. After all, they reinvented Garden Cafe in Beacon Hills. Now they’ve reinvented Beacon Hills in Omaha. Let the good times roll.

Open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 11 a.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday. Call 402-033-3115 for reservations.

Visit http://beaconhills.com/ for details.

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.

 

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

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing 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.

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.

 

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

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing 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.

Soul food eatery Omaha Rockets Kanteen conjures Negro Leagues past and pot liquor love menu

November 17, 2016 Leave a comment

Don Curry banks on his “healthy” version of soul food catching on at his niche Omaha Rockets Kanteen and Southern Pitch food truck. His niche concept is wed to a Negro Leagues baseball passion that permeates his brick and mortar and mobile eateries.

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in November 2016 issue of The Reader

Good Memories and Good Eats

Soul food eatery conjures Negro Leagues past and pot liquor love menu

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Passing the torch at the Dundee Dell

August 29, 2016 Leave a comment

I have always been partial to the fish and chips served up at the Dundee Dell. The old line Omaha pub has a loyal following for its grub and spirits and for its ultra casual vibe. There’s something traditional and classic about the way it looks and feels and does things. So when I got the assignment from Food & Spirits Magazine (http://fsmomaha.com/) to do this piece on the recent ownership change at the Dell I was more than happy to accept because I was curious to meet the man who’s headed the place for the last three decades, Pat Goebel, as well as the man he’s passed the torch to, Greg Lindberg. Both gentlemen have years of experience in the food business. Goebel inherited a legacy in the Dell. Lindberg made his name and success as the entrepeneur who brought fresh seafood to Omaha to a whole new level through his Absolutely Fresh Seafood markest and Bailey’s and Shucks restaurants. Selling the Dell to someone as experienced as Lindberg eases Goebel’s mind that he’s leaving it in good hands and Lindberg is respectful enough of what Goebel created there that he’s asked Goebel to help smooth the transition. Goebel’s pleased to do just that. It’s been a spell since I’ve dined and hung out at the Dell and after meeting the men and learning how passionate they are about the place what it means to them I’m eager to renew my own relationship with it. You can bet I’ll order the fish and chips and even though I really don’t imbibe I may break down  just to sample one of those aged Scotches the joint takes pride in. Oh, and on some other visit I have to try the hot pastrami sandwich that both Goebel and Lindberg recommended.

 

The fish and chips at Dundee Dell are crisp and delicious.

 

Passing the torch at the Dundee Dell

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the August 2016 issue of Food & Spirits Magazine (http://fsmomaha.com/)

 

In the wake of Piccolo’s closing, leaving Omaha one less signature Italian steakhouse, the Bohemian Cafe announced it would serve its last Czech specialties in September. So when rumors surfaced Pat Goebel was selling the city’s oldest pub, the Dundee Dell, local diners and imbibers alike quaked at the thought of some dillitante swooping in and ruining a good thing.

Fears were allayed when news got out the Dell was purchased by veteran Omaha restauranteur and wholesale food maven Greg Lindberg. The midtown landmark has joined his Absolutely Fresh Seafood, Shucks Fish House and Oyster Bar and Baileys family of businesses.

Since taking over last spring, with Goebel staying on to ease the transition at Lindberg’s request, the new owner’s made it known to devotees the magic that makes the Dell won’t change.

Lindberg, who often bent an elbow at its old 50th and Dodge location and followed it to its current 50th and Underwood site, appreciates what he’s inherited when he calls the homey  establishment an “icon and institution.”

“The pressure I feel is to not screw it up, because it is the Dundee Dell,” Lindberg said. “My witnesses or judges are the loyal customers and employees.”

He said being the steward of a legacy that goes back to 1934, when it started as a Jewish delicatessen, then went through a steakhouse phase, before tuning pub, is a “labor of love.” He’s also quick to add, “I believe I can make money with this. I think I can make it a good business and a fun place for me to be. I’m doing this because I want to do this.” There’s also a deeper reason that motivated him to buy the Dell – he didn’t want to see it shuttered the way so many historic restaurants have and chance a franchise opening in its place.

“I believe in small business,” he said. That belief goes back to his father who championed buying on main street as publisher of newspapers in Sergeant and West Point, Nebraska.

By the time Lindberg operated his own ventures, he saw too many mom-and-pops go under.

“I was selling fish to all these restaurants owned by hard working people trying to feed their families. The chains kept moving in and kicking these people out. That sucked, that is not the way I want my town to be, so I fight back.”

 

Photo of Greg Lindberg

Greg Lindberg

 

Lindberg admires that Goebel enjoyed a long run (he bought it in 1989) and “kept the vibe, the spirit” while giving it “a breath of fresh air” upon moving to its new digs in 2000. Lindberg’s added new systems, fresh carpeting and other overdue updates to provide “new energy” and “get it shiny,” but he’s kept most everything else the same. That includes the famous fish and chips and the hot pastrami sandwich. Holdover executive chef Mary Tomes is introducing new seafood and traditional English pub items. The Dell’s epic collection of Scotch varietals is being curated to further brand the Dell as a niche neighborhood joint where you can get certain scotches you can’t anywhere else.

Lindberg said his familiarity with Scotch was limited to drinking it, but he’s learning from Goebel, a bonafide connoisseur. Goebel’s vast store of spirits knowledge is not the only reason Lindberg asked he remain in-house awhile.

“A lot of the Dell is between his ears, quite frankly. Plus, he’s the face of the Dell.”

Lindberg’s getting ample face time with Dundee regulars. “Whatever the politically correct term is for people with money and education, well, they’re here,” he said, “and that’s cool, I like it.” The Dell can appeal to an upscale clientele looking for a relaxed setting, but looking at Dundee’s mostly gourmet eateries, it fills the inexpensive pub niche otherwise missing.

He’s learned things since starting his first business in 1979.

“A lot of times in my life it’s been knowing what not to do. I have ideas from here to the Interstate. single-spaced. I’m a list guy.

I’ve kept my last two phones and computers because they have so many lists and they don’t talk to each other. There’s some good ideas in there, but you can’t do everything.”

Many eateries go awry, he said, by “trying to be all things to all people – too many things on the menu.” “Ideally,” he said, “I’d shave off a third of any menu.”

He believes the front and back of the house are only as good as the people working them. He was impressed enough by Goebel’s tight-knit corps that he’s kept the entire staff intact.

“We haven’t gotten rid of anybody.”

“I could not be more pleased,” Goebel said. “It really is family.

So many of our staff have been here 10 years-plus. We take care of our people, we support each other. If somebody’s having a rough spot, we gather around and help them through it. If there’s a wedding or a new baby’s born, we all celebrate.”

Lindberg isn’t messing with a good thing. “Everybody talks about their place is family,” he said. “This is the real deal. There’s a lot of amazing stories about what Pat’s done for these people. If you’ve got good people, you can do anything, – I believe that in my soul. I’ve done my best to surround myself with talented, hard working people. I actually like ’em and they tend to like me.” Yes, running a business comes with hassles, but “good people take most of those away from you,” he said.

Goebel feels he’s leaving his people and place in good hands.

“Greg and I really see eye-to-eye on things. I wanted to find       somebody who’s vested in the legacy, in the tradition, in the Dundee Dell, and wanted to maintain that going forward, and I found that in Greg. I wouldn’t have done it any other way. I’m very invested emotionally here. I will always be. But it’s time for me to pass the torch.

“This thing needs to be respected and honored and cherished. It’s not just another part of a large operation. I mean, do we really need another Applebees? Does it make Omaha better? The Dundee Dell does make Omaha better.”

 

 

 

Lindberg said the timing was right. The Dell took a hit from extended street construction a few years ago that made accessing it a pain. Business further  lagged this last year. When he heard Goebel was seeking a buyer, he contacted him to discuss terms and discovered the depths of the struggles.

“It got rough. It was spiraling down. Staff were a little beat down over lack of money to fix things. The way I saw it,” Lindberg said, “if I didn’t do it, this thing was going to fall. It was close.”

Besides not wanting the Dell be another Omaha eatery casualty, taking on a new challenge is just what he needed.

“I’ve just been having a good time with Shucks and Bailey’s and Absolutely Fresh for decades. It wasn’t always fun, but it has been for quite some time. This has reenergized me. I don’t have to work, but I like it. I’m 61-years old, I’ve been doing this for 37 years. I’ve been saving money – not for the first 12 or so – but I’ve been saving money ever since. I’d be fine. I could retire.

“But then what?”

Ever the entrepreneur, Lindberg needs the rush that comes with business risk and reward. Then there’s the symmetry of it.

“I bought it from Pat, who had it for 27 years. He bought it from Neil Everett, who had it for 27 years. That’s Haley’s comet weird.”

Lindberg’s not sure he’ll make it  27 years himself, which would be 2043, but he’s happy to settle for another milestone.

“It will be a hundred years old in 2034. I can make it that long.”

Visit http://www.dundeedell.com.

The Long Goodbye for Bohemian Cafe: Iconic Omaha Eatery Closing After 92 Years

August 25, 2016 1 comment

Soon, there will be no more “dumplings and kraut today at Bohemian Cafe” as the venerable Omaha eatery’s familiar jingle went. As you probably know by now, this throwback ethnic restaurant that’s served up authentic Czech, German and Polish cuisine for most of its nine decades is closing September 24. It truly has been a landmark and anchor on South 13th Street for its immersive ethnic experience – from the exterior’s decorative tile and signage’s Old World style lettering to the folk attire of the wait staff to the specialty meat dishes with their rich, sopping-good gravies and sauces. It truly has been a destination place for residents and visitors alike who want something distinctly different.

It may not serve the most refined fare, but the Bohemian Cafe made its reputation specializing in some of the most delicious, satisfying, stick-to-the-ribs meals found in the metro. After 92 years the family-owned restaurant is bowing out of the hyper competitive dining scene knowing its departure is making lots of loyal customers sad. During its long goodbye, lines have been out the door as proof it’s made a lot of folks happy.

 

 

The Long Goodbye for Bohemian Cafe: Iconic Omaha Eatery Closing After 92 Years

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the September 2016 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

When family owners of the Bohemian Cafe announced in May the restaurant was for sale and would close September 24, it marked another casualty among classic eateries calling it quits. An eventual surge in customers wanting to indulge Czech-German-Polish specialties was expected, but sibling co-owners Terry Kapoun and Marsha Bogatz never expected the deluge would start almost immediately. And not let up.

“We made the announcement on a Tuesday (one of two days during the week the cafe’s closed), and that Wednesday we served 500 dinners, where we normally served maybe 225 on a weekday,” said Kapoun. The numbers kept growing. “Thursday we served 600, Friday we served 700, Saturday 800 and then Sunday it dropped back to 650-675. We expected this maybe the end of August, the beginning of September, not the next day,” And certainly not every day since.

“It’s just overwhelming,” he said.

The droves coming for roasted meat in rich gravy, hearty bread dumplings, sweet-sour cabbage, kolaches, strudel and a Pilsner pint, combined with reduced hours, means long lines at the 1406 S. 13th Street eatery. The wait allows time to admire the facade’s decorative tiling whose folk art displays continue inside.

Queues of hungry diners have meant doubling the batches of dumplings and kolaches normally made. The same for the roasted beef, chicken, pork loin and duck. For the first time in anyone’s memory, the Cafe ran out of duck one evening.

Head chef Ron Kapoun, another sibling, learned the unwritten recipes from Laddie Svoboda. The slow-cooked meats with special seasonings and pan drippings, cream-laced gravies infuse dishes with deep flavors arrived at by practice and instinct.

Families used to commemorating special occasions and holidays there are returning to relive powerful sense memories. Sentiments get shared with Bogatz and Terry Kapoun’s wife, Steph, who split greeter duties. The Bohemian’s Facebook page is filled with reminiscences and farewells.

Terry Kapoun said several ex-pat Nebraskans have returned just for another meal.

Bogatz said the family’s “seeing customers we haven’t seen for quite a few years.” First-timers are also among the throng and they’re getting turned onto unfamiliar items like svickova, jaeger schnitzel, Czech goulash and liver dumpling soup.

“We’ve had a lot of new people in. They heard about us and they wanted to at least experience it once, and they’ve just loved it. They wish they would have been here before.”

After 92 years in business, 69 in the same family, the Bohemian will be no more unless a new owner steps forward and the younger set of the four-generation clan that’s run it since 1947 decides to continue the tradition. Terry Kapoun’s parents purchased the cafe from his grandparents in 1966 and he and his siblings later took it over. It’s the only job Kapoun and Bogatz have ever had. Their children and grandchildren have all worked there, The full-time wait staff, some on the job 30, 40 years, are regarded as family.

 

 

Bohemian Cafe: 1: liver dumpling soup 2: egg drop soup 3: jäger schnitzel 4: hasenpfeffer

Bohemian Cafe: Get the goulash!

 

Its end follows other beloved stand-alone dining spots now gone: Mr. C’s, French Cafe, Vivace’s, Venice Inn, Piccolo’s, M’s Pub. Only a few remain with such pedigree: Cascio’s, Johnny’s Cafe, Gorat’s, Joe Tess Place. Petrow’s, Dundee Dell, Howard’s Charro Cafe.

Terry Kapoun laments independents fading amidst chains.

“There were so many great restaurants just in this little area (Little Italy-Little Bohemia), and they were all family-owned.” With each loss, he said, Omaha “loses a little bit of its personality and character.”

Each had its own niche. The Bohemian stood out with Czech folk figures flanking the huge neon sign over the entrance, a wait staff attired in traditional garb and that Old World menu.

“To so many people, this is Czechoslovakia in Omaha,” Kapoun said.. “Customers who’ve gone to the Czech Republic tell us when they eat at cafes in Prague it’s just like eating at the Bohemian Cafe. We take pride in giving Czechs and non-Czechs an authentic cuisine experience.”

The owners say that where today’s entrepreneurial indies are apt to move on when the going gets tough, family-owned spots persevere. Kapoun said, “I don’t think there’s been a family restaurant where at times they didn’t pay salaries or had to hold them awhile when things were sluggish. Only in a family restaurant would things carry on this long or the same head chef still be there since 1979.” Ron Kapoun’s been rising at 2:30 a.m. to start cooking at 4 nearly every day for 37 years.

As Marsha Bogatz said, “You sacrifice for the restaurant.”

Even with advancing age and decades of long hours taking their toll, the 64-year-old Kapoun said, “I really thought I’d be working until I was 80 with the kids. It just didn’t work out that way.”

The Cafe’s evocation of homey nostalgia makes folks feel a part of it, which is why Kapoun regards himself the steward of a communal treasure.

“It was always that type of a feel. I’ve never felt like an owner.”

Open Wednesday through Sunday from 3 to 9 p.m. Visit http://www.bohemiancafe.net.

Pot Liquor Love

August 23, 2016 Leave a comment

 

 

Pot Liquor Love 

Not long after Pam and I began getting to know each other, we discovered several things in common, and some of what we found we both have a real passion for has to do with food. Having been in a previous long-standing relationship with an African-American woman, I already knew that the food I grew up eating and the food that many African-Americans grow up eating share many similarities. This, despite the fact that I am of Polish and Italian ancestry, two cuisines you wouldn’t ordinarily or immediately associate with soul food. But much of the food my late parents grew up eating and that they then weaned my two older brothers and I on is what could be called peasant cooking, which is essentially what soul food entails. The peasant connotation simply refers to the fact that people of little means, whether Polish or Italian or Black, historically make do with whatever is at hand. including what they eat. The humble rooted people on both my dad’s Polish side and on my mother’s Italian side certainly made do with what they raised and tended on the land and with what scraps of meat they could afford to purchase. The same with Blacks, whose soul food tradition derives from what was available from the sweat of their own brow working the land and what they could scratch together to buy.

Thus, the Polish and Italian cuisine I grew up eating, just like the Black soul food cuisine I was introduced to years later, features lots of greens, beans, potatoes, pastas (think spaghetti and macaroni and cheese), grains (barley, rice, grits) and lower end cut, slow cooked meats, including pig’s feet, cheek, hocks,  butt, ribs, oxtails, smoked turkey wings and legs and beef liver, although some of those formerly low cut low priced meats have since become pricey gourmet items. There are pan-fried and deep-fried connections, too, between my roots and Pam’s, such as chicken livers and gizzards. and, of course, chicken.

My mom and dad split the cooking. Their go-to dishes included: smothered pork chops (his), bean soup with hocks (his and hers), oxtail soup (his), braised oxtails (hers), oven-baked chicken (his), beef stew (his), Italian stew (hers), pig’s feet (his), greens (hers),

Pam has expressed surprise over and over again when, upon talking fondly about various dishes her family enjoyed eating, I come right back with, “Yeah, we ate that, too.” She is fairly amazed even now that I have consumed more than my share of ham hocks, for example, and that I still cook with them today. We didn’t have collards, but we did have mustard and assorted other greens. My mom grew up eating dandelions and she’d once in a while incorporate them into our greens as well.

The whole idea behind this mode of cooking and eating is to stretch things in order to feed several hungry mouths without straining the budget. That means lots of soups, stews, casseroles, bakes and concoctions where you throw in everything on hand to make what Pam’s family used to call “stuff.” Every ethnic group has it own variation of this everything but the kitchen sink dish that is more about expediency than it is culinary style. But Pam and I both agree that there’s never a good enough excuse for making something that lacks flavor. We are both big on bold, robust flavors achieved through liberal seasoning and cooking methodology. When it comes to meat, and she and I are both classic carnivores, we prefer slow baking, roasting methods that produce copious amounts of natural pan drippings that we spoon right over the serving portions or that can be the base for rich, delicious gravies and sauces. You might say we are connoisseurs of pan drippings because we appreciate the layered, complex, concentrated flavors they contain.

The resulting “pot liquor” is produced whether cooking beef, pork or poultry, but you have to have cuts that are bone-in and contain some fat, too. Fat and bone, that’s where the real flavor resides, and all the seasoning and veggies you add only help enhance the flavor. Yes, pot liquor is the really deep, fat and marrow released and rendered goodness that gets deposited in those puddles, streaks and bits. We never serve a meat dish without  some of the pot liquor over it. I love that term because it’s so apt to what the essence of pan drippings are. Rendered fat and bone is where it’s at and when enough of it is released and it gets to coagulating and browning to where those alternately gooey and crusty bits collect at the bottom and edges of the roasting pan, it distills right there in the oven or even on top of the stove into a heady, briny brew that really is best described as pot liquor.

Pam knows by now that one of my favorite food things to do is to take a hunk of bread and sop up the smear of congealed pot liquor left on the pan. Oh, my, that is a burst of flavor that rivals the best bites I’ve ever eaten, Not even a 4 or 5 star restaurant can duplicate that taste.

There are other pot liquors not exclusive to meat dishes, such as the brew created by cooking collards with ham hocks. Pam makes some righteous greens with hocks or smoked turkey lumps whose pot liquor is enough to get intoxicated on when sopping it up with corn bread or pouring it over most anything.

With the holidays coming up I am already salivating at the thought of Pam’s roasted turkey – she makes the moistest turkey I’ve ever eaten – and its pot liquor bounty that pairs well with the greens, the stuffing, the candied yams and everything else for that matter.

Sure, there’s more to life than food, but at the moment I can’t think what that might be. Cooking a meal for someone is as true an expression of love as I can think of. It is the epitome of sharing something precious and of delighting in someone else’s pleasure or satisfaction. Pam and I regularly take turns cooking for each other. Her home cooked meals bring me right back to my childhood and early adult years eating at home with mom and dad. She likes my cooking, too. It also takes her back. By now we both know what we like and what we don’t. Our tastes, with a few notable exceptions, are remarkably alike.

On our recent trips down South we experienced a few dishes with good to the last drop pot liquor love. Read those at–

https://leoadambiga.com/?s=southern+fried

Not sure whose turn it is in our couple cooking rotation. It doesn’t much matter though you see because whoever has the duty will be putting out big flavors. That’s what you get when you cook with love – flavor. The one cardinal sin we can’t abide is bland food. That and skimping on the pot liquor. When we sit down to dinner, it’s not so much “pass the salt” as it is “give me some more of that pot liquor, honey.”

I don’t mean to imply the lip smacking magic of our Pot Liquor Love is what keeps us together, but it sure helps.

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