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Pot Liquor Love: Anthony Kueper Dedicated to Creating Memories at Dolce

October 23, 2017 Leave a comment

The Omaha fine dining scene features so many top chefs doing their versions of elevated American comfort that it’s not only hard keeping up but keeping them straight as well. One chef-owner doing his best to stand out from the pack is Anthony Kueper at Dolce in northwest Omaha. Here is my profile of him in the Fall 2017 issue of Food & Spirits Magazine.

 

Anthony Kueper Dedicated to Creating Memories at Dolce

Anthony Kueper Dedicated to Creating Memories at Dolce

In four-and-a-half years, Anthony Kueper has gone from sous chef to executive chef to chef-owner at fine dining Dolce in northwest Omaha.

Dolce is another of the city’s new crafted American food spots, but unlike the young, fresh-from-culinary-school phenoms running some of those other kitchens. Kueper is a 43 year-old veteran of the food wars.

From savoring fresh mussels in France at age six to taking cooking classes at 12 to preparing meals at home for his younger siblings and for friends, his life as a gastronome started early.

Born into a military family, he moved with his father’s U.S. Air Force assignments and everywhere he went he indulged in the indigenous food culture: street frites in Holland, Tex-Mex in the American southwest and paellas in the Philippines.

His father twice got posted to Offutt Air Force Base in Bellevue and it was that second, more permanent posting that saw Kueper finish school here and get his first professional training.

“I worked atJulio’sandJones Street Brewery. It was good food but it was basic stuff.”

Then there was fortuitous stint atThe Bistroin theOld Market.

“Two chefs there influenced me a little bit and actually got me to go to culinary school –Gene Cammarota and Kenneth Hughes,” said Kueper.

Being exposed to their high end techniques, he said, “gave me the idea there was more to just cooking.”

Along the way he bumped into future notables, includingPaul Kulik.

Kueper left Omaha for culinary school in Kansas City, Missouri in the early ’90s, but as with any chef it’s what came after that most shaped his aesthetic.

“I got a piece of paper from culinary school – the rest of it was learned in kitchens and from the people I rubbed elbows with and surrounded myself with. It’s who you choose to follow that’s important.”

He was in his early 20s when he landed a chef gig at the Ritz Carlton on the Plaza in K.C.

“My first chef position at the Ritz Carlton hit me hard. I almost didn’t recover. I was very talented at an early age. I had a lot of hype put behind me. I had a lot of powerful people around me.”

Under the Ritz Carlton brand he worked in Atlanta for the Olympics and in San Francisco opening a new venue. Then he felt it was time to do something else.

“When I left the Ritz Carlton and went to Colorado to try and do something on my own, it was a big challenge. It wasn’t a real niche for fine dining, so I ended up doing a lot of bar and grills – fun food – and tried to throw some of my technique into that. There’s only so much you can do.”

Colorado is where he grew personally and professionally and where he met his wife, Daniela. They have three children together.

“Yeah, I met a girl from Germany and she put hooks in my heart.”

After she returned to Germany, he sold most of his belongings and joined her there.

“I left my restaurant in Aspen and lived in Hamburg for two years.”

He joked that if it gets out he’s really a romantic at heart, he won’t be taken seriously as “a tyrant in the kitchen.” The couple returned to the States to start a family. Colorado became their home base.

He worked for some real characters there, including an eccentric Frenchman. Then there was ‘The Dude’ at a place called Toscanini. That led to Kueper joining VIN 48 in Avon. He was there from the end of 2008 to the beginning of 2012

“It was a good experience.”

Meanwhile, Daniela missed the flavors of home.

Fortunately, when they lived in Hamburg he schooled himself on the local cuisine.

“So she wouldn’t be homesick I learned how to cook German food. I learned how to make schnitzel at a two star Michelin restaurant.”

After all his travels, Kueper finally came back to Omaha. The decision to come here was all about family. One of his boys had respiratory issues in the high altitude of Colorado and Kueper wanted to be closer to his parents. But settling here was not the ultimate plan.

“I planned on spending a little time in Omaha before finding something in Chicago, Minneapolis or Kansas City. We weren’t going to put our roots down in Omaha.”

Besides, it was a rough go the first couple years back.

“It was difficult because I’m an older chef with a pedigreed resume. I’m not a 27-year-old kid that ran half the kitchens in town.”

Star chefs likeTim NicholsonatThe Boiler Roomweren’t even old enough to drink when he left here. Things had definitely changed.

To keep his fine dining skills honed he worked atV. Mertzfor nine months, but making $11 an hour wasn’t cutting it to support a family. That gig though led to Dolce.

“The V. Mertz name alone kicked open doors for me with the resume I had.”

Dolce’s original owner,Gina Sterns, discovered him there and brought him on board in 2013. He admired how she took what began as a pastry shop to a fine dining establishment. Health issues forced her to take a step back. In 2014 Lincoln restauranteursJason Kuhr and Tyler Mohr purchased it.

“We helped elevate this space to what it is because, I mean, it’s in a strip mall. You don’t know what to expect from the outside. It does surprise a lot of people that they can find this little gem of a place there. We’ve done a lot to improve the ambience. Jason had the financial strength to do the things that would have taken me a lot longer to do in terms of remodeling, revisiting and reinvigorating the space. My food and what he did made what Dolce’s standing on now.”

Meanwhle, Kueper helped the Mohrs openOllie and Hobbes in Omaha but found himself overextended.

“I wasn’t happy. I was working way too much, even Sundays, not seeing my family. I was pulling down a lot of money, but it wasn’t worth it.”

That’s when he decided to focus his energies on one venue and worked out the purchase of Dolce. He actually tried before, when Sterns still owned it, but he and a partner didn’t have the capital.

He had tried the chef-owner hat on in Colorado.

“It was an exciting thing to open a new restaurant, but it turned out to be a bad partnership, so I kind of wash it from my memory.”

This time around he’s flying solo and loving being his own boss. He’s taking the fresh-local upmarket comfort food thing to the next level.

“The whole local food movement – trying to get all your products from within a 120-mile radius – is the greenest way to go about it. I don’t want to be buying my pigs from New York. This is where food comes from. This is a huge farming community.

“Where it matters, we do buy organic – in our meat, in our dairy. About 50 percent of our produce is organic.”

If Kueper’s learned anything, he said, it’s “that people have to love what you do and how you do it,” adding, “That at the end of the day is what matters.”

“The people that come here like our food, they like what we’re doing with the food, they like our message.”

He’s all about providing an experience that touches deep reservoirs.

“Food is a memory. The bread pudding we do is based off my dad’s mother’s recipe. My dad says it’s the closest rendition he’s ever had, it’s just different. The thing that’s different is she saved up all the scrap bread from the bread she used to make. I’m using a different style bread. My dad generally tears through his food, but when he hits that bread pudding, he slows down, so he can savor everything.”

True to its comfort concept, Dolce keeps things simple.

“If you look at our menu, they’re simple things that people can identify with.”

But with that fine dining twist.

“We serve kale with our steak and I swear to God we go through more kale. And we’re not doing the kale chips or salads or anything like that, we actually use it as a good vegetable on our proteins and people are like, ‘You made me eat kale – and it was wonderful.’

“For our roast chicken we start with good local chickens that we brine in-house. A seven herb emulsion goes on it – it’s oregano, chives, parsley, thyme, rosemary, spinach and we add some roasted garlic. A lot of people can’t put their finger on it because it’s such a blend. We make a tomato marmalade by cooking tomatoes down with a little bit of sherry vinegar, sugar, salt and pepper. We serve the dish with simple gnocchi and broccolini.”

Kueper draws inspiration from the past.

“I’m really a traditionalist when it comes to the history of things. I cook with historical background. I try to do it the way it was done years ago before there were microwaves and preservatives. We dry-age some of our own meats here. I’d like to do more, but we don’t have the facility space.”

The day this reporter visited, a Mangalista hybrid hog got delivered. It’s an old breed valued for its high fat content that keeps the meat succulent when roasted.

Many myths attend fine dining that Kueper’s eager to overturn.

“People think it’s unhealthy – it’s not. We don’t use tons of butter. We use herbs salt, acidity, just the right amount of balance in things.”

Flavors are carefully curated.

“We don’t try to overpower flavors. There might be one thing that’s going to knock your socks off but then        everything else is going to be subdued.”

Today’s Omaha food scene is quite different than the one he left two decades ago.

“Omaha has come a long way. The cooks and the kitchens in Omaha are there. The diners still need to be educated. You constantly have people tell you, ‘You know what you should do?’ Like put a crab cake on a salad. It’s very classic, it’s very nice. I’m not saying that’s not a good idea, but it’s just not my expression. It’s not the type of food I look to put forward.

“I like to push people out of their comfort zone just a little. It’s all driven by technique. And if I can win you over on one of those things, I will build a customer for life. It’s kind of cool that way. I have people that don’t like duck who love the duck that we do. I’ve had people tell me they hate salmon but ours was the best salmon they ever had.”

His Margarita Mussels is another example.

“That’s one of my signature dishes. I think I’m bringing it back this fall. The tequila is added to a citrus broth. It hits all the right notes.”

He said its creation came about “from just being playful.”

Experimenting with ingredients is a lifelong process.

“You’re never done learning. I’ll work with an ingredient until I think I’ve figured it out. I will try stuff and really shoot from the hip.”

A couple years ago he taught himself to make ramen noodles from scratch. “They seem so simple and basic, but when done right,” he said, they’re oh so delicious.

More recently, he concocted a translucent omelet made from just egg yolks.

Baking is something he’s mastered in recent years.

“I wasn’t much of a baker, but now I’ve become quite an advanced baker. I’ve learned a lot teaching myself.

“It’s all time and temperature. It’s just basic chemistry and all the laws can be changed in different applications to make things happen. It’s just how you approach it and if you’re willing to take a chance. I have a lot of failures, but I have a lot of successes, too. I don’t serve my failures – I eat them.”

Two things Dolce’s known for – ‘Taste of the Moment’ and ‘Date Night’ – continue. Taste of the Moment specials change every day according to his mood and shopping finds. On a late August visit it was herb goat cheese ravioli with red pepper pasta.

“We roast off sweet red peppers, remove the skin, and blend them up with the eggs. It’s served with smoked chicken broth with Shiitake mushrooms, spinach and truffle oil.”

More than ever, he can follow inspirations as they occur.

“Now that I’m not working for somebody else, I can do it my way. I don’t have to ask somebody if it’s okay to do a ‘weird’ dish. I’m doing my artichoke creme brulee this fall. It’s something I learned how to make in Germany. It’s artichoke and parmesan in a creme brulee, so it’s savory. It’s served with asparagus wrapped in our house-made prosciutto.”

Freedom to do your own thing is nice, but not everyone’s going to like everything you do. His five-course tasting menu usually has one dish that challenges diners. When he first took over as chef at Dolce four years ago, a local reviewer openly questioned his execution on some dishes. He took exception with the digs though he acknowledges he wasn’t at his best then.

“That was a long time ago. At the time, I had a young crew. I was just getting established here under new ownership. I was trying to feel them out. I wasn’t cooking to my potential – not like what we’re doing now. It was good food, but I wasn’t putting it all out there. I was sparing some of myself inside.”

The vagaries and demands of his field can drain all but the heartiest souls.

“As a chef you can throw yourself out there and it’ll end up burning you up. It’s hard to keep stable mental health in this industry, it really is.”

With all his experience, he perhaps feels less compelled to prove himself and more inclined to bask in the glow of doing what he loves. It’s why on a recent vacation to his old stomping grounds in Colorado he made a point of catching up with buddies from VIN 48 so they could cook together again.

Before leaving for the trip, he said, “I haven’t seen them in five years. I’m doing it because I miss them. Two of the guys I trained are running the place.”

The trip served as a reminder to keep it simple, stupid.

“I’ve cooked some of the best meals with no running water. I was an avid backpacker and camper. I had tortillas, Fantastic Foods hummus (a dehydrated product) and fresh caught trout that I smoked over a live fire using a little orange juice and soy sauce.”

Food is what you make of it and Kueper’s all about giving diners a memorable experience in his warm-toned, intimately-scaled Dolce, where maybe you’ll meet your new best friends while dining.

“There are these two couples that come in to dine together at least once a month. They met each other here. Their love and passion was food and our restaurant brought them together, and I think that’s cool.”

How dolce (sweet) too.

Located at 12317 West Maple Road. Open for lunch Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m, and for dinner Monday through Saturday, 5 p.m. to close.

For menu and reservations, vista http://www.dolceomaha.org, or call 402-964-2122.

 

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Pot Liquor Love: A cornucopia of food stories, past and present, you may have missed


A cornucopia of food stories, past and present, you may have missed. Sample these as part of your summertime epicurean indulgence.

Brought to you by your purveyor of Pot Liquor Love–

©Leo Adam Biga 

A Soul Food Summit | Leo Adam Biga’s My Inside Stories
https://leoadambiga.com/2010/05/31/a-soul-food-summit/

Charles Hall’s Fair Deal Cafe | Leo Adam Biga’s My Inside …
https://leoadambiga.com/2016/05/11/charles-halls-fair-deal-cafe/

Big Mama’s Kitchen & Catering | Leo Adam Biga’s My Inside Stories
https://leoadambiga.com/category/big-mamas-kitchen-catering/

Shirley’s Diner | Leo Adam Biga’s My Inside Stories
https://leoadambiga.com/tag/shirleys-diner/

A. Marino Grocery | Leo Adam Biga’s My Inside Stories
https://leoadambiga.com/tag/a-marino-grocery/

Omaha Chapter American GI Forum | Leo Adam Biga’s My Inside …
https://leoadambiga.com/tag/omaha-chapter-american-gi-forum/

The Great Omaha Chocolate Festival – The Reader
http://thereader.com/dining/the_great_omaha_chocolate_festival/

A Culinary-Horticulture Marriage | Edible Omaha
http://edibleomahamag.ediblecommunities.com/gardening/culinary-horticulture-marriage

New film ‘Growing Cities’ takes road trip look at urban …
https://leoadambiga.com/2013/10/21/new-film-growing-cities-takes-road-trip-look-at-urban-farmers-cultivating-a-healthy-sustainable-food-culture/

Eat to live or live to eat, Omaha’s culinary culture rises …
http://thereader.com/visual-art/eat_to_live_or_live_to_eat_omahas_culinary_culture_rises/

A Different Kind of Bistro – The Reader
http://thereader.com/dining/a_different_kind_of_bistro/

JOURNEYS: Within Our Reach: A Starving World – Metro …
http://www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/November-2014/JOURNEYS-Within-Our-Reach-A-Starving-World/

Pot Liquor Love: Chicken is King at Time Out Foods | Leo …
https://leoadambiga.com/2015/10/28/chicken-is-king-at-time-out-foods/

Southern Fried Love Road Trip Diary I | Leo Adam Biga’s My …
https://leoadambiga.com/2016/06/01/a-southern-road-trip-diary/

Southern Fried Love Road Trip Diary II | Leo Adam Biga’s …
https://leoadambiga.com/2016/08/12/southern-fried-love-road-trip-diary-ii/

Book depicts area whole foods culture in stories, recipes …
http://thereader.com/visual-art/book_depicts_area_whole_foods_culture_in_stories_recipes_pics/

Good Memories and Good Eats – The Reader
http://thereader.com/dining/good-memories-and-good-eats/

Righteous Southern Grub at Dixie Quicks | Food & Spirits …
http://fsmomaha.com/righteous-southern-grub-at-dixie-quicks/

Maria Bonita | Omaha Magazine
http://omahamagazine.com/articles/tag/maria-bonita/

Passing the Torch at the Dundee Dell | Food & Spirits Magazine
http://fsmomaha.com/passing-the-torch-at-the-dundee-dell/

Anne and Craig McVeigh Bring Beacon Hills Take on American…
http://fsmomaha.com/anne-and-craig-mcveigh-bring-beacon-hills-take-on-american-comfort-cuisine-back-to-where-their-food-careers-started/

Doing Things the Dario Way Nets Omaha Two of its Most …
http://fsmomaha.com/doing-things-the-dario-way-nets-omaha-two-of-its-most-distinctive-restaurants/

Chef-Owner Jenny Coco Proves She Can Hang with the Boys …
http://fsmomaha.com/chef-owner-jenny-coco-proves-she-can-hang-with-the-boys/

Mary Current and her Crazy Gringa Hot Sauce | Leo Adam …
https://leoadambiga.com/2017/03/06/mary-current-and-her-crazy-gringa-hot-sauce/

The Long Goodbye for Bohemian Cafe – Leo Adam Biga’s My Inside …
https://leoadambiga.com/…/the-long-goodbye-for-bohemian-cafe-iconic- omaha-eatery-closing-after-92-years/‎

Chef-Owner Jared Clarke Goes Wood-Fired | Food & Spirits …
http://fsmomaha.com/chef-owner-jared-clarke-goes-wood-fired/

Tacos and Tequila Take Center Stage at Hook & Lime | Food …
http://fsmomaha.com/tacos-and-tequila-take-center-stage-at-hook-lime/

A systems approach to addressing food insecurity – The Reader
http://thereader.com/news/a-systems-approach-to-addressing-food-insecurity/

Tacos and tequila take center stage at Hook & Lime


Tacos and tequila take center stage at Hook & Lime
by Leo Adam Biga

The high concept behind Hook & Lime Tacos + Tequila is a small plate nirvana paired with crafted margaritas for a fine dining-meets-street food experience.

The changing menu is anchored by tacos and tortas, family-style meals and appetizers. Seafood, pork, beef and chicken proteins predominate but some veggie dishes are available, too. The tortillas are made fresh on the premises every day. The extensive bar program is highlighted by homemade syrups and infusions and fresh-squeezed juices to complement the many varieties of tequila (140) and mescals (25).

Owner-manager Robbie Malm is vying for a North Downtown niche after making a success of Dudley’s Pizza in Ak-Sar-Ben Village. He’s confident Hook & Lime is reeling in the discerning diners it needs.

“I think we are starting to find our audience,” he said.
“When I drop food off at the table, people are just wowed by the presentation. They’re eating with their eyes first. They’re pleasantly surprised. It’s a lot tastier and more beautiful than they thought it would be. It’s fun to see because it feels like we’re over-delivering.”

He looked at other locations before fixing on NoDo,where a development boom is underway.

“I am very glad we ended up settling here. I like the idea of being part of an emerging neighborhood. I like being one of the anchors as the place builds up around us. It’s really exciting seeing everything going up. Right across the street we’ve got people that will be working here, staying here, living here.

“And obviously I’ve got a giant baseball stadium (TD Ameritrade Park) right behind me, which doesn’t hurt.”

Not to mention the CenturyLink arena-convention center. Then there are Slowdown and Film Streams on the same block and the Omaha Design Center and Hot Shops Art Center within easy walking distance.

“We get a lot of traffic from the Slowdown and Film Streams events and we’re starting to get a lot of neighborhood regulars,” Malm said.

Whoever ventures there is sure to note Hook & Lime is not your mainstream Mexican restaurant.

“We try to stay as far away from Tex Mex as possible and that is something we still have to explain to people,” said head chef Brandon Kalfut, He was chef de cuisine under Alex Sorens at the start-up before Sorens left. Kalfut previously worked in Denver and with Dario Schicke at Avoli Osteria and Clayton Chapman at The Grey Plume.

“If diners order a dish and they seem a little hesitant on it,” Kalfut said, “our servers are very well-trained on what goes into it and getting people set into a comfort zone on the menu. There are familiar things and adventurous things on the menu, and that’s kind of what we try to strike a balance between.”

Familiar include’s a battered cod fried fish taco. On the more adventurous side is the Yellow Tail Escabeche.

“But you don’t have to dive all into something that’s totally unfamiliar,” Malm said. “You can get one of each. That’s kind of what we want to promote. For people who are just dipping their toes in the water, that’s fine – start here, and then come back next week.”

With some authentic offerings, such as the Salsa Flight, certain notes have been toned down while remaining true to the original.

“Some of these traditional sauces tend to be bitter and very layered in flavor and sometimes that’s a hard sell because people aren’t expecting that,” Kalfut said.

Two signature dishes – the Chorizo Torta and the Bone-in Barbacora – represent the pains taken to do things right. The house-made sausage is made with select cuts from the whole hog used head-to-tail in the kitchen and the shank is prepared over several days.

“A lot of technique and time is dedicated into making our chorizo,” Kalfut said. “It’s a double grind. For every one pound of meat, it takes about 17 ingredients. We grind anywhere from 80 to a hundred pounds, so multiply those 17 ingredients by 80 or a hundred. It’s one day literally just creating all the seasoning for it. A thousand peppers go into a hundred-pound batch. We soak and char off the peppers. Somebody physically stands in front of the grill to lightly char each pepper individually.

“The second day you grind the meat and marinate it. On the third day you do a secondary grind. We do all this before it’s even capable of going on the menu.”

The dish then is ready to be composed.

“Our Chorizo Torta is a classic,” Kalfut said. “We complement the chorizo with a local wild arugula, marinated white onions, house-made creme and a fried egg. A lot goes into something that eats really well, yet it’s simple and a hundred percent approachable.”

So is the Bone-in Barbacoa.

“It’s a five-pound bone-in beef shank. We actually have people call-up to make reservations just to reserve one because we can only do so many per week. It’s a cut of the cattle (femur) rarely used whole. We do a 24-hour salt cure and a three-day sous-vide (precision cook in a water bath). Then it rests one day before we even let it go on the menu.

“We do table-side service where I hand-shred the shank, tilt the bone up and pour all the bone marrow juices on it. We finish it with Kampala sea salt.”

“It’s an experience,” Malm said.

“It comes with our rice and Anasazi beans and we send out a bunch of accouterments,” Kalfut said. “Part of the bone-in presentation is an explanation of all these specialty components that don’t exist anywhere else on our menu because it’s all just infused into this one dish.”

For Malm, the care that goes into this single menu item is “a good example of our approach to everything, where we like to say nothing is an after-thought here. Rice and beans is the easiest thing to make an after-thought, but we have that same level of attention to detail for it.”

It all matters.

“And that extends to the bar program,” he said. “We make our own syrups. With our margaritas, instead of using Grand Marnier, we make our own orange brandy. That’s a collaboration between the chef and the bar manager. It’s always fresh-squeezed juice. We’re not using any kind of corn syrup, sour mix garbage. I would say these are the best margaritas in town.”

Bar manager Brian van Egmond, who learned his trade working at various Omaha spots and in Monterrey, Calif., said, “This is my first full cocktail menu and I am very excited being able to take our margaritas and give people a craft experience. Everything here is handmade in-house. We’re not carrying any liqueurs, we’re actually building them in-house. It’s something to really round the experience and we’re doing it at a great price point.”

Using his alchemy with flavors and Kalfut’s food science savvy, he said, “we’re able to take a 30-day infusion and crash it down into a five-hour process, which is hugely significant in keeping costs down.”

Details make magic of what could be mundane.

“The house margarita is a lot of times the after-thought
cocktail on the bar menu at Mexican restaurants,” Malm said. “We start with Exotico Blanco – a citrus zest infused tequila. We use the orange brandy – pulling that citrus essence into the mix, and our in-house made Turbinado syrup. All those things combined make a damn tasty margarita – and that’s the house margarita.

“That’s what sets us apart.”

Kalfut and van Egmond work closely on food-drink pairings.

“Finding the nice subtle differences between two or three Blancos to complement two or three fish dishes,” van Egmond said, “means one is going to have a grassier note and another one’s going to be a little sweeter and pull through to complement a more savory dish. You’re trying to get two completely different items to work together in a sort of harmony.”

Having someone with Kalfut’s experience, van Egan said, is an advantage.

“Brandon’s been a great source to learn from during this whole process.”

Collaboration “makes the pairings a lot more fun,” Kalfut said. “From the chef’s side of it, I’m like, ‘These are tasting notes for the dish,’ and then Brian reads them, spends time thinking about it and starts pulling stuff off the shelf and matching key points from the food’s flavor profile with key points from tequila or mescal profiles.

“Brian’s very open to us saying, ‘No, that won’t work with that dish.’ Then he grabs another bottle down. With his knowledge and palette, he has the ability to find what will complement the dish.”

It helps, Kalfut said, that “we take the criticisms of the food and the tastings very well from each other” and from customers, too. “We do take guest feedback very strongly, so if there’s something that needs to be tweaked, we evolve to what diners are looking for.
Getting it out of our heads and onto a plate is the first step and then after that it’s just feedback, feedback, feedback, until you get it to that perfect little bite.”

Hook & Lime is also a reflection of its chef’s and owner’s
personal cuisine adventures. A trip to Mexico made Malm a tequila convert and fired his passion for tortillas.

“One of my favorite dining experiences there was this giant market with food vendors making the tortillas right in front of you. An old Mexican woman would roll up a ball of masa in her hand and put it right on the grill. Seeing and smelling that fresh cooked tortilla was one of the main inspirations.”

As for Kalfut, “I go down to Austin, Texas a lot and try to hit up as many of the authentic restaurants as I can. My (culinary) background is very much French-Asian, so I would say a lot of the stuff I do is influenced by the places I’ve eaten, the places I’ve gone to.

“Ten years ago I didn’t think this (Mexican cuisine) was something I’d be doing. But I am very strongly influenced by outside sources and putting my own little love on it. I mean, I put own love on every dish, but you’ve got to start from somewhere.”

He and Malm, who both advocate sustainable practices.

“We’re as close to zero waste as we can be on all of our proteins,” Kalfut said, “Everything we bring in is head-to- tail and we find a way to use every component. Same with our produce. Every single day we only have about one Slim Jim trash can worth of food waste.”

The team takes it one step farther by recycling its oil, cardboard and glass.

Local sourcing is also important to Hook & Lime. Its local purveyors are listed right on the menu.

When the restaurant first opened Malm was strictly focused on the business side but he’s gotten more involved on the food side.

“To the point that he expos now,” said Kalfut. “He does all the final touches on a lot of the plates that go out. The first two months he was like, ‘Nope, don’t bother me with it,’ and now he’s the final touch on a lot of plates and he does it just as fast and as god as I can do it.”

“”Maybe not just as good, but I’m coming close,” Malm said.

Those last-minute touches complete the dish and plate.

“Like our Caesar salad needs to get some olive oil as well as fresh black pepper,” Kalfut said. “Our chicken taco gets Espelette french pepper as well as micro cilantro, olive oil and finishing salt.

“Sometimes it’s tweezer work where we literally use micro tweezers to place these things directly on each individual taco, for example.”

Malm enjoys it all, but “what really jazzes me,” he said,
is “the creation part” of turning concept into reality.

“Figuring out how it’s going to look, getting samples of plates and figuring out how they’re going to go together, piecing the menu together little by little – I really like that part of it. At Dudley’s, once that was done, there wasn’t a lot of opportunity for reinvention and that was one of the main reasons I wanted to do something smaller. I wanted to find a little more of a niche where the menu could be reinvented on a regular basis.

“The idea was always an elevated tacos and small plates concept restaurant. It’s a little more elevated than I originally had in mind. It’s evolved a lot, like every idea does. You tweak some things and little by little you find out what it wants to be.”

“We’re on our 12th menu adaptation,” Kalfut said. “I think we’re finding our stride. We’re continuously pushing.”

He’s happy to have an owner equally motivated by quality.

“Robbie’s never once said, ‘No, don’t buy that, it’s too expensive, no don’t bring that in, it’s too foreign.’ It’s always, ‘Yeah, bring it in, we’ll try it, we’ll see if it makes sense, we’ll see if it works, and if it doesn’t, we’ll try something else.’ That, from a chef’s perspective, is a dream come true.”

A by-request-only tasting menu is available on a select basis.

Open 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. for lunch and 5 p.m. to close for dinner, Tuesday through Sunday. Closed Monday.

Visit http://www.hookandlime.com.

The Motivator – Willy Theisen


Serial food entrepreneur Willy Theisen of Omaha has a methodology for success in life and business that he likes sharing with others. When he’s not making deals or overseeing his various moneymaking ventures, he’s speaking to groups of aspiring and established entrepreneurs about some guiding principles he follows that he feels can help people achieve their dreams.  Many of his most attentive audiences are high school and college students who were not born when he had his breakout success with Godfather’s Pizza. He’s had many successes after selling Godfather’s and he’ll be stategizing and pitchng until his dying breath but he’s not just about accumulating weath and possessions these days, he’s also about giving back, and he views passing his wisdom and experience on to others, whether as a speaker or mentor, as a form of public service. My new profile of Theisen in the May-June-July 2017 issue of Metro Magazine (https://issuu.com/metmago/docs/thegivingguideandeventbook2017) delineates some of the key tenets he lives and works by and that he gladly shares with others.

 

The Motivator.

Willy Theisen

Photo by Jim Scholz

“We Don’t Coast!”

The Greater Omaha Chamber ads say it. Nebraska is motivated and motivational. So is one of her most inspiring success stories, Willy Theisen. This serial entrepreneur who first made a name for himself as founder, chairman and CEO of Godfather’s Pizza Corporation is anything but idle at 71. He still puts in 70 hours a week between his business pursuits and community endeavors.

After selling the brilliantly branded Godfather’s chain he grew to 500-plus franchises, he went on to new hospitality industry adventures. He returned to his roots with Pitch Coal-Fire Pizzeria but doing more refined pies than Godfather’s. With Pitch a hit in Omaha’s prime Dundee neighborhood, he’s opened a new eatery there, Paragon, featuring a completely different concept.

Theisen’s come a long way from his brash rise to fast-food fame and fortune that found him making news for his lavish lifestyle – once renting a Concorde supersonic passenger jet to take him and birthday celebrators to London and back. Over time, he’s devoted considerable energy to civic service work, including serving on the Omaha Airport Authority and Creighton University boards. More recently, he’s been appointed to the Center for Innovation, Entrepreneurship & Franchising at the University of Nebraska Omaha. He’s also been appointed chairman of the Omaha Convention and Visitors Bureau Advisory Board and named a Creighton University Business Ethics Alliance Trustee.

With Nebraska feeling the pinch of persistent brain drain, massive state budget deficits and the loss of major corporate players, this serial entrepreneur is viewed as an economic stimulus expert.

At a recent presentation before Skutt Catholic High School business students and members of Future Business Leaders of America, he said, “Who creates jobs? Entrepreneurs create jobs.” He shared how he was taken aback to learn that in its 44-year history, Godfather’s has created more than half a million jobs.

His proven business savvy is well recognized per his induction in the Omaha Restaurant Association Hospitality, Omaha Chamber of Commerce and Nebraska Business & Commerce Halls of Fame.

Because of his-real world expertise and experience as a self-made man, he’s often asked to present before audiences ranging from professionals to high school and college students. He especially looks forward to interacting with young people because he believes in cultivating and supporting emerging entrepreneurs.

“I really think these people who produce new ideas and share those ideas and have them nurtured is our future job growth in this state,” Theisen said. “I think it’s a must that we identify and nurture them as early as possible.”

He told Skutt students: “Entrepreneurs are people that can see things other people don’t see.”

Theisen and Gallup Global Channel Leader of Entrepreneurship and Job Creation Todd Johnson share a passion for finding and coaching young entrepreneurs. In June, a group of area youth identified through Gallup assessment profiles as high potential entrepreneurs will attend the Omaha Builders Internship at Gallup, and Johnson’s already secured Theisen’s help.

Life Lessons.

“I called Willy and said, ‘I’m going to have the next generation of you here at Gallup for a month, will you engage?’ and he said yes. So he’ll mentor, coach and present to them.”

Johnson said the idea is to be more systematic, scientific and intentional in the early identification and development of entrepreneurial talent.

“Willy and I have really bonded on that project. We’ve socialized it and, I dare say, evangelized it and we’re going to set-up Omaha as a best-practice mecca. Gallup sees Willy right in the middle of the mentoring and coaching of this next generation of entrepreneurs.”

In recent Gallup testing he scored highly in eight of the ten metrics associated with greatly successful entrepreneurs, including knowledge-seeker.

Anthony Hendrickson, dean and professor of Business Intelligence & Analytics at Creighton University’s Heider College of Business, said he admires Theisen’s curiosity about what makes things work.

“He came to the Harper Center to speak to a group of students. I took him on a quick tour of the building, including the food-service kitchens. Willy wanted to walk through those facilities and see what was being prepared, how, by whom, the menus and processes. Willy was just trying to learn if there was anything he might have missed as a restauranteur. Ever the student of business and life.”

Theisen’s public speaking is part of a philanthropic thank-you to the city that supported his big idea.

Van Deeb, a national real estate speaker, author and coach, said, “Willy is spending the majority of his time giving back to the community that made him so successful. We spend a lot of time together and I see it and I feel it. He’s wanting to give to youth hope, direction, inspiration.”

Theisen said, “I make time now. Before, I probably cared just about things more than the impact I could make. I was always too busy working, opening restaurants all over the country. I don’t want to go all over the country. We’ve got a lot of stuff to do right here and it’s not all about restaurants – it’s about people.

“A lot of people are busy all their life and they don’t want to be part of anything. They just let things happen. I don’t want to let things happen – I want to make things happen. When I get done with a project I want it to be better off with my involvement than without it.”

Beverly Kracher, a Creighton business professor and CEO-executive director of the Business Ethics Alliance, said, “Willy is smart enough to see he has power. He’s also a man of character enough to use that power to take care of our community and to act responsibly.”

Johnson said he admires Theisen’s commitment to the Business Ethics Alliance they serve on together.

“We have events across the city throughout the year and you can always find Willy. He’s known as a man that shows up and I think that’s a real important insight into who he is. I can’t think of a time when I asked for Willy’s help and he said no. I sure hope I’m as generous with my time, talent and treasure in 20 years as he is. He’s such a good role model.”

Theisen said his focus on “giving back and paying forward” is something that “comes with age and from involvement in the community,” adding, “It just evolves into this and it becomes more important than not.”

When presenting he eschews prepared notes for a conversational, freestyle delivery that invites talk-back. His message emphasizes certain principles he lives and works by as well as certain truths he believes. One is the importance of first-time jobs and what they teach.

“First-time jobs give young people confidence. They direct you to come in on time, say ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’ It gives you confidence in the things you need to be set up in to succeed. At Godfather’s it just happened that about 80 percent of the 545,000 jobs created during the company’s history have been filled by first-job seekers.

“Working at Godfather’s was a starting point for many young individuals. What’s most fulfilling to me is that they have gone on and bought houses and automobiles, raised children, contributed to society, and that first job was a part of their foundation.”

Growing up, Theisen’s parents modeled and he adopted a work ethic and earning-your-own-way mentality.

“I always had a job. I painted house numbers on curbs, I caddied, I worked in a pool hall, I flipped burgers, I cut lawns, I bagged and carried groceries at Eddie’s Market, I killed chickens in the market’s basement.

“I did a lot of stuff – and all of it matters. All of it got me here today.”

At Skutt he stressed that from humble origins great things can spring forth. Students young enough to be his great-grandchildren listened intently.

“My best audiences are young people,” he said. “I think they’re looking for a direction and I talk right to them, I don’t talk down to them. I relate to them. I want to be something they can count on. I’ve worked with young people in business all my life.”

Dale Eesley, an associate professor in UNO’s College of Business Administration, said, “Willy doesn’t lecture students. He tells them stories from his career and encourages them to look for the best in themselves. He emphasizes hard work – something anyone can do if they set their mind to it.”

Theisen knows any group includes entrepreneurs.

“There’s a handful of them in every audience. They’re there, we’ve just got to find them and show them the opportunity. Hopefully, I can inspire them to maybe have the courage to take it one step further.”

Eesley considers Theisen “a true mentor” figure for youth. “Many times I have arranged for students to seek advice from Willy. On several occasions he has hosted ‘Dinner with an Entrepreneur,’ where four to six students from the Collegiate Entrepreneurs Organization join him at Pitch and get to know him personally as well as professionally. Students all say it’s the highlight of their school year.”

Creighton’s Hendrickson said, “Willy is a tremendous resource for young people, especially aspiring entrepreneurs. He takes time to visit with students individually, listen to them intently and provide encouragement and wisdom about their ideas. He is quick to share the positive potential he sees in their thoughts and plans but equally quick to provide the kernels of truth they need to hear about the challenges they will face. I have referred many students to him.”

Until recently, Theisen said, what few entrepreneurial classes local schools offered were only for graduating seniors or graduate students.

“It’s too late. We can’t wait until they’re seniors to identify them as entrepreneurs. We’ve got to have entry-level. Now schools have departments and programs for entrepreneurship. This is where these ideas come from. They only need one and from one you can take it and make something out of it, and our schools now nurture that out of people.”

Theisen tells students none of this support existed when he was their age. “The word ‘entrepreneur’ wasn’t even used. We were called futzers or daydreamers.”

So much of what forms us, he tells audiences, is our habits. His checklist of positive habits to follow includes “showing up on time, being a person of character and being credible.” He encourages those working first jobs to foster traits that develop good lifetime habits that connote trust. “Be dependable, come in early, stay late. Make the boss look great. That’s how you advance.”

He said along with doing things right “comes confidence, then ethics and then trust,” adding, “I want to get people to where somebody can look at them and say, ‘I trust you, I can count on you, because you’re here on time, ready to work.’ I tell young people you gotta be ready to work when the opportunity is there. Don’t say, ‘Can I get back to you on this?’ Someone else will do it.”

He said the trust that flows from being ethical in business is not a legal requirement but “it sure helps to be a person of your word.” Besides, he said, “It is the right thing to do and the relationships are so much better when you’re ethical. No hidden agendas, no backroom deals, no going around in an underhanded way.”

He built his first business empire on trust.

“From 1977 through 1979 I opened 450 Godfather’s Pizzas in 36 months. You couldn’t have done it if you didn’t trust each other, if you weren’t ethical, if you picked the wrong partner to go into these things with. None of it would have happened.

“Some of the first franchise deals we had back in 1974, we didn’t have written agreements. You know what we had? You grabbed a person’s hand and you looked at them right in the eye and took them at their word.”

 

 

metroMAGAZINE/mQUARTERLY MAY/JUN/JUL 2017

 

 

Long before franchising became an option, Theisen had to sell a banker on a dream.

“Something life-changing for me happened in late 1972. I went over to Southwest Bank to get a small business loan. I was nervous. The lending manager I met with, Joe Sullivan, said, ‘What’s your idea?’ ‘Well, what I’m going to do is I’m going make a big, thick pizza with a bunch of toppings on it and I’m going to put my store right in the middle of Thomasville Apartments. There’s 500 or 600 people living there and everyone’s going to come there; nobody’s going to cook.’”

Theisen, who worked for a real estate developer then, had no real collateral other than his vision and belief.

“All I had was a rough ballpoint-ink outline of the building on a cocktail napkin. Joe looked at me and said, ‘Where’s the rest of your business plan?’ ‘That’s it.’ He stared at me, and said, ‘I like it, it’s simple, I understand it.’ He gave me Small Business Administration loan papers. He guessed I wasn’t good at filling out forms and said, ‘I’ve got a guy.’ He asked, ‘Do you work at night?’ ‘Yeah, I work at night,’ ‘Will you start tonight?’ ‘Yeah, I’ll start tonight.’ His accountant and I got those forms filled out and I got the loan. You know what Joe made that day? He made a character loan. He made me a loan. That’s what I call the Sullivan Effect.”

Additionally, Sullivan offered some sound advice via an admonition. “He said, ‘When you open your place, I want to see you there.’ I asked my business partner at that time, Greg Johnson, ‘What do you think that means?’ ‘It means you’ve got to be there all the time.’ I was there all the time. That’s the Sullivan Effect, too.”

Business Ethics Alliance activities have given Theisen fresh insights into lifelong practices.

“I thought I was always doing the right thing but now I know I’m doing the right thing, and I get a little more satisfaction out of it.”

Of his fellow Alliance trustees he said, “It’s evolved into quite a good list of individuals. It’s not a coincidence most of them are leaders. They got there being that.”

Creighton’s Kracher said Theisen brings credibility to advising about jobs since he’s created so many.

“He grooms young people to help them understand what it means to work hard, to show up on time, to be accountable, to be trusted – all those character traits that matter if you are going to be a business person.

“He takes the time to educate students that half of life is about showing up and in his fundamental belief that business and life is based on trust.”

She said his charisma plays equally well with students and seasoned business professionals.

“You can’t help enjoy hearing him speak and then afterwards telling five people what you heard.”

Theisen stresses to audiences the building blocks of success must be cultivated. “This just doesn’t happen,” he said. “You don’t wake up one morning and get this when you’re 69 years old. This is the fabric and core of who you are and how you treat and greet others.”

As a veteran restauranteur he knows how key quality control is. It’s why he shows up to observe and listen. He always checks the restrooms to ensure they’re clean. He stops to ask diners about their experience. He follows orders from the kitchen to the table to see if they’re coming out right.

One night at Pitch he followed an onion rings order from the kitchen to a table where two young women sat sipping cocktails. He regaled them with what makes the rings so fresh and special when one woman interrupted to say, “Willy, we trust you.” “And it kind of took me,” he said. “It’s all I’ve ever worked for. It’s the core and fabric of what I am. Everything I am is to be trusted.”

Built on Trust.

“Trust”, he told Skutt students, “means everything to me. It doesn’t come quick, it doesn’t come easy. You’ve got to earn it every day. That’s one of your strengths.”

No detail’s too small for his attention. Nothing gets overlooked, ignored or abandoned.

“I try to talk to young folks about solving small problems. I’m a master at solving small problems. I try to have big ideas sometimes, but I want to solve small problems. If you’re driving to an appointment and you cut yourself short on time, you make yourself late and thus less credible, and I try to teach people how important that is,” he said.

“I generally ask, ‘How many of you made your bed this morning?’ I make the point it’s the first achievement of the day. There’s research showing you’ll be happier several percentage points by doing that one thing. Your day flows from there because it’s done. Then you clean up, get dressed. It organizes you and gets you set to take on things.”

Kracher said, “He’s a perfectionist and that perfectionism has driven him to the successes he’s had. He looks at every single detail over and over, down to the toilet paper in his restaurants’ restrooms.”

Theisen’s never without a to-do list.

“This is my to-do list,” he said, holding a small sheet of memo paper filled with entries. “I’m going to finish it and then I’ll have another list for tomorrow. But you have to finish things. You can’t leave everything half-assed, half-done. That’s what I tell people. You have to show up, you have to be prepared and you have to finish things.

“That’s who I am, that’s how I live my life. Successful people are finishers. If you’re a finisher, you’re going to be successful.”

In his talks, he said, “I really provoke thought. They remember me when I leave. That’s my job. That’s one of the reasons I’m there. I give them points to think about and I present in an untraditional way.” In a given session, he said he and students get around to discussing “food and beverage, hospitality, politics, education. Omaha’s generous philanthropic community and the philosophy of giving back and paying forward. We talk about a lot of things. It’s fun for me and them.”

Theisen doesn’t just engage with audiences of privilege. Through his work with UNO he visits inner-city schools to interact with diverse students, many of whom come from trying circumstances.

“This past summer my friend Van Deeb and I visited several inner-city high schools together – Blackburn, Central, South and Benson – to let them know UNO is an option to help people be entrepreneurs if they want to be entrepreneurs. It’s not for everybody.”

He said, “Something eye-opening happened at Benson. I was miked up, walking back and forth on stage, chatting, when I looked down in the front row and this young man was sound asleep. I looked over at the guy next to him and said, ‘Wake ‘Junior’ up, would you?’ So he gave him a shot and ‘Junior’ sat up.

“When I got done I was getting my things together on stage to join the students for Godfather’s pizza when I saw ‘Junior’ approaching me stage left. He’s a big guy. I thought, ‘This can go either way.’ He towers over me and I look up and he says, ‘Mr. Theisen, I want to apologize for falling asleep.’ I asked, ‘Who told you to come up here?’ ‘Nobody, I come on my own. After I did get with it, I heard you have to man up and take ownership for everything you do. That it’s not a blame game.’ So he shook my hand and as we walked off stage he put his arm around my shoulder, and I think I changed him for only a minute. He changed me.

“It was humbling. I’m up there to teach some takeaways, positive direction, leadership skills as sort of a life coach, and when he came up it tore at me because he heard enough that it changed him. It reminded me how fortunate I am to be in front of those students. He took my words to heart and that made my day and made it well worthwhile going there and sharing. I know I made an effect on one person for sure and hopefully many more. I take away so much more then these kids get. I’m the beneficiary of this when I get done with one of these groups. I love it.”

He’s well aware many of the urban kids he addresses face challenges their suburban peers do not.

“I was at Blackburn and this girl was asleep when I walked in the room. This was a group of students that had left school and were coming back to graduate. They were a little bit older and they were on a mission. I said to her, ‘You probably need a little more sleep,’ and she said, ‘Yeah, I do, because I’m pregnant.’ I said. ‘Well, you know, others have been where you are and you’ll get through it. By coming here you’re going to get a high school degree and things will get better.’”

Connecting.

“They have tough lives. Listening to them, having empathy for them and encouraging them are among the things I try to give back. They don’t want me to sit up there and bark at them for an hour. I talk to them and I draw out of them things. They must trust me or they wouldn’t tell me.”

Todd Johnson said Theisen instinctively reacts to his audience and adapts as needed.

“No matter the setting or audience, Willy manages to engage. He figures out a way. And if you think about entrepreneurs, they always figure out a way. They see or hit an obstacle and they go over it, around it, under it and I think that applies to his community involvement and communication.

“He can read a room and adjust on the fly if he has to. He’s pretty good at that and he keeps it snappy.”

Van Deeb said he’s impressed by Theisen’s ability to reach people.

“I truly admire how he connects with youth. He relates to them. He commands the room. You can hear a pin drop. They listen to every word he says and he’s not just talking about being successful in business. He’s talking about how to be successful in life. Treat people well, do what you say you’re going to do, be on time. He never brings up his financial success. It’s never about making money, it’s about being a good person, and it’s refreshing.

“What I see in Willy is he cares about people. He wants to be significant in people’s lives. When I look at these students’ faces, it’s clear they’re learning from him.”

Far from the public eye, Theisen also personally intervenes in the lives of young people in crisis or at crossroads.

“Some people come into my life that are on the wrong track and need help getting over humps. I get gratification from seeing somebody get on that right track and do well. As a respected friend of the family I can often come in and talk to kids better than the parents can. I go in pretty straight-forward – here’s what we gotta do, no nonsense, no excuses.

“Many a time I get their attention when everything else has failed. We agree one-on-one what we need to get done. It’s better that way. I make the young woman or man responsible and we get on a timeline and we start. I don’t want to get disappointed and I don’t want to disappoint them. so we’ve both got to do X to get to where we’re going.”

Theisen didn’t come from money and he’s worked for everything he’s gotten. He’s had his own setbacks, both personal and business. He faced a serious health issue several years ago. He knows what it’s like to struggle and fail, though he likes to think of those misfortunes as “things that just didn’t work out.”

All of it’s given him a heart “for the little guy.”

“I’m a guy for second chances, I really am,” he said. “I don’t give beatdowns. It used to be one-and-done with me. As I’ve gotten older, I feel it’s more important to give second chances. I’ve seen people that have tried really hard to live up and they can’t do it the first chance and so I give them another. I know when somebody’s really trying and they just need a little more time.”

Whether for kids or adults, his how-tos are the same.

“There are steps I want people to take. To be formidable, competitive, resilient. To be mindful. To have empathy. To take and have ownership. To be a person of your word, I want people to know I walk the talk. I’m somebody you can count on.

“These are just words but there’s true meaning behind every one. My epitaph, if I do have one, would read: ‘He was a good guy who tried right some wrongs over the course of his life.’ That’s a big deal to me.”

Theisen doesn’t dwell on his mortality, not with a granddaughter to dote on, projects to work on and commitments to keep. But he’s aware each passing year brings him closer to the end.

“What I’m not going to do is waste one day.”

He’s never been more content or grateful knowing his purpose in life as a builder and creator is never really done and may even outlive him.

“I have good health and good fortune. I try to eat right. I hit the gym. I get enough sleep. Yeah, I’m very happy. I’ve not been any happier. I look forward to tomorrow and the next day. I don’t look back much. I want to move forward. I’ve got so many things to get done. I have to solve small things in each of them. They need me.”

 

“My epitaph, if i do have one, would read: ‘He was a good guy who tried to right some wrongs over the course of his life.’ That’s a big deal to me.”

Read more, including what young entrepreneurs have to say about Willy Theisen’s motivational impact on their lives, in our DIGITAL EDITION.

 

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.

 

Pot Liquor Love: 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. 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:

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.

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.

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