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

April 17, 2017 Leave a comment

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

 

Pot Liquor Love:

Chef-Owner Jared Clarke Goes Wood-Fired

Chef-Owner Jared Clarke Goes Wood-Fired

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Railcar’s success emboldened him to try Timber Wood.

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

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

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

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

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

 

Jared Clarke

 

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

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

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

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

“Here, you can interact with us.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Mary Current and her Crazy Gringa Hot Sauce


The heat quotient of food is a relative thing but when you talk about certain varieties of  peppers, well, hot is hot, and the only question then is how much heat can you tolerate. Mary Current makes hot sauce. Not just any hot sauce, but Crazy Gringa Hot Sauce. Actually, she makes a point not to emphasize so much the heat as the flavor. Be that as it may, there’s still a definite kick to her sauce, which I suppose is the point when it comes to hot sauce. Anway, the story of how Mary came to turn a homemade brew meant just for her family and friends into a branded product and business sold all over is told in my Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com) profile of her.

 

 

Mary Current and her Crazy Gringa Hot Sauce

©Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Originally appeared in March/April 2017 issue of Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com)

Mary Current and her son, Anderson Current, started making hot sauce three years ago. She never planned on being a commercial food producer despite working the front and back of the house at restaurants, studying culinary arts, and being married to a retired food and beverage director. “It just kind of happened,” she says of Crazy Gringa Hot Sauce’s origins. One day this foodie and home gardener decided to make hot sauce from her bumper pepper crop. She had made pico de gallo and salsa, but never liquid hot sauce. Friends and family loved that first spicy concoction and wanted more.

Her four main sauces became habanero, jalapeño, datil, and chipotle, each with notes of poblano, anaheim, vinegar, citrus, garlic, and onion. Specialty sauces have followed. She only arrives at a recipe after much research and experimentation. Finding the right complementary combinations, she says, “is what I really like doing,” adding, “That’s what I get a kick out of. It’s like a gift.”

The initial strong reception got mother and son thinking, especially after the savory micro batches proved popular with Anderson’s friends in Colorado, where he lived with his wife, Constance. The couple worked for Whole Foods. When they moved to Omaha, Anderson helped his mom turn her food hobby into a business. Constance designed the logo with a Medusa-like head sprouting chili peppers. The two shopped the sauces around to trendy eateries like Block 16, and found that chefs and patrons also enjoyed the homemade spicy condiments.

Crazy Gringa has come a long way since Mary cooked and bottled the sauces at home and sold them out of the trunk of her car. Her condiments are now made in a commercial kitchen and are staples at the Omaha Farmers Market, select Whole Foods, Natural Grocers, Hy-Vee stores, and some restaurants. She plans on keeping things small.

Working together allows the family more quality time, which is the main reason why Mary likes keeping it all in the family.

“When we make hot sauce, that’s our bonding time together,” Mary says of her and Anderson. Her husband, Doug, helps with receiving.

Mary also likes maintaining a small operation because it allows her to pour as much of her heart and soul into the operation as possible.

“It really is a labor of love. I’m never going to be rich, but I love to see the joy on people’s faces when we’re back at the Farmers Market and they say, ‘I can’t live without this hot sauce.’”

Just as Crazy Gringa showed up on store shelves, City Sprouts board president Albert Varas sought an area food manufacturer with whom he could partner. He realized these simple sauces with complex flavors have, as their base, items interns can grow and cultivate at the City Sprouts South garden at 20th and N streets. He contacted the Currents and found they shared a passion for building the local food culture.

The Crazy Gringa Hot Sauce maven partners with Omaha City Sprouts on a social entrepreneurship project that may spur more collaboration between for-profits like hers and the nonprofit urban agriculture organization.

City Sprouts South grows various peppers for Crazy Gringa’s signature hot sauces. The boutique company, in return, donates a percentage of sales over four summer weekends to support City Sprouts programs. Meanwhile, Crazy Gringa works with other local growers to supply the peppers City Sprouts can’t.

“We just hit if off,” Varas says. “They are all about community service, engagement, and sourcing hyper-local food with a mission behind it. It was always my dream we would partner on bringing a value-added product to market. It’s a great way to engage our interns.

“The relationship adds revenue and relevance to what we’re doing.”

Having the hand-grown peppers picked and processed in Omaha fits Crazy Gringa’s emphasis on fresh, local, and artisanal. Current also creates limited-run small batches for City Sprouts and other nonprofits to give away as gifts or prizes.

 

Anderson helped build the raised beds for the peppers at the site that community activists turned from a dumping ground to a garden.

Mary loves that her product helps a community-based ecosystem.

“So many kids don’t know where their produce comes from and City Sprouts helps educate them about how things grow,” she says. “Those interns learn how to garden, so they learn how to sustain themselves and their families. We’re happy to support good things in the community like this.”

Interns gain a sense of ownership in Crazy Gringa’s success.

Varas says, “The interns need something to do and something to believe in. One intern, Rafeal Quintanilla, is a mentee of mine and he really digs the idea that he has a stake in the finished product because he waters and cares for the peppers and harvests them. He has pride in being a part in creating this delicious hot sauce.”

The partnership with Crazy Gringa “has far exceeded my expectations,” Varas says, adding, “It’s not just transactional—it’s been an incredible reciprocal experience.”

Mary Current concurs, vowing the relationship will continue as long as she’s in business. “It’s an amazing concept. They’re wonderful people to work with. I can’t think of a better place to give back your money.”

More collaborations like this one may be in the offing.

”I think this is a model that could and should be replicated,” Varas says. “My hope is that we will be able to recreate this next growing season with Crazy Gringa and possibly other food businesses.”

Visit crazygringahotsauce.com

This article was printed in the Spring 2017 edition of B2B.

 

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.

Requiem for the Bohemian Cafe


Requiem for the Bohemian Cafe

 

©by Leo Adam Biga

News that the Bohemian Cafe will close in September leaves me with mixed feelings. Don’t get me wrong, I love the place and all its high-caloric staple dishes, faux motherland decor, kitsch Czech knickknacks, waitresses from another era, and old-line customers who waddle in and out in the haze of an oncoming food coma, I am one of those customers. I was introduced to the place when I was a child. It was a go-to venue for extended family celebrations on my Polish side, which is the Biga side. Like many of you, I grew up hearing its radio ad jingle on KFAB, “Dumplings and kraut today, at Bohemian Café, draft beer that’s sparkling, plenty of parking, see you at lunch, okay?” and I am certain I will never be able to get it out of my head.

The other side of me is Italian (Pietramale) and of course Omaha’s Little Bohemia enclave is only a dumpling’s throw away from the Little Italy district.

More than once a gathering of Bigas occupied the party room at the Bohemian Cafe when I was growing up. It always seemed like a culturally excotic immersion experience. As the years passed, I continued going. It was one of my late parents’ favorite places to dine at. When they finally moved from North Omaha to South 9th Street right across from Grace University, I actually ended up eating more than ever before at the Bohemian. Usually with both of them or one of them. My brothers long since moved away to Colorado and as far as they were concerned the Bohemian was a must stop.

 

 

The owner of the cafe had it right when he told the World-Herald that a restaurant like his is more than just about the food, it is an emotional experience. Emotions easily rule out reasoning. There’s nothing wrong with the food there. For what it is, it is very good indeed. Unique among eateries here, too. But let’s just say it’s highly doubtful more than, say. 10 percent of its menu items are anywhere in the vicinity of heart healthy and maybe 10 percent of its ingredients are fresh, locally sourced, organic. It’s not the kind of place, I dare say, that has relationships with area small famers and purveyors. That’s just not what it does. That’s just not part of its DNA or character. It is all about doing things the same way. That’s both good and bad, of course.

The local restaurant scene has a few old independent holdovers left around who also remain unchanged. I expect they will all soon be gone, too. Not necessarily because the mass of us are choosing or demanding healthier, fresher options, though more and more of us clearly are, but in fact because there are so many more good restaurants to choose from today than 5, 10, 15 years ago, and each with its own indvidual take on cuisine. The options are staggering. And they simply do things at a higher level. Their food may not always taste as good as the Bohemian’s but it’s comfort good done at a fine dining or gourment level. For about the same price.

The Cafe’s owner acknowledged he and his staff are out of touch with the times, including the need for 24/7 social media branding. If I could make it happen, i would choose to keep the Bohemian going, but with some updates and other changes, while keeping the integrity of what sets it apart. The owner has said he would embrace someone taking it over, It’s possible, I suppose, but I don’t see that occurring. I will miss it. You can be sure i will enjoy at least one more authentic Czech meal there, probably one of its veal dishes, soaking up the delectable richness of that pot liqoured gravy, and happily stagger out in the midst of a diabetic onset episode. if you come upon me in the throes of that delirium, please don’t interfere – it is all part of the experience. And so, South 13th and environs loses another anchor amenity (I miss you Marino’s and St. Wenceslaus and Angies and all the rest). But we do have new amenities in the House of Loom and the Blue Barn. We have reactivated amenities in the Burlington Station becoming the home to KETV. Change happens. You lose things, you get new things.

I just don’t know what I’m going to do to feed my kolache fix come this fall. Oh, I know I can find kolaches elsewhere, but the point is they will never be the same. Same with the sweet and sour cabbage and the bread dumplings. Now, kindly join me in a tribute, nostalgic singalong of “Dumplings and kraut today…” while we knock back a cold dark stout.

 

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

August 30, 2015 Leave a comment

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

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

Pot Liquor Love:

Omaha’s Culinary Culture Rises

Dedicated Local Chefs Elevate Your Dining Experience

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Emerging Terrain dinner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bryce Coulton

 

 

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

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

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

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

 

Dario Schicke

Dario

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brian O’Malley

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Several chefs applaud the camaraderie present on the scene.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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