A Real Food Find: Finicky Frank’s
Upon discovering a great restaurant like Pam and I did last night at Finicky Frank’s, I am immediately thrown into conflict. Part of me wants to share the find with the world and part of me wants to keep it our little secret. Obviously, the former insitnct won out over the latter and with this post I am gladly spilling the beans and sharing the love about this charming place that serves up real food at the foot of Ponca Hills. I had heard some good things about Finicky Frank’s but being somewhat finicky myself, I wasn’t prepared to believe the hype, especially after being disappointed more times than not by supposedly good dining spots. This one though really does live up to the glowing reviews and recommendations. Mind you, I’ve only eaten there once, but the experience – from the food to the service to the decor to the vibe – was well above average and among the best I’ve had in Omaha. I rate the experience highly enough that it makes me confident and eager to go back and try more things on the menu. Before I get to what we ate there, I will tell you it features a small but well curated menu of burgers, sandwiches, pizzas, seafood dishes, pasta dishes and salads. This is New American Comfort Food. It’s not highly refined but it is prepared with love and passion. It is a made from scratch place that equally prides itself on fresh and whenever possible locally sourced ingredients. The proof is in the food and the flavor. For my dinner I actually ordered the lump meat crab cakes off the appetizer’s list and a house salad. The crab cakes were among the best I’ve ever had. Meaty, moist, luscious, flavorful. Quite good-sized too. More than filling enough for a dinner entree. One can also get a crab cake sandwich (served on a Broiche bun) with a choice of hand-cut fries or hand-battered onion rings on the side. But I wanted the crab to stand out, and it did. The salad I had was a nice mix of greens and veggies accented by a well balanced not too tart or sweet vinaigrette. Pam ordered the seafood enchilada. The idea was for us to sample each other’s dishes but we were so busy devouring our respective meals that neither of us got around to try the other’s. All I can say about hers is that it looked delicious and she raved about its generous filling of salmon, shrimp and crab and the homemade Alfredo sauce that topped the whole works, all of it baked to a yummy crusty gooey goodness. It’s a mid-ranged price restaurant where you can dine alone for $10 to $20 bucks and as a couple for $35 to $45. The couple that run the place – she’s the chef and he runs the bar and the front of the house – show a real commitment to excellence in every aspect of the operation. Real food, spot on service, a super clean evirronment, good art on the walls, a carefully considered design. All of it works well in concert together. There’s just a good flow and energy about it. But at the end of the day it’s all about the food, and this right here is the real thing. No pale, fake imitations or substitutions will do at Finicky Frank’s. If you’re looking for authentic, this is the place to go. It’s located at 9520 Calhoun Road just north of where McKinley Street intesects North 30th Street.
For years Omaha’s most famous purveyor of soul food was the Fair Deal Cafe. Its proprietor, the late Charles Hall, served up some righteous fare at his North 24th Street place that was also known as Omaha’s Black City Hall for being a popular spot where community leaders and concerned citizens gathered to discuss civil rights and politics. Mr. Hall and the Fair Deal are gone and sadly the building has been razed. But at least a new development on the site will be taking part of the name as a homage to the history made there and the good times had there. On my blog you can find another story I did that used the Fair Deal as the backdrop for an examination of what makes soul food, soul food. I gathered together some old school black folks to share their wisdom and passion about this cuisine. I called that piece, A Soul Food Summit.
Charles Hall’s Fair Deal Cafe
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in the New Horizons and The Reader
As landmarks go, the Fair Deal Cafe doesn’t look like much. The drab exterior is distressed by age and weather. Inside, it is a plain throwback to classic diners with its formica-topped tables, tile floor, glass-encased dessert counter and tin-stamped ceiling. Like the decor, the prices seem left over from another era, with most meals costing well under $6. What it lacks in ambience, it makes up for in the quality of its food, which has been praised in newspapers from Denver to Chicago.
Owner and chef Charles Hall has made The Fair Deal the main course in Omaha for authentic soul food since the early 1950s, dishing-up delicious down home fare with a liberal dose of Southern seasoning and Midwest hospitality. Known near and far, the Fair Deal has seen some high old times in its day.
Located at 2118 No. 24th Street, the cafe is where Hall met his second wife, Audentria (Dennie), his partner at home and in business for 40 years. She died in 1997. The couple shared kitchen duties (“She bringing up breakfast and me bringing up dinner,” is how Hall puts it.) until she fell ill in 1996. These days, without his beloved wife around “looking over my shoulder and telling me what to do,” the place seems awfully empty to Hall. “It’s nothing like it used to be,” he said. In its prime, it was open dawn to midnight six days a week, and celebrities (from Bill Cosby to Ella Fitzgerald to Jesse Jackson) often passed through. When still open Sundays, it was THE meeting place for the after-church crowd. Today, it is only open for lunch and breakfast.
The place, virtually unchanged since it opened sometime in the 1940s (nobody is exactly sure when), is one of those hole-in-the-wall joints steeped in history and character. During the Civil Rights struggle it was commonly referred to as “the black city hall” for the melting pot of activists, politicos and dignitaries gathered there to hash-out issues over steaming plates of food. While not quite the bustling crossroads or nerve center it once was, a faithful crowd of blue and white collar diners still enjoy good eats and robust conversation there.
Fair Deal Cafe
Running the place is more of “a chore” now for Hall, whose step-grandson Troy helps out. After years of talking about selling the place, Hall is finally preparing to turn it over to new blood, although he expects to stay on awhile to break-in the new, as of now unannounced, owners. “I’m so happy,” he said. “I’ve been trying so hard and so long to sell it. I’m going to help the new owners ease into it as much as I can and teach them what I have been doing, because I want them to make it.” What will Hall do with all his new spare time? “I don’t know, but I look forward to sitting on my butt for a few months.” After years of rising at 4:30 a.m. to get a head-start on preparing grits, rice and potatoes for the cafe’s popular breakfast offerings, he can finally sleep past dawn.
The 80-year-old Hall is justifiably proud of the legacy he will leave behind. The secret to his and the cafe’s success, he said, is really no secret at all — just “hard work.” No short-cuts are taken in preparing its genuine comfort food, whose made-from-scratch favorites include greens, beans, black-eyed peas, corn bread, chops, chitlins, sirloin tips, ham-hocks, pig’s feet, ox tails and candied sweet potatoes.
In the cafe’s halcyon days, Charles and Dennie did it all together, with nary a cross word uttered between them. What was their magic? “I can’t put my finger on it except to say it was very evident we were in love,” he said. “We worked together over 40 years and we never argued. We were partners and friends and mates and lovers.” There was a time when the cafe was one of countless black-owned businesses in the district. “North 24th Street had every type of business anybody would need. Every block was jammed,” Hall recalls. After the civil unrest of the late ‘60s, many entrepreneurs pulled up stakes. But the Halls remained. “I had a going business, and just to close the doors and watch it crumble to dust didn’t seem like a reasonable idea. My wife and I managed to eke out a living. We never did get rich, but we stayed and fought the battle.” They also gave back to the community, hiring many young people as wait staff and lending money for their college studies.
Besides his service in the U.S. Army during World War II, when he was an officer in the Medical Administrative Corps assigned to China, India, Burma, Japan and the Philippines, Hall has remained a home body. Born in Horatio, Arkansas in 1920, he moved with his family to Omaha at age 4 and grew up just blocks from the cafe. “Almost all my life I have lived within a four or mile radius of this area. I didn’t plan it that way. But, in retrospect, it just felt right. It’s home,” he said. After working as a butcher, he got a job at the cafe, little knowing the owners would move away six months later to leave him with the place to run. He fell in love with both Dennie and the joint, and the rest is history. “I guess it was meant to be.”
Dixie Quicks chef and co-owner Rene Orduna and partner Rob Gilmer deliver righteous Southern grub in eclectic space
A funny thing happened on the way to my profiling my favorite Omaha area restaurant, Dixie Quicks Public House, and its chef and co-owner Rene Orduna who is so expert at making food flavors and presentations pop. I was supposed to have done the story years ago but for reasons no longer relevant it never happened. Until now. I am happy to say my debut piece for Food & Spirits Magazine (http://fsmomaha.com/) is this long detoured and delayed profile about Dixie Quciks, Rene, his life-business partner Rob Gilmer, and the way they have made a success of doing things their way, as an expression of their well-yoked creative souls. I was first introduced to Dixie Quicks at its original location in downtown Omaha, and that very first visit vaulted the place and its food to the top of my favorite eateries list. Rene did then, and this is going back 20 some years, what has become all the rage today in terms of using locally sourced, fresh ingredients and classical techniques that elevate American comfort food to gourmet or fine dining fare. He’s still doing it today. I followed the restaurant to Leavenworth just south of downtown but I never made the crossing over to its new digs in Council Bluffs until I did this story. In addition to finally visiting this splendid destination attraction with the restaurant on one side and the RNG Gallery on the other, with a curio and gift shop in between, I got to meet Rob for the first time. Rene is charming and passionate as always. Rob, who is an artist and the curator for the gallery, is a delight, too. Together, they make a great team and a great couple. Just as Rob is a visual artist, Rene is an artist in the kitchen, and they’ve applied their imagination and whismy to creating a fun, eclectic place whose food and decor you won’t forget.
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Rene Orduna and Rob Gilmer
Dixie Quicks chef and co-owner Rene Orduna and partner Rob Gilmer deliver righteous Southern grub in eclectic space
©by Leo Adam Biga
Appearing in the Spring 2016 issue of Food & Spirits Magazine (http://fsmomaha.com/)
Dixie Quicks Public House features Southern-Tex-Mex infused dishes reflecting classically trained chef and co-owner Rene Orduna’s many influences. But make no mistake, his good eats are soul food by any other name. He says about any cuisine, “It’s all soul food if it’s good, if it’s got flavor.” His singular bold flavors come right from the soul.
Twenty years into a run that’s seen Dixie Quicks evolve across three metro locations, Orduna, together with life-business partner Rob Gilmer, has created an artful but unpretentious experience. Years before it got trendy, the two foodies emphasized farm-to-table fresh ingredients and made-from-scratch fine dining quality comfort food.
“From the day we opened we’ve had locally grown food,” Orduna says. “It just makes sense. Having relationships with farmers always made it easy for me to get stuff in I couldn’t find anywhere else.”
His grandfather grew chilies and tomatoes for the family’s iconic Howard’s Charro Cafe in South Omaha, where Orduna got his start in the industry. On family vacations to Mexico he was introduced to the vibrant, fresh flavors of his ancestral homeland.
Gilmer’s folks back East farmed acres of organic gardens. He says, “When Rene and I lived in New York City we’d go to their place and the food was amazing. Rene was like a kid in a candy chop.” “Oh, yeah,” Rene recalls. “Being able to go pick it and cook it right there was great. That taught me a valuable lesson – one I’d learned before.” Orduna finds it ironic farm-to-table is suddenly “all new and mainstream.”
Today, his picking is facilitated by six farmers who regularly produce for him. Several others supply specialty items. Beyond that, he uses Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and H. Olafsson International.
“Knowing those places and having a good salesman like I do, who’s been with me from the beginning, makes the difference. It’s all about the relationships. Usually I have the menu planned out at least a week ahead of time. I know what’s coming and since I already know my purveyors, I get what I want.”
His refined fare is served in a relaxed, whimsical setting where CEOS, bikers, creatives, families, gays and straights feel equally comfortable.
As Rene puts it, “We open up our doors to basically our home and wa want whoever walks in to feel comfortable.”
Gilmer never ceases to be wowed by the emotion and imagination Orduna pours into his culinary creations. If the Huevos Ranchero is especially hot, then Gilmer knows Orduna’s upset.
“It all comes out in the food,” Gilmer says. “It’s that love, that passion you cannot learn, you cannot be taught. It’s been instilled in him since birth. Basically, cooking is chemistry, but he adds that punch. When he makes Ramen Noodles from the package at home he throws away the seasoning packet and adds his own seasoning mix and it’s a banquet.”
For a Diners, Drive-ins and Dives segment host Guy Fieri raved about Orduna’s serious cooking chops and mentioned the Texas Chili Pepper Steak, the Blackened Salmon, the Chicken Tortilla Soup and other dishes. That exposure keeps bringing folks from all over the country and the world. “It’s amazing how word gets out,” Orduna says. He adds that the College World Series, U.S. Olympic Swim Trials and Berkshire Hathaway Convention draw people “who are serious about food – they loving coming here and they come back every year.”
It’s not just the food but the funky environs. In its latest iteration, glittering plastic globes and repurposed doors hang from the ceiling. Toy dinosaurs are arrayed on a front counter. Photographs and other works by Gilmer, a visual artist, adorn the dining room walls.
“It makes him part of the restaurant, too,” Orduna says of having Gilmer’s art displayed there
The art and ephemera continue in the couple’s adjoining RNG Gallery and cozy curio-thrift shop.
All of it has an urban chic yet homespun feel that gains further charm from the character of the 19th century digs whose ground floor the business occupies. In 2011 Dixie Quicks moved into the renovated Hughes-Irons Building at 157 West Broadway in Council Bluffs from its decade-long home at 1915 Leavenworth in Omaha. Dixie Quicks and RNG add a bohemian accent to this block of historic buildings with quaint brick facades and wrought iron-laced balconies.
Dixie Quicks began at 1516 Dodge Street in Omaha. At each spot it’s fused food and art. Rene works his magic in the kitchen but he also has a strong managerial and design sense.
“The restaurant business is a perfect place to learn where to put this and where to put that,” he says, “and it transfers everywhere in regular life. How I arrange my home and my kitchen – it’s all the same thing.”
In addition to Gilmer making art for the eatery’s walls, he curates the gallery and he adds playful flourishes here and there.
“I have as much fun with it as anyone,” he says of the toys and things.
He also does the books and runs the front of the house.
“We know our stations,” he says. “You don’t want me cooking in the kitchen. And you don’t want Rene with a checkbook. Every once in a while I’ll say, ‘Do you want me to go in the kitchen and start cooking?’ and he’s like, ‘No, no, no, I’ve got that.’ We know our strengths, we know our weaknesses, we know our gifts, we know our shortcomings, and it works out really well. Sometimes we do butt heads, and I just let Rene think he’s right,”
“That’s all that matters,” Orduna says, smiling. On a more serious note, he adds, “Knowing your abilities and your inabilities makes all the difference in the world and we’re able to accept that from each other.”
Gilmer says he’s reminded of how Jun and Ree Kaneko work together.
“Jun is such an incredible artist and Ree is such an incredible administrator. I mean, every Jun should have a Ree, and we sort of have that. If Rene did it all by himself here he’d have to worry about the kitchen and the front, so here we even it out. It’s all good.”
Making them a good match is their mutual appreciation for good food and their love for the restaurant business. Orduna grew up at Howard’s and broadened his knowledge at the French Cafe and M’s Pub. He then left for a whirlwind culinary life and career in New Orleans, Atlanta, Kansas City, San Francisco, Hawaii, New York City, Maryland. He learned new techniques and shortcuts, he opened and closed establishments, he worked with legends Julia Child and James Beard.
“I was lucky enough to work at the French Cafe when they had three chefs from Paris working there. I waited tables and they saw something in me. They would take me off the floor back to the kitchen between lunch and dinner and teach me how to do other stuff. Those were the three best mentors I’ve ever had in my life. It was totally eye-opening to see the great food they put out. Learning how to make it was the best thing of all. It helped me wherever I went.”
His famous Texas Chili Pepper Steak is his take on the classic Steak au Poivre he learned to make there.
“When I moved to the South I had a different view of it. Instead of using peppercorns I used chili peppers and peppercorns and brandy and bourbon instead of just brandy, which gave it its own little flair. I use poblanos, anaheims and jalapenos. One has a depth of flavor, one has the mildness of chili powder and one has the heat. It really brings out the flavor in all three. It’s like our coffee here – a cross blend of light roast, dark roast, regular roast. It covers all the bases.
“I just salt and pepper the steak and put the peppercorns on top. It gets sauteed in a pan (in soybean oil). The peppers are added to it with a few onions. The bourbon and brandy’s added to that. Then, I add a little beef stock, then cream and then that reduces in a pan.”
For his Blackened Salmon he dredges his fillets in a secret spice mix that creates a blend of flavors and a hint of heat.
“It gives a carnival in your mouth every time you take a bite and our signature tomato butter goes so well with it.”
He cooks the salmon atop a hot grill, sans oil or anything else. The oil from the salmon does the rest.
He’s considered coming out with a line of spice mixes and such but there’s been no time. “Maybe in the next five-year plan we’ll do that.”
There was no five-year plan when he left town, just a desire to travel.
“Once I left Omaha, I went to New Orleans. Working at Brennan’s restaurant I realized i could do my job anywhere I wanted. My other mentor was Ma Hall from Ma Hall’s Boardinghouse in Atlanta. She served brunch on Saturday and Sunday with tables on the front porch and in the gardens. People flocked to this restaurant. It was all self-served soul food sourced from local farmers. It was heaven.”
Dixie Quicks is famous for its brunch.
Gilmer never worked in the industry until he and Rene opened Dixie Quicks in 1995 but he always found it intriguing.
“I’ve always loved it. I’ve always been enamored by the restaurant process and by what restaurants can do.”
Growing up in suburbia New York state and vacationing summers in Maine, his family ate out a lot and he tried wide ranging fare in diverse settings. What most stood out were spectacle-style venues. There was the Polynesian-themed Bali Hai whose outside featured a faux volcano that lit up. Running through the inside was an enclosed mini-river filled with baby alligators. A waterfall, too. At Hamburger Choo-Choo a model railroad track ran through the kitchen into the dining room, with patrons placing their dirty dishes atop the flatbed train cars.
“That’s why we have dinosaurs everywhere. I look at the restaurant as almost a kid and what makes it fun.”
In addition to what Orduna’s taught him, Gilmer gleaned much from his partner’s late mother, Delores Wright, who made Howard’s a success.
“I learned from his mom talking with her, watching her. I picked up so many wonderful pointers – to the point where his brothers and sisters we’ll hear me say something and go, ‘God, Mom said that.’ I learned from the best. She was an amazing woman.”
The men are grateful the family has embraced them as a couple.
Howard’s is now on its fourth generation. Gilmer and Orduna settled here after they came back to help the family move that eatery from 24th and Q to 13th and J in the former Marchio’s.
“I thought we could either go back to New York or we could stay here and open up our own place,” Orduna recalls. “Living in the South I had a love for Southern food, Cajun, Southwestern. There was no restaurant like that in Omaha, so we opened our own. It was the time.”
Dixie Quicks earned loyal customers from the start. Most followed its two moves. Oscar-winning filmmaker Alexander Payne is a fan. He says, “I went to their first place, then followed them to Leavenworth and then followed them across the river. I just think they’re a tremendous asset. It’s a place I can take people visiting for the first time and they’re surprised by how hip it is.”
Relocating to the Bluffs was done for business and personal reasons.
“It was an opportunity for us to give Council Bluffs something it didn’t have,” Orduna says, “and another part of it was so we could get married. We figured it was a good fit.”
The new site has more space and better electrical-HVAC systems than the past spots. Much thought was given to every detail, even the acoustics. Big windows allow ample light and cool streetscape views.
“There is a commitment here that is from the soul and you have to be committed to all of it,” Orduna says. “I’ve been in the business long enough that I do understand the art of it.”
Gilmer says, “The art is making all this hard work look easy.”
Satisfaction comes from “knowing everybody had a meal worth twice the money they paid for it,” says Orduna, adding, “That’s what I wanted people to feel. That’s what makes me happy.”
Sustaining that is an art, too.
“A restaurant is only as good as the last food they put out,” he says. “That’s as good as a restaurant gets,”
He welcomes “the camaraderie” with customers that extends over years. A generation later he says patrons who came as kids are now parents bringing their own kids. “We get a lot of the same people we’ve had from the beginning.” Count Mary Thompson among them. “I used to bring Rene fresh veggies from my garden,” she says. “He once did a fabulous dessert presentation – Bananas Foster to be exact – for an event I did. He is a true master.”
Orduna enjoys sharing tricks of the trade to young people who work for him. “Many are still in the restaurant business and they still look back on their time at Dixie Quicks as the hardest job they ever had but the most learning job they ever had. That makes a difference to me.”
He and Gilmer admire the enterprising, ingenious chef owners who’ve emerged to elevate Omaha’s culinary scene. They host pop-ups to give people space for their dreams. The couple’s own dream is rooted in family. Howard’s is where Orduna’s love affair with food began. It’s still going strong in the family’s hands. Just as Rene and Rob support that legacy, the family supports the couple’s legacy.
“They’re all proud of what we’ve accomplished,” Orduna says. “Being able to be here with this place now is really great. They all come in here and have lunch or dinner on a regular basis. We go over there every Tuesday night for dinner. Oh yeah, we gotta make sure their food is right. We’re quality control.”
Open Tuesday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 to 8 p.m.; Saturday Brunch 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., Dinner 5 to 9 p.m.; Sunday Brunch 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Closed Mondays. Visit http://dixiequicks.com/.
If you have a hankering for fried chicken in Omaha, two words are all you need to know – Time Out. The North Omaha joint is famous for its signature item. So much so that nearly everybody calls the place Time Out Chicken despite the fact it’s official name is Time Out Foods. I grew up in North O but a few miles from this place and even though my work eventually took me in and out of that community on a regular basis I somehow went 55 of my first 57 years without having once tried it. That’s all changed the last couple years and so I felt prepared to write this piece for Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/) about the place and its popular dish. Of course, to ensure my taste buds were sufficiently up to date on the fried chicken i went again to sample it and I interviewed Time Out owner Steve Mercer for his insights on how and why this fast food eatery and its secret recipe has captured the local market.
Chicken is King at Time Out Foods
©by Leo Adam Biga
Appearing in the Nov.-Dec. 2015 issue of Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/)
The name of a long-lived North Omaha black-owned and operated business reads Time Out Foods. “But Time Out Chicken is what everybody tags us as,” says owner Steve Mercer, He’s even bought that Google domain. “That’s the name the people gave us.”
With a sign proclaiming “Omaha’s Best Fried Chicken,” it’s no surprise what’s the signature dish at this 3518 North 30th Street landmark.
Credit for this grassroots branding, he says, goes to its fans.
“We didn’t just create this ourselves. It’s the people that buy it all the time that make it signature. They’re responsible for it.”
He says business keeps growing.
“Everything seems to be flowing and going. It’s been taking off.”
So much so he’s considering expanding and adding new locations.
“I feel like this is just the beginning of something else to happen. This is a good ride.”
The timing’s good with North O revitalization underway after years of stagnation.
“There’s so much more (positive) going on in North Omaha than there ever has been before. It benefits the area when they start putting more stuff in. There’s more people coming around spending money. There’s more traffic.”
Though chicken is clearly what keeps folks coming back, it was not the house staple when his parents bought the place in 1972. The Swanson Corporation famous for TV dinners opened Time Out in 1969 to develop a black-owned fast food franchise. Local sports legends Bob Boozer and Bob Gibson lent celebrity status. Only it struggled amid North O decline. Mercer’s parents saw opportunity and secured a loan to buy it. It was a slow go for a decade when, at 22, Mercer, who worked there since age 12, bought the business in 1982. He devised the chicken recipe that’s made it a hit.
Adding a drive-thru further boosted sales.
He won’t share the savory spicy recipe for his lip-smacking, mouth-watering chicken, but does reveal the battered bird is deep fried in peanut oil. Whatever the secret ingredients, he notes “all the customers say it makes them have a craving for it.” Regulars dining there one September morning variously raved about the moist, tender meat and crispy, never-greasy crust. They all admitted to a hankering that keeps them coming back for more.
Living in Atlanta, Georgia hasn’t dulled Omaha native Cheryl Berry-Neal’s craving. “Time Out is a must stop when we come to town,” she says. Ex-pats in for Native Omaha Days flood the joint for its familiar comfort food. Lines form year-round with the after-church crowd getting their down-home fix on in their Sunday finest. It daily draws a racial-social class mix reflective of those urban, inner-city environs.
Chicken’s the star but cheeseburgers and other hot sandwiches are plenty popular, too. The classic crinkle-style fries have their devotees. So do the pies supplied by an outside vendor.
Three generations of family work there, including Steve’s mother Jean.
“That’s what makes it work. We’ve been doing this for 40 (plus) years and we enjoy doing it,” says Mercer, a hands-on owner. “I’m here because I love being here. It’s my second home.”
More and more, he views Time Out as a community anchor.
“That’s what it is. I can’t let the community or anybody else down. We have to do whatever it takes to keep it going because anything else would just not be right. Failure’s not an option.”
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.
Omaha’s Culinary Culture Rises
Dedicated Local Chefs Elevate Your Dining Experience
©by Leo Adam Biga
Appearing 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.”
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, 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.”
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 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.
Omaha’s culinary scene is still more pedestrian than foodies would like, but there’s no doubt the city offers an ever expanding and interesting mix of restaurants. Many of Omaha’s best eating out options are chef-owned or chef-driven places that range from fine dining to relaxed operations. Many of the chefs making names for themselves here are heavy into and helping lead the farm to table movement. Good eats are a major part of Omaha’s popular cultural districts, including the Old Market, Midtown, Dundee, and Benson. Some star chefs do their best work at well-reviewed venues in those very same hubs. Now, don’t get me wrong, the Burbs have their share of worthy chefs and spots, too. Some great food can also be had at Omaha hotels and country clubs. In this Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/) article I wrote you can read about the bold course that Happy Hollow Country Club executive chef Jason Hughes is setting there. I can’t say I’ve tried his food yet, but I look forward to it. Hughes is a lot like his peers on the culinary scene today in that he has years of academic training and practical experience and he strives to make the freshest, most flavorful, and creative dishes he can, all of it infused with love and, as as nod to his roots, a Southern twist.
Chef Jason Hughes setting bold course at Happy Hollow Country Club
©by Leo Adam Biga
©Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Originally appeared in Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/)
Since assuming the executive chef position at Happy Hollow Country Club in 2013 Jason Hughes has emerged as one of the city’s new culinary stars, introducing a strong farm-to-table regimen there.
Not only has his cuisine earned raves from club members but last year he won Omaha’s Pinot, Pigs & Poets chef competition for his dish, “Heads or Tails.” The prize-winning meal featured braised pork cheek and pig tail croquette, house-cured bacon and oregonzola bread pudding, charred brussels sprout leaves with dried fruits and macron almonds, pickled watermelon rind and tart cherry mustard natural jus.
His entry represented the same locally-vended approach he takes at the club.
“I use a lot of local products,” he says. “I try to find out where things are raised. It helps to know where your food came from. I think it makes it taste better when there’s a story behind it or you’re helping out a small farmer and making a difference in their lives by supporting what they do.”
He’s developed relationships with local purveyors, sourcing everything from organic produce to poultry, pork beef, cheese and other dairy items from them. He takes advantage, too, of a chef’s garden on a dedicated patch of land next to the club’s golf course.
He didn’t always do food this way.
The Nashville, Tenn. native got his earliest cooking chops watching his mother prepare Southern comfort meals for his large family (he’s one of eight siblings). By 15 he was already working in the only industry he’s ever known. He rose up the kitchen ranks to become a trainer for Outback Steakhouse, opening several franchise sites in the mid-1990s.
He attended Western Kentucky University, where he met his wife Brandi (the couple have two boys), and they moved to Colorado, where his training went to the next level. He graduated cum laude from the prestigious culinary program at Johnson & Wales University. Then he learned under a series of top Colo. chefs, including Scott Coulter
“He kind of opened my eyes that food can be a lot different than just your standard corporation steakhouse or restaurant. That you can have an identity and be creative and do whatever you want to do with food. That there’s no boundaries.”
Hughes has occupied the private country club niche since the mid-2000s. He credits executive chef John York at the five-star Belle Mead Country Club in his hometown Nashville as his main influence.
“He kind of brought me to the level I’m at today. He made it a point to tell me there’s no reason I cant be doing what he’s doing and he gave me the private club chef head hunter that brought me to Omaha.”
Getting the Happy Hollow job required Hughes impress a search committee in the interview process and a Food Network-style blind cook-off that saw him prepare a gourmet meal for several folks on a tight deadline. He worked his magic with the ingredients provided, including cedar smoked pork tenderloin. He made a five onion bisque with smoked walleye and pike and grilled corn. He also did a beat carpaccio salad with cherries and smoked blue cheese.
His dazzling fare and Southern charm won over the committee and he’s been winning over members ever since.
“Jason’s impact has been astonishing. He’s elevated our culinary program and the culture of our club,” says general manager Jim Williamsen, who admires his passion. “This is just not what he does for a living, it’s clearly what he loves to do. He is a special talent.”
Hughes enjoys being in a niche where his abilities are appreciated.
“What I like about country clubs is you don’t have to be roped into one kind of cuisine. We have over 1,200 members here and there’s such a diversity of tastes and dislikes that we do different kinds of cuisines instead of just focused in on one,” says Hughes.
He recently returned from France and Spain with new recipes inspired by those national cuisines.
His prize-winning “Heads or Tails” dish in Omaha’s Pinot, Pigs & Poets chef competition
Braised pork cheek and pig tail croquette
House cured bacon and oregonzola bread pudding
Charred brussel sprout leaves with dried fruits and marcona almonds pickled watermelon rind
Tart cherry mustard natural jus
“There’s some people putting it out there in country clubs that could compete with anybody in any city,” he says,
He likes being in competitions to showcase his wares and “just to show that country clubs can cook, too.” He not only enjoys competing with fellow Omaha chefs like Clayton Chapman and Paul Kulik, but engaging them as peers. He finds the chef “camaraderie” here unique.
“Everybody’s really down-to-earth and wants everybody to do well. It’s not like they’re afraid to show you something or tell you about a product they’re getting. Everybody seems really friendly and wide open here compared to any other cities I’ve been. It’s just a cool scene as far as the chefs go in Omaha. It’s really neat”
Hughes also loves having a budget that allows him to hire the best staff – “I have a great team here” – and to fly in fresh seafood, for example, nearly every day from Maine, Florida, Hawaii.
His team extends to wife Brandi, without whose support and sacrifice, he says, “I would not be where I am today.” They love the outdoors and have their sons help in the garden. A year-plus in Omaha and Hughes is sure he’s found the right fit for him and his family with the vibrant culinary-culture scene, the warm people and the great schools.
“This place grows on you, for sure. It’s a great city.”