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Life Itself X: Food Stories Through the Years – A Pot Liquor Love Archive


Issue 25

Life Itself X: Food Stories Through the Years

A Pot Liquor Love Archive

Follow my food writing at:

leoadambiga.com 

https://www.facebook.com/LeoAdamBiga

and in 

Food & Spirits Magazine

The Reader

Omaha Magazine

Harvesting food and friends at Florence Mill Farmers Market, where agriculture, history and art meet

https://leoadambiga.com/2018/06/06/harvesting-food-…ory-and-art-meet

Journalist-author Genoways takes micro and macro look at the U.S, food system

https://leoadambiga.com/2018/06/06/journalist-autho…u-s-food-system

Finicky Frank’s puts out good eats

https://leoadambiga.com/2018/04/24/finicky-franks-puts-out-good-eats

Tenth Street Market will bring Vic Gutman’s dream to fruition

https://leoadambiga.com/2017/06/27/tenth-street-mar…ream-to-fruition

A systems approach to addressing food insecurity in North Omaha

https://leoadambiga.com/2017/08/11/a-systems-approa…y-in-north-omaha

Good Memories and Good Eats

http://thereader.com/dining/good-memories-and-good-eats/

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

https://leoadambiga.com/2016/11/17/soul-food-eatery…liquor-love-menu

 

Tacos and Tequila Take Center Stage at Hook & Lime

Bomb girl Zedeka Poindexter draws on family, food and angst for her poetry

https://leoadambiga.com/2015/03/11/zedeka-poindexte…t-for-her-poetry

Chef Jason Hughes setting bold course at Happy Hollow Country Club

https://leoadambiga.com/2015/03/23/chef-jason-hughe…low-country-club

Culinary artist Jim Trebbien

https://leoadambiga.com/2015/03/02/culinary-artist-…ommunity-college

Eat to live or live to eat, Omaha’s culinary culture rises …

http://thereader.com/visual-art/eat_to_live_or_live_to_eat_omahas_culinary_culture_rises/

Chef-Owner Jared Clarke Goes Wood-Fired

Chicken is King at Time Out Foods

https://leoadambiga.com/2015/10/28/chicken-is-king-at-time-out-foods/

Southern Fried Love Road Trip Diary I 

https://leoadambiga.com/2016/06/01/a-southern-road-trip-diary/

Southern Fried Love Road Trip Diary II 

https://leoadambiga.com/2016/08/12/southern-fried-love-road-trip-diary-ii/

Book depicts area whole foods culture in stories, recipes …

http://thereader.com/visual-art/book_depicts_area_whole_foods_culture_in_stories_recipes_pics/_

Anne and Craig McVeigh Bring Beacon Hills Take on American Comfort Cuisine Back to Where Their Food Careers Started

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

JOURNEYS: 

Within Our Reach: Feeding a Starving World 

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

No More Empty Pots Intent on Ending North Omaha Food Desert

https://leoadambiga.com/2013/08/13/no-more-empty-po…t-in-north-omaha

Omaha Culinary Tours: 

New company hopes to make Omaha’s burgeoning food culture a tourist attraction

https://leoadambiga.com/2014/02/05/omaha-culinary-t…urist-attraction

Two Old Market Fixtures Celebrate Milestones

https://leoadambiga.com/2013/01/18/two-old-market-f…brate-milestones

Chef-Owner Jenny Coco Proves She Can Hang with the Boys

Shirley’s Diner

https://leoadambiga.com/tag/shirleys-diner/

A. Marino Grocery 

https://leoadambiga.com/tag/a-marino-grocery/

Omaha Chapter American GI Forum

https://leoadambiga.com/tag/omaha-chapter-american-gi-forum/

Omaha’s Pitch Man: 

Entrepreneur Extraordinaire Willy Theisen is Back with His Next Big Business Venture

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/04/25/omahas-pitch-man…business-venture/

Entrepreneur and Dealmaker Greg Cutchall

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/06/08/entrepreneur-and…er-greg-cutchall/

Doing Things the Dario Way Nets Omaha Two of its Most Distinctive Restaurants

Passing the Torch at the Dundee Dell

Vic’s  Corn Popper Owners Do More Than Make Snacks: They Mentor Young People

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/06/21/vics-corn-popper…tor-young-people

George Payne and the Virginia Cafe: 

Restauranter Family Legacy of Filmmaker Alexander Payne

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/07/06/remembering-the-…-alexander-payne

“The Bagel: An Immigrant’s Story”

Joan Micklin Silver and Matthew Goodman team up for new documentary

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/03/16/the-bagel-an-imm…documentary-film

George Eisenberg’s love for Omaha’s Old Market never grows old

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/06/19/george-eisenberg…-never-grows-old/

In Memoriam: George Eisenberg

https://leoadambiga.com/2018/03/27/in-memoriam-george-eisenberg

Issue 22

Itzel Anahi Lopez: Young Latina on the rise

https://leoadambiga.com/2018/03/24/itzel-anahi-lope…tina-on-the-rise

A Different Kind of Bistro

http://thereader.com/dining/a_different_kind_of_bistro/

The much anticipated return of the Bagel Bin

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/12/03/the-much-anticip…of-the-bagel-bin

Big Mama’s Keeps It Real

A Soul Food Sanctuary in Omaha

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/06/11/big-mama’s-keeps…ve-ins-and-dives

Chef Mike Does a Rebirth at the Community Cafe

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/06/22/chef-mike-does-a…e-community-cafe

Favorite Sons: 

Weekly Omaha pasta feeds at Sons of Italy Hall draw diverse crowd

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/04/28/favorite-sons-we…lse-little-italy

Allan Noddle’s food industry adventures show him the world

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/04/28/allan-noddles-ad…ow-him-the-world

Cousins Bruce and Todd Simon Continue the Omaha Steaks Tradition

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/06/21/cousins-bruce-an…steaks-tradition

This version of Simon Says positions Omaha Steaks as food service juggernaut

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/06/15/this-version-of-…rvice-juggernaut

A Soul Food Summit

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/05/31/a-soul-food-summit/

Charles Hall’s Fair Deal Cafe 

https://leoadambiga.com/2016/05/11/charles-halls-fair-deal-cafe/

An Ode to the Omaha Stockyards

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/06/14/from-the-archive…omaha-stockyards

It was a different breed then: 

Omaha Stockyards remembered

https://leoadambiga.com/2016/06/24/it-was-a-differe…yards-remembered

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

December 27, 2016 Leave a comment

Anne and Craig McVeigh both got their restaurant starts in Omaha but it was in Lincoln they made their mark on the area culinary scene with their Beacon Hills restaurant and after a long, succesful run there they’ve closed it and opened a new Beacon Hills in Omaha’s emerging destination place, Aksarben Village. Like so many restauranters today, the McVeighs do their variation on American comfort food by adding fresh, refined touches to familiar old dishes. This profile I wrote for Food & Spirits Magazine (http://fsmomaha.com/) covers their journey in the industry from worker bees learning the ropes to entrepreneurs spinning their own take on food that makes us happy. Follow my Pot Liquor Love food blogging at leoadambiga.com and on Facebook at My Inside Stories. And since food and movies are such a good pair, remember to follow my Hot Movie Takes on the same two social media platforms.

 

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Pot Liquor Love:

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

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We just want you to come back.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 27, 2016 Leave a comment

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

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

 

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Pot Liquor Love:

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

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Knowing that her artistry satisfies patrons makes it all worthwhile.

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

There’s like no better feeling.”

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

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

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

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

Business is good.

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

Frequent parties and a brisk catering trade boost revenues.

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

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

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

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

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

Pot Liquor Love: The Long Goodbye for Bohemian Cafe: Iconic Omaha eatery closing after 92 years

August 25, 2016 1 comment

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

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

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:

The Long Goodbye for Bohemian Cafe: Iconic Omaha eatery closing after 92 years

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

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

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

“It’s just overwhelming,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

Bohemian Cafe: Get the goulash!

 

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

Terry Kapoun laments independents fading amidst chains.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pot Liquor Love: 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.

Visit Food & Spirit’s Facebook page-

https://www.facebook.com/Food-Spirits-Magazine-120077501380417/?fref=photo

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.

 

Rob Gilmer and Rene Orduna stand in their restaurant Dixie Quicks from Omaha, Neb. to Council Bluffs, Iowa, so they could get married and expand their restaurant.

Rene Orduna and Rob Gilmer

 

Pot Liquor Love:

Dixie Quicks chef and co-owner Rene Orduna and partner Rob Gilmer deliver righteous Southern grub in eclectic space 

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appeared 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.”

 

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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.”

 

Dixie Quicks Magnolia Room - Omaha, NE, United States. Texas Chili Pepper Steak on mashed potatoes with collard greens! Delicious!!!
Texas Chili Pepper Steak on mashed potatoes with collard greens

 

 

 

 

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/.

 

 

Omaha Culinary Tours: New company hopes to make Omaha’s burgeoning food culture a tourist attraction

February 5, 2014 1 comment

It wasn’t so long ago that when you thought about food and Omaha your palate memory went to steakhouses, Italian restaurants, a few other Old World ethnic eateries, and the usual assemblage of local diners, drive-ins, and dives.  Fine dining options were, well, rather limited.  With a few exceptions, it was a bland, one or two note  food landscape dominated by Euro-American influences.  Locally owned, chef-led restaurants were relatively few and far between.  Food trends took a long time to get here.  The use of locally produced fresh food products was rare.  Innovation and experimentation was not much on the menu.  There was a dearth of food from Africa, South America, Asia, India, et cetera.  Many ethnic foods simply couldn’t be found here.  But as the Omaha cultural scene has blossomed the last two decades, so has the local food culture and scene, so much so that you can now pretty much find anything here that you can find anywhere else in the States, with the possible exception of New York City or Los Angeles.  The cuisine has dramatically increased in terms of, variety, nationality, daring, and quality.  I don’t claim to know all the reasons for this phenomenon but a few may be:  The Insitute for Culinary Arts at Metropolitan Community College is a feeder of highly trained chefs; Omaha’s seen an influx of new immigrants from many different parts of the world and their national dishes have been introduced here; more and more Omahans travel for busines and pleasure and they bring back a demand for the eclectic flavors, ingredients, and dishes they sample; social media and the Food Network have similarly opened the horizons of diners and proprietors alike to vast possibiltiies in food; more chef-owned eating spots have opened under the direction of cutting-edge artists who craft meals to appeal to the growing foodie population and their ever broader, more sophisticated tastes.  These same trends apply to a growing number of gourmet and specialty food stores here.  A local startup, Omaha Culinary Tours, is taking full advantage of these trends by making the burgeoning food culture a tourist attraction.  Learn about this company in my Reader (www.thereader.com) story below.  Look for a coming cover piece that attempts to take stock of how Omaha’s gone from a food deadend to a food mecca.

 

Omaha Culinary Tours: New company hopes to make Omaha’s burgeoning food culture a tourist attraction

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

The recently launched Omaha Culinary Tours looks to capture foodies and urban explorers alike.

Owners Jim Trebbien, Jen Valandra and Suzanne Allen are banking this town’s rich culinary scene is destination worthy enough to support their business. For a fee OCT offers guided tours of locally owned restaurants and food stores and the historic districts they reside in.

Satisfied with test tours conducted in December, OCT is now taking reservations for walking tours that are also urban adventures. Its Midtown tour is the lone active trek right now but new ones are in the works for the Old Market, Dundee, Benson and downtown. A craft beer and pizza tour is likely to be a staple along with a ballpark fare tour come College World Series time.

A Valentine’s tour is also being planned.

Transportation-provided journeys will be offered, including steakhouse and comfort food tours.

Each walking tour covers about a mile while visiting six or seven venues in a span of 2 1/2 to 3 hours. At each stop guests sample food prepared fresh on-site just for the visit and meet the venue’s owner, chef or manager.

A well-informed guide leads the way, sharing back stories about the food places and the neighborhoods. OCT limits public tours to groups of 6 to 16. Private tours can accommodate more guests. Private tours can be designed to fit whatever theme clients desire.

The set Midtown tour features Chef2 (Trebbien is part owner), Brix, The Crescent Moon, The Grey Plum, Marrakech and Wohlner’s. In addition to tasting different cuisines it’s a sampling of three distinct districts – Blackstone, Gold Coast and Gifford Park.

On the December 28 Midtown tour superstar Grey Plume chef-owner Clayton Chapman personally greeted guests and intro’d the tastings menu served. He even stuck around to answer questions. It’s all part of what Allen calls an “interactive thing.” ”

Valandra says, “Part of the experience is seeing the pride in the owners when they talk about their food and tell their stories. They’re sharing part of themselves.”

“It’s communion, it’s sharing food and conversation with other people and community. You learn about an area, you sample the food there, you meet some of the people there,” says Trebbien.

Allen says OCT’s getting strong buy-in from venue owners.

“They want to be a part of it, they see the value of it. They’re getting potential customers. They’re getting a chance to wow people that maybe wouldn’t have walked through the door before.”

“A “novice foodie” with “an appreciation for the culinary scene,” Allen holds a regular job doing sales and heads OCT’s marketing efforts. She got the idea for a food tour company on her travels across the U.S. She noted food tourism’s a popular activity for folks to explore the cultural landscape of cities they inhabit or visit.

“More of the masses are wanting food as as event. I’ve taken these tours around the country and I’ve loved the experience. I thought Omaha’s ready for this.”

Trebbien and Valandra felt the same way and began pursuing the same vision. He’s dean of culinary arts at Metropolitan Community College and an Omaha Hospitality Hall of Fame.inductee. She’s an MCC culinary arts graduate and works under Trebbien as culinary project coordinator. She previously ran the Medusa Project, a now defunct local presenting arts organization. The self-described “serial entrepreneur” has established several startups. The first time the pair heard of Allen is when she called for advice on her planned food tour startup. Rather than compete, the threesome decided to partner.

“It became obvious we needed each other,” says Valandra. “We work really well together and complement each other.”

“We have three different skill sets that intertwine,” says Trebbien.

“It was very clear we could get a lot more accomplished together than we could alone,” says Allen. “it’s taken off since we came together.”

Allen says they share a bullish passion for Omaha’s assets. They feel the depth of the emergent food scene and resurgent urban environment may be what finally puts Omaha on the map, It’s why they’ve moved fast since forming the company in August. Sporadic tastings and festivals may celebrate food here but they say there hasn’t been a dedicated food tour operation. Noting that successful food tourism businesses operate all over, even Des Moines and Kansas City, they feel the local market’s overdue to be tapped.

“Years ago in Omaha if you wanted to go out for fine dining you were pretty much confined to a steakhouse and now fine dining is the best cuisine from anywhere,” says Trebbien. “There’s a number of James Beard Award nominated chefs around town. The culinary scene has changed tremendously and it changes tremendously every year. Omaha’s being discovered for its amenities and food is part of that.”

Allen says OCT’s not just for visitors but for locals.

“Omahans have their favorites but taking a tour like this allows them to get out and experience six or seven new places in one afternoon or evening. They can find a new favorite or add a couple new places to their comfort zone.”

While not a progressive dinner, the food served on OCT tours should fill most guests, the owners say. Then there’s the added sustenance of discovering new places and learning some history along the way.

“It’s part of the culture,” says Allen.

For schedule and booking details, visit http://www.omahaculinarytours.com.

Two Old Market Fixtures Celebrate Milestones

January 18, 2013 3 comments

The Old Market in Omaha is a both major attraction and a laidback state of mind that’s made up of the places and personalities, past and present, expressed there.  Two of this historic arts and culture district’s longest sustained restaurants, M’s Pub and Vivace, share the same owners and executive chef, and in 2013 these each of these eateries celebrates a milestone anniversary.  M’s Pub is 40 years old and Vivace 20 years old.  Owners Ann Mellen and Ron Samuelson discuss their successful enterprises in the following story I did for The Reader (www.thereader.com) and along with Old Market pioneer Roger duRand they look back at the force of nature who started M’s, Mary Vogel, and who personified the visionaries and characters that have made the Market the singular destination and experience that it is.

 

Two Old Market Fixtures Celebrate Milestones

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Signature Old Market spot M’s Pub celebrates 40 years in business this year. It’s a milestone for any independently owned restaurant. But reaching four decades takes on added meaning because when M’s opened in 1973 (a planned 1972 opening was delayed), the fledgling Market’s survival looked unsure.

The Market though went from counter culture social experiment to mixed use success story. M’s owners Ann Mellen and Ron Samuelson doubly appreciate a thriving Market as their highly reviewed eatery is a fixture along with a second respected restaurant they own there, Vivace, which marks its 20th anniversary this fall. The establishments are emblems of the district’s sustainability and growth.

The well-connected woman who founded “M’s” and was its namesake, the late Mary Vogel, wanted to be part of the emerging Market scene. She commissioned architect John Morford from the Omaha firm headed by Cedric Hartman, who designed the French Cafe, to transform the former Sortino Fruit Company warehouse into a sophisticated, cozy environs inspired by her favorite dining-drinking nooks from around the globe, particularly the pubs of England and Washington DC. Some argue M’s is more bistro than pub but whatever it is M’s owns a reputation for quality food, superior service and laid-back charm that’s both cosmopolitan chic and homespun Midwest.

The small space is dominated by a three-sided green marble topped bar, exposed white brick work, a high ceiling, large mirrors, which make the room seem bigger, and picture windows that provide a glimpse of 11th Street on the east and peer into Nouvelle Eve on the south. The open kitchen is about the size and shape of a train’s dining car and overflows with activity, though the culinary action mostly happens in the downstairs prep rooms.

“It’s just a great open plan,” says Samuelson. “Timeless. And that’s why we don’t change anything about it because we see a lot of fads come and go and as tempting as you might be to say, ‘Well, it seems like that’s what everybody’s doing today – maybe we should try that,’ it’s not going to work here.”

 

 

 

 

M’s is indelibly of the Old Market. Like its neighbor shops it resides in a historic, 19th century building that exudes character earned with age. It adheres to tradition. It pays attention to detail. Its personality can’t be replicated or franchised.

“I don’t think we could take our sign and throw it in a place out west or anywhere else really,” Samuelson says. “I just don’t think it would transfer.”

The affable, attentive, knowledgable wait staff wear crisp white and black uniforms with none of the attendant starch.

Samuelson says, “We’ve worked really hard for a really long time to position ourselves as a place where you can come sit by side with the table that has a $150 bottle of wine and a couple steaks and you can have a beer and a Greek sandwich and not be treated any differently by the waiter. A lot of our people have been around here for a really long time. We have people that we trust.”

When Vogel sold M’s in 1979 to Mellen’s parents Floyd and Kate Mellen she stayed on as hostess and matriarch. Ann Mellen began working there around then and she soon grew fond of this force of nature.

“She would sit at the bar every day after lunch and count how many drinks we sold,” Mellen says of Vogel. “She was a trip. A very energetic lady, very world traveled, very knowledgable, very opinionated. But very helpful – when things went wrong here she knew who to call.

“She had a passion for this place. She knew exactly what she wanted it to be and she did it right. She totally designed M’s after her favorite places all over the world. She was like the mother of M’s pub. It was her baby.”

Market pioneer Roger duRand writes:

“Mary Vogel was a dame, A socialite with a heart of brass (polished). Mary was equal parts Mayflower pedigree, finishing school gloss and ribald cocktail raconteur. When she courageously cast her lot with the Old Market demimonde of 1972, she found a welcoming environment among the artists and adventurers. Her vision of a tearoom for ‘ladies who lunch’ that doubled as a bistro for ‘lads who lust’ became the elegant and reliably satisfying M’s Pub that remains little changed from its first days.”

Samuelson, who went to work there in 1986 after restaurant experience in Omaha, Texas and Colorado and then quickly partnered with Mellen, admired Vogel’s “indomitable spirit,” adding, “I think she was way ahead of her time. I think that’s probably why she got along with the Mercers so well. They needed people like that to incubate ideas and to establish a core of anchor businesses.”

Mellen’s parents, who’d never operated a restaurant before, bought it with the intent of their restauranteur son Joe running it  but when he passed Ann stepped in to lend her folks a hand. Her passion for the business bloomed.

“I liked working for myself basically,” says Mellen, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln journalism grad who worked as a reporter and advertising copywriter before M’s.  “Then I came here and never left.”

She and Samuelson pride themselves on being hands-on owners. One or the other  or both are at their restaurants most days. A tunnel connects the two sites.

Though an institution today, M’s first decade was a struggle.

“Times were hard,” she says. “The Old Market was a totally different place then.

The Omaha (homeless) mission was just up the street. A lot of people were afraid of the Old Market. But even then it had a family, neighborhood feeling and I liked that a lot.”

“It gets under your skin,” Samuelson says of the Market.

By the early ’80s, Mellen determined the Market was here to stay.

“It just got busier and busier and we saw more tourists coming to the area. You could just tell it was an exciting, upcoming area.”

She and Samuelson, both Omaha natives, make a good team.

“We’re a good fit personality-wise and professionally,” he says. “We share the same passion for the Old Market and the same visions and goals for M’s and Vivace. It’s rare we have a disagreement about and when we do we do it respectfully.”

“I don’t want to seem like an old married couple but a lot of people think we’re married. We’re not,” says Mellen.

She does all the books. An acknowledged foodie, he deals more with the culinary side. Both partners enjoy engaging with people.

“We feel the same way about how to treat people – our clientele as well as our employees,” he says.

 

 

Arrivaderci Vivace

 

 

The fierce devotion of M’s regulars is appreciated but it can be too much.

“Somebody who’s been coming here for awhile may have an opinion about what you’re doing and if you don’t take their advice you can ruffle some feathers that way,” says Samuelson. “We listen to people a lot and we always end up making decisions based on the good of the whole, which I think is responsible ownership.”

He says that with M’s “in good hands” he and Mellen decided to launch Vivace in 1993 ” to fill a gap we saw in the landscape of the restaurant scene in Omaha for Mediterranean-influenced Italian food. We wanted to fill a niche for the community but also complement what we do at M’s.” He’s proud of its pasta and pizza.

Vivace’s larger space is perhaps warmer than M’s but not as intimate.

Executive chef Bobby Mekiney is in charge of both kitchens. “He’s young and kind of bridges the generation gap for us in a lot of ways,” says Samuelson. “He’s as talented a guy as we’ve ever had here. He makes it work.”

Samuelson’s proud that M’s Pub and Vivace express the same “meticulously adhered-to, single-minded vision of passionate, locally-owned” venues that make the Market “a community treasure.”

For hours and menus, visit http://www.mspubomaha.com and http://www.vivaceomaha.com.

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