Tag Archives: Boiler Room

Jose Dionicio’s Year of Change

November 4, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Illustration by Matt Wieczorek

The chef responsible for some of Benson’s hippest eateries had a tumultuous year in 2017.

Taita closed (February); Ika Ramen and Izakaya relocated to the former site of Taita a few blocks east on Maple Street; Taqueria Chingon took the place of Ika (July); in the fall, the relocated Ika debuted a basement sake bar (called “Kaitei,” which translates to “under the sea” in Japanese).

Jose Dionicio’s decision to close Taita after five years was not easy. “We were doing really well down the street [at Ika]; Taita was doing alright, but we thought it would be a good business move to take the ramen shop to Taita’s bigger and more central location,” Dionicio says.

Fans of Taita’s unique fusion of Japanese and Peruvian cuisine—which the chef calls “Nikkei”—will be happy to learn Dionicio is considering reopening Taita at another location. “It’s still in the early stages, but some people are interested,” he says.

The opening of Chingon took inspiration from Dionicio’s girlfriend, originally from Mexico. “We wanted to bring authentic-style Mexican tacos to Benson,” he says, explaining they were motivated by regular trips south of the border to visit family with their son.

Dionicio’s odyssey to becoming an Omaha restaurateur has spanned nearly 20 years and three states. It all started with his long journey from Lima, Peru.

It’s about 4,000 miles from Lima to Omaha. “My father was the first member of my family to come to the United States 30 years ago. I was only 5 when he left. When I turned 19, I decided to follow him,” Dionicio says.

With a population close to 10 million, life in Lima is a bit faster than Omaha. “Lima is a really big place,” Dionico says. “I was used to the lifestyle. It’s so fast. Honestly, my plan was to never stay in Omaha, but I just kept coming back.”

In 2004, after a year in Charlotte, North Carolina, Dionicio moved back to Omaha to care for his daughter. But it was during his time spent in Charlotte, exposed to the abundance of sushi joints, that he rekindled his love of Japanese cuisine, a throwback to the Nikkei cuisine of his homeland.

“Based on the immigration of Japanese citizens during World War II in Peru, [Japanese traditions] have a strong influence on the culture of Peru. The dishes that they made are very much a fusion of Peruvian and Japanese, not necessarily Japanese or Peruvian. It’s a really good marriage,” he says, adding that the word “Nikkei” refers to someone of Japanese descent who is born in a different country.

“I knew that when I moved back to Omaha, I wanted to work for a Japanese restaurant,” he says. “I ended up getting a job with Kona Grill, and that’s where I met my mentor, Ichi Takei.”

With more than 50 years experience in Japanese cuisine, Takei helped Dionicio learn the business. “I made a lot of really great connections at Kona. Ichi taught me everything I know about sushi,” Dionicio says of the chef who worked with him in Omaha for less than two years. “Then I worked at Kona as the executive sushi chef and things were great. One day, out of the blue, Ichi calls me from Cape Cod. He wanted me to come up and work for him.” So, in 2008, Dionicio headed to Massachusetts to reunite with his mentor and friend.

Life on the East Coast was great. Dionicio was able to work with the freshest ingredients–sea-food caught the same day. “I loved the vibes up there,” he says. However, the off-season proved challenging. “This was seasonal work,” he says. “So when the tourists left, things got pretty slow. I needed something more secure to support my family. So I moved back to Omaha.”

Dionicio’s final trek back to the heartland would turn out to be his introduction into the Omaha food scene spotlight. It was his experiences as a member of Paul Kulik’s opening staff at The Boiler Room and working alongside Jared Clarke at the now-defunct Blue Agave where Dionicio received the most support.

“I’ll always be grateful to Paul and Jared for what they taught me,” he says. “We were never content with what we were creating. We were always pushing the limits with our food. Paul and Jared always motivated me to be the best chef I can be.”

And when it came time for Dionicio to be chef of his own restaurant, fate couldn’t have played a better hand. “I just happened to be driving through Benson, and I noticed a ‘for lease’ sign on what used to be the Today Café [the future home of Taita, now Ika]. It was pretty rough inside.”

The story of Ika’s first venue—now Chingon’s space—came from a similar chance passing. “Two blocks from Taita, we saw an empty spot next to a barbershop.” So, he dropped into the barbershop to inquire, managed to contact the owner of the empty business space, and soon had another major renovation project underway.

When Dionicio needed them most, all his friends and kitchen connections stepped up to lend a helping hand in getting his new ventures off the ground.

“I just really want everybody to know how much they mean to me, and how grateful I am to them for the support. Barbara [Schlott, an early supporter of Taita], Paul, Jared, my friends, and family—they’ve all helped me reach my goals.”

Jose Dionicio and his son

Visit ikaramenandizakaya.com for more information.

This article was printed in the November/December edition of Omaha Magazine. 

Tim Nicholson

June 22, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The career of Boiler Room executive chef Tim Nicholson took off like a Drake song: “Started from the bottom, now we’re here.”

It was 2008, and Nicholson had just graduated from Metropolitan Community College’s Institute for Culinary Arts. His first cooking job was frying fish at the now-defunct Joey’s Seafood & Grill.

“That was my first kitchen job, working for my first real chef,” Nicholson says. “It was my foot in the door and made me aware of the whole industry.”

When Nicholson was younger and contemplating career paths, he couldn’t imagine working in a kitchen. “I never thought [my interest in cooking] would turn into anything—I took a cooking class in high school, sick of math, and ended up really enjoying it,” he says. “I was book smart, but I was drawn to working with my hands.”

Subsequent jobs in hotel and casino kitchens (first at 360 Steakhouse at Harrah’s in Council Bluffs before transferring to Jack Binion’s at Horseshoe) allowed Nicholson to master French cuisine, cooking his way up the hierarchical “brigade de cuisine,” before joining the Boiler Room as sous chef in 2010.

Working closely with the restaurant’s founding chef Paul Kulik, Nicholson thrived. Kulik promoted him to “chef de cuisine” in 2013, and Nicholson earned the “executive chef” title in early 2017.

He strives for what he calls the “perfectly imperfect” in his dishes, a perfect fit for the Boiler Room’s aesthetic. The restaurant consists of a multi-tiered bar and dining area, where high-brow elegance juxtaposes against unrefined details (intentionally) retained during renovations of the 120-year-old Bemis Omaha Bag Building’s former industrial space.

While conceiving The Boiler Room’s Old World, classy menu offerings, Nicholson has worked to regionally ground his take on French cuisine. Ingredients are sourced locally as much as possible.

“It’s kind of awesome,” he says, referring to his communication with local farmers. “We’ll text back and forth about orders all day, and they’ll even come in and try out my dishes. They care about their products, and they care what we’re doing with them.”

This kind of rapport isn’t limited to his sources—he enjoys being able to watch diners from his open kitchen, and frequently goes out of his way to specialize dishes for them, or recreate older meals for return visitors.

“It’s been incredible seeing Omaha’s palate grow over the years,” he says. “I love seeing that look on a diner’s face of ‘where has this been all my life?’”

Because of this, Nicholson believes the Boiler Room has created something wonderful: “There’s nowhere else I’d rather work,” he says. “Every day at 4:45 we have a ‘family’ dinner, to relax and go over whatever we need to keep in mind for the night. When we bring on new chefs, we try to work with their own styles to fold them in with us, instead of pushing against them. I’m really fortunate to have a great staff.”

In 2017, Nicholson was recognized as a James Beard Foundation semifinalist for Rising Star Chef of the Year, a national contest for chefs under 30 and one of the most prestigious awards for American food professionals.

Thinking about the honor triggers an episode of reminiscing, taking Nicholson back to his early days with the Boiler Room: “I remember when I first started here, we were actually invited up to New York City to serve at the James Beard House. I was just a kid still, and I was set loose to track down our ingredients, which we had overnighted to a kitchen I’d never been to. Later, the dinner itself almost turned into a disaster.”

Now, he and the restaurant have come full circle—but he hasn’t let his success go to his head. “I’m glad for the nomination bringing attention to Omaha. We owe a lot to Sam and Vera Mercer, our first patrons. I’m a humble person, so this all seems a little surreal. Every day, I’m still learning, pushing myself and the restaurant forward.”

Visit boilerroomomaha.com for more information.

This article appears in the July/August 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.

Flour Road Paved with Dough

October 16, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

When Paul Kulik was a 20-year-old line cook, he knew restaurants would play an integral part of his life; little did he know that he would become a renowned part of Omaha’s culinary history, and one if its innovative executive chefs and restaurateurs.

Adding to his repertoire of restaurants in and around the Old Market, the talented owner of Le Bouillon and Boiler Room teamed up with local bar owner and design expert Ethan Bondelid and graced the public with the May opening of Little Italy’s newest pizza and pasta sensation, Via Farina.

“The appeal of pizza and pasta is very broad. It’s family-friendly, and has a sweet spot for all ages. Pricing our menu accordingly, not being overly pretentious, having fun, and bridging the demographic gap so that it is a place for everyone was important to our success.”

-Paul Kulik

Inspired by living abroad for a year in France during high school, Kulik fell in love with the food-oriented way of European life, the integrity of each course, and the quality of farm-to-table fare.

viafarina1“I had to meander a bit to find my passion,” Kulik confesses of his early adulthood. “But I could not imagine food not being a part of my future.”

A self-described “Francophile,” Kulik has long been obsessed with everything French, but a trip to Italy was the catalyst for his concept of creating an Italian eatery that even an Italian native would appreciate. All of that, he knew, lay in the craftsmanship of the dough.

“The process of making it fresh and of the highest quality is the difference,” says Bondelid, Kulik’s former roommate.

“The appeal of pizza and pasta is very broad. It’s family-friendly, and has a sweet spot for all ages,” explains Kulik. “Pricing our menu accordingly, not being overly pretentious, having fun, and bridging the demographic gap so that it is a place for everyone was important to our success.”

The owners received overwhelming support from the opening day of Via Farina, which translates to “Flour Street” in Italian. Thanks to their impressive collaboration—Kulik’s background in all things food-related and Bondelid’s knowledge of beverages and design—the inviting atmosphere blends an industrial sophistication with an inviting ambiance.

viafarina3The centerpiece of the establishment is their open kitchen’s dramatic wood-fired oven, manufactured in Italy and adorned with Egyptian tile, designed to retain heat. The south wall of the restaurant pictures a giant backdrop sketch of a Vespa’s assembly, modern globe pendant lights hang from the ceiling crisscrossed with natural wood beams, there is a backlit bar, and a DJ spins hits from classic vinyl. Out front is a refreshing patio and a trio of cheery yellow Vespas waiting patiently to deliver gastronomic masterpieces to famished locals. 

The menu features 11 unique pizzas, six pasta dishes, and an authentic selection of Italian appetizers. Patrons can expect to be impressed by the locally sourced meats, cheeses, herbs, and vegetables. The sauces, dough, and pasta are all made in-house using a unique process. Each menu item also features wine recommendations, chosen with Bondelid’s expertise.

“We’ve been very fortunate Via Farina has struck a positive chord with the public,” says Bondelid. Kulik adds, “We want to make sure we continue to accomplish the quality we’ve been providing since our opening. Restaurants are living, breathing things, and you always have to improve and evolve.”

Via Farina welcomes guests on Mondays from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m., Tuesdays through Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., and Sundays from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Visit goviafarina.com for more information.

Encounter

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Field & Dream

November 24, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The rhizosphere is defined as the top layer of the earth’s soil.

“It’s the living layer,” Terra Hall explains. “It’s where all the magic happens.”

Rhizosphere Farm, then, is a perfect moniker as Terra and her husband, Matthew, conjure Mother Nature’s magic on their 5.5-acre Loess Hills farm nurturing heirloom, organic vegetables, fruits, and herbs throughout the growing season.

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As the rhizosphere now sleeps through late fall and winter, the Halls plan and prep for 2016. If you’re the type to wistfully recall summer’s sweet bounty in the face of a fall chill and you’re already pining for the return of farmers markets, here’s a look back at Rhizosphere Farm at its seasonal summit.

“It’s the best time of year to eat,” says Terra of August’s abundant end. As lunch is served in the Halls’ log cabin, Coner, a Polish-breed rooster with a hair-metal crest of feathers obscuring his vision, crows intermittently outside. Summer, though not yet eclipsed by fall, can be felt leaning into its swan song.

The meal, shared with intern Patrick Laird and groundskeeper Ted Engles, comes from the field: a spicy tomato gazpacho with onions and herbs, baba ghanoush, carrots, salad, and a potato-leek dish. Farmhand and good friend Dakia Anheluk rounded out the 2015 Rhizosphere crew, helping considerably when health issues had earlier sidelined Terra.

Matthew is from Omaha and Terra is from Council Bluffs, but they actually met in Oregon when working at Horton Road Organics. Over lunch, the Halls explain how they became farmers.

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“I needed a job and lived up the road,” says Matthew in his characteristically succinct manner of speaking before elaborating that he enjoys working with his hands and deeply values “a hard-ass day of labor. What we do in our field is a form of art which tunes us into the true nature of the world as humans were meant to experience it,” he says.

Terra, whose name is fittingly Latin for “earth,” was a campaign organizer at the University of Oregon before realizing activism wasn’t her path to “change the world.” When she started at Horton, she immediately knew she’d found a calling in organic farming.

“I love the connections with nature and the people I grow food for,” she says. “We’re sometimes missing those connections in our culture.”

The Halls returned to the Midwest, dream of Rhizosphere in hand, and rented land in Waterloo, Nebraska, in 2009. A growing urge to put down permanent roots and perennials on a plot of their own culminated in the September 2013 purchase of their land.

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While Rhizosphere’s a scant 20-minute drive from downtown Omaha, visitors enjoy escaping the city’s hustle and bustle. But the Halls hustle plenty on this plentiful land, working seven days a week March through October. They supplement their income with off-season carpentry and retail jobs.

Rhizosphere grew 35 varieties of crops this past season and now counts such notables as  Dante and The Grey Plume as clients.

“We hit at the right time,” in the farm-to-table movement, says Terra.

“Boiler Room was our first [customer],” says Matthew. “And Nick (Strawhecker) at Dante got our number from them.”

“That’s one of the cool things about Omaha’s wonderful food community,” says Terra. “It’s very cooperative, sharing resources and information, which just makes everybody better.”

The Halls also enjoy a more public profile at farmers markets.

“A light goes on in people and it creates great conversations about the farm, how the food is grown, how it can be cooked,” says Terra. “That’s the best way to pass information about food. Those conversations are some of the most important work we do.”

Love of that educational aspect and a desire to create a more sustainable, all-season outlet for their passion has the Halls considering evolving Rhizosphere into an educational nonprofit, adding classes, workshops, events, and community-building to its mission.

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“The Universe gave me a little time off this year,” says Terra, “which provided perspective. I’m passionate about designing the space and creating a permaculture foodscape, and I love teaching people that. I was so inspired by the people who taught me, and I want to pass that on.”

After lunch, Engles gives a tour of the land. It’s ordered, yet still wonderfully wild. A flock of ducks waddle by as he points out the greenhouses, barn, and an old stable, which Matthew has partially converted into additional sleeping quarters. Various fruits, herbs, and veggies flourish in the field alongside towering, yellow-flowered, now-dormant sunchokes—which Terra discussed in a May 2015 New York Times feature on Omaha’s farm-to-table prowess. The diverse, young “food forest” concept uses companion planting—a common permaculture concept ensuring a healthier ecosystem requiring less work through intelligent design. Yellow, heirloom cherry tomatoes are sampled right off the vine before the tour returns to its genesis, now swarmed by a wandering peep of clucking chickens.

There are no rabbits pulled from hats or “abracadabras” uttered here, but Rhizosphere’s magic is palpable.

Visit rhizopherefarm.org to learn more.

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Now Serving Omaha

February 10, 2015 by

Ranked as a Top 10 Foodie City by Livability.com, Omaha’s reputation as a great dining destination continues to grow. In choosing Omaha, Livability.com raves, “Innovative chefs throughout the city are creating sensational menus that surprise many visitors.” The Grey Plume and Boiler Room are constantly receiving high praise from national food critics. Open Table’s “100 Hottest Restaurants in America” list includes Pitch Pizzeria in the Dundee neighborhood, and the Food Network has featured Big Mama’s Kitchen, California Taco, and Brewburgers on its national broadcasts.

To capitalize on the growing interest and to increase awareness about Omaha’s culinary landscape, the Omaha Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB) just started its own web series called “Now Serving Omaha.” Each month a new restaurant is featured in a short video webisode that is distributed to more than 165,000 people from all over the country via the CVB’s social media network. There is also a dedicated webpage featuring all of the videos at visitomaha.com/nowservingomaha.

In addition, the Omaha CVB partnered with Food and Travel magazine, a national publication with a readership of more than 81,000, to create a full-page editorial showcasing many of Omaha’s beloved restaurants such as The Drover, Piccolo Pete’s, Dundee Dell, Johnny’s Café, Crescent Moon, and Blue Sushi. Thanks to a Nebraska Tourism-sponsored media tour, Omaha restaurants have also received media coverage in magazines in Austin, Texas, Des Moines, Iowa, and Kansas City, Mo.

So is all the attention focused on promoting Omaha restaurants worth it? Consider this: Research shows out-of-town visitors spend more than $274 million a year dining out in Omaha restaurants. So the answer is a resounding yes—Omaha is serving up travel-worthy food and visitors are eating it up.

Dana Markel is Executive Director of the Omaha Convention & Visitors Bureau. Questions or comments? Email the Omaha CVB at info@visitomaha.com.

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