Tag Archives: chef

Ironman Chef Paul Braunschweiler

July 13, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Chef Paul Braunschweiler of Brushi started cooking when he was 6 years old, living in Switzerland with his family. 

Although Braunschweiler claims he wasn’t “sporty” growing up, he did enjoy participating in track up until he enrolled in culinary school and became too busy for extracurricular activities. Now an official Ironman with three completed Ironman triathlons under his belt and numerous other races to his credit, Braunschweiler admits that “being in tune” with his body’s dietary needs has helped his race performance. 

“Your body tells you what it needs,” he says. “You have to listen to your body.” He doesn’t follow a strict protocol when it comes to his day-to-day eating, nor does he switch things up pre- or post-race. What he eats largely depends on what he feels like eating. Luckily for Braunschweiler, he has the well-stocked kitchen at Brushi at his disposal. “I can eat what I want. I can just walk around and open the fridge,” he says, gesturing toward the busy Brushi kitchen. 

Though many racers swear by “carb-loading” right before a race, Braunschweiler sticks with what his body craves. “I eat what I want; I don’t change my diet at race time a lot.” When asked what a typical day-before-a-race meal might look like for him, he replies, “We get fresh fish from Hawaii every week, so that’s what I’d eat. I eat a lot of salmon.” As for his pre-race nourishment, “I don’t eat a lot before a race—maybe a sports drink and a banana.” Post-race, his go-to meal is “a big bowl of salad with lots of marinated salmon and cucumbers and avocados.” He says his body does crave protein after a race, so if he doesn’t feel like salmon he might have some beef or other meat protein. 

Does eating whatever he wants work for Braunschweiler as an athlete? Yes—although his penchant for fresh, nutrient-rich food likely helps. Giving in to cravings won’t work for all racers. But it works for Braunschweiler because he enjoys healthy foods and occasionally allows for splurges so he doesn’t feel deprived. “Allow yourself to splurge a little bit,” he advises fellow racers. “We can do this because we are so active.”

He wasn’t always so active. It wasn’t until after his divorce that he delved into the racing world. “I needed to do something for myself after my divorce,” he says. “I saw people rollerblading and running at Lake Zorinsky, and I decided to start running again. I signed up for the Des Moines Marathon and liked it—I did pretty well even though it’s a little hilly.”

Braunschweiler has progressed from “doing pretty well” to consistently winning in his age division at every race in which he competes. At nearly 67 years old, he’s diversified his racing because “marathons are hard on the body.” Triathlons are his race of choice nowadays. His advice to other racers is, “You have to make time to train. You can achieve so much with your will.”  


Visit raceomaha.com for more information about the Omaha Triathlon. Visit brushiomaha.com for chef Paul Braunschweiler’s restaurant in Omaha.

This article was printed in the July/August 2018 edition of 60Plus in Omaha. 

A Culinary Master in the Making

July 4, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The metal crank wouldn’t work. Witney Stanley had to think of a solution fast. The pressure heated up the kitchen at the Pinnacle Bank Expo Center in Grand Island. The clock ticked tauntingly.

Thirty minutes remaining. 

The SkillsUSA Culinary Arts Championship was on the line. Each participant had to present judges with an entrée from a fabricated whole chicken, a sauce, a vegetable, and a starch. Judges would be expecting a composed salad as well. Only items in the kitchen’s pantry were allowed to be used to create the dishes, and the dinner needed to be cooked in two hours and 30 minutes. Think Top Chef with high school students. 

But the crank was being…well…cranky. 

Witney, a senior at Omaha Central, wanted to win it all. Her competitive drive wouldn’t allow faulty equipment to squash her chances at a medal. After a frustrating five minutes, she grabbed a rolling pin instead to smooth out the dough for her tortellini. She cut it and filled it with spinach, garlic, tomato, and olive. 

Witney inserted the thin thermometer into her roasted chicken thighs. 

155 degrees. 

She rushed to the pantry for oil. The pastor’s daughter took a long deep breath and said a short prayer. Showtime. Only seven minutes, not nearly enough time to cook it completely in the oven. She finished off the chicken on the stovetop with a pan-fried sear. 

The white wine sauce created a challenge as well. Since Witney was only 18 and not legally old enough to drink, she needed to be creative. The young cook substituted white vinegar, onion, and homemade chicken stock. 

She sliced the (finally) cooked chicken, a technique she mastered in between school and tennis. She added Tuscan vegetables and tourné cut potatoes. 

Time.  

At the April 2018 competition, Witney came away with a bronze medal and a passion for competing. 

But her love of all things savory and sweet is deeply rooted in family heritage. When she was only 4 years old, as her sisters prepped for monthly church outreach banquets alongside their mother, Witney would stand on a stool washing cabbage or setting tables for guests. 

“My mom is a genius in the kitchen,” Witney explains. “She doesn’t trust anyone in there except her daughters.”

Her mother, Alyssa, enrolled all six of her children into cake-decorating classes at Michael’s. Witney, 10 years old at the time, started baking cakes whenever she could for birthdays or other special occasions. After a recommendation from a neighbor, the girls decided to sell their homemade yellow and devil’s food cupcakes with buttercream frosting at the Gifford Park Neighborhood Market. 

“I was hesitant at first,” Witney recalls. “Then I thought, what’s the worst that could happen? I could end up with a tray of cupcakes, and I could eat them.”

The money, though, wasn’t to buy more supplies, candy, or even toys. Instead, the sisters saved it for someone special. It took an entire year, and the older girls had to get side jobs, but it all went to purchase a bedroom set their mother had her eye on for a while. 

“From that point on, they were known for those cupcakes,” Alyssa says. “All just to surprise me with a Mother’s Day gift.” 

It turned into a business, Stanley Southern Sweeties. Each sister plays a role—whether creating roses, borders, or letters. 

Their mother saw something special in Witney and pushed her to cook for the family. She started experimenting even if it meant getting dinner to the table later than usual. 

In order to play tennis, Witney made the move from home-school to Central High School. Introverted and painfully shy, the teenager couldn’t fathom it all. So her sister Justine, who was taking online classes at Metropolitan Community College, went to every single class to watch out for Witney that first year. After taking the No. 1 spot in tennis, Witney soon made friends and discovered culinary classes. Entering her senior year, she started taking classes at the Omaha Public Schools Career Center for college credit. She continued practicing in the kitchen at every opportunity, soaking up knowledge like a sponge cake.

“She’s an example of what we should be seeing in every student,” says chef Perthedia Berry, a culinary instructor at Metro. 

Berry, sometimes referred to as the “female Gordon Ramsay,” can intimidate students. Witney prefers the tough love as it reminds her of her own upbringing. 

“I love the intensity. She [Berry] wants her students to do well. She’s preparing me for the future. If you can get through her, you can get through anything,” Witney says. 

The main issue for the aspiring cook is speaking up. Berry yells at her to stop worrying about offending people. Chefs should be concerned with getting dinner to hungry guests; save the politeness for later. 

With each class, Witney gained confidence. She earned the Best Beef Award at her first invitational (the Metropolitan Community College Institute for Culinary Arts High School Invitational in February 2017). In another competition, two teammates dropped out, but Witney took it upon herself to take all the responsibility. 

“Witney pushes forward, and she’ll be someone you know in this community,” Berry says. 

Her mother, originally from New Orleans, was a mentor for last year’s Metro invitational. So Witney simmered a New Orleans gumbo on the stove and, along with Omaha North’s Ajana Jones, took home the silver medal. 

Witney plans to open a restaurant or a bakery someday, maybe with her sisters. After she takes the accelerated Culinary Arts program at Metro, she plans to enroll at Creighton University for a business degree. The pitfalls are well-known, but that doesn’t stop her. 

“She’s fearless,” her mother says. 

For now, Witney is carefully measuring each step, weighing the consequences, and stirring in a pinch of prayer that her dream will become a reality.


Visit ccenter.ops.org for more information about culinary classes at the OPS Career Center and mccneb.edu for details on Metropolitan Community College’s Institute for the Culinary Arts.

This article was printed in the July/August 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine. 

A Cathedral for Cooking

June 20, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Most first-time attendees at Crème de la Crème instructional cooking events enter chef Paula Dreesen’s home as if they are crossing the threshold of a church. Perhaps overly aware of their guest status, they edge in on padded feet and speak in hushed whispers, the kind usually reserved for the gentle echoes of a house of worship.

“They may enter as strangers,” the gregarious Dreesen says with a broad smile, “but they leave as friends. That’s what good food and good conversation does. It draws people together.” 

But the night I became a parishioner at Crème de la Crème was different. And loud.

It was Dreesen’s 150th event, and all the other cooks-in-waiting were repeat guests, longtime disciples with as many as five previous evenings under the belts of their aprons. The only icebreaking required this time around involved that which was needed for a decidedly less than pious procession of mojitos which ushered in the evening.

Teaching, now so seemingly natural for the outgoing Dreesen, was an evolutionary process paralleling the arc of her life in food.

“My mom started me in the kitchen when I was a little girl,” the chef says, “and I worked in and around the restaurant industry for 35 years. Cooking has always meant so much more to me; so much more than just food.” 

After years of being asked by friends for help or advice in the kitchen, she began informal instructional sessions in her previous home, then launched her Crème de la Crème business plan three years ago in the sprawling 1,000-square-foot kitchen of a new home that was designed specifically for such group culinary gatherings.

“People always ask me why I never opened a restaurant of my own,” the chef says, “but I don’t think I have that in me, the seven-day commitment and endless hours that go into making a restaurant work. What I do have is a husband [Dr. Adrian Dreesen], five kids, and a dog. Crème de la Crème is the perfect fit…the perfect way to find and express my creativity and share it with others in a fun, social environment.”

Several globetrotting themes are available for Crème de la Crème soirees and, taking the farm-to-table philosophy to its logical extreme, Dreesen rotates her menus based on the availability of bounty from her expansive backyard vegetable gardens and fruit orchards perched high on a hill overlooking the Elkhorn River in West Omaha.

Crowd favorites include such Mexican menus as “Casa de Crème” and “A Tale of Two Tacos.” Italian is also popular with her “Pizza Party” and “Cozy Italian” evenings. 

And, in tribute to Dreesen’s culinary idol, Julia Child, there’s even a more highbrow “French Crème Countryside” menu for pilgrims in search of new frontiers.

Dreesen also offers the “Crème Conquest,” a hit with corporate clients that use the experience as a team-building exercise. Groups are split into teams and given a set of selected ingredients, but no recipe. The challenge is to guess the secret recipe from which the ingredients are derived. Even if the food sleuths fail to solve the underlying mystery, they get to battle it out, Iron Chef-style, in devising and preparing a delicious meal to be shared by their co-workers.

But it was the “Grillin’ Cuban Style” menu on tap for the night I attended, where anxious students took turns in preparing pineapple mojitos, mojo-grilled chicken with black beans and crispy sweet plantains, all followed by a decadent tres leches cake.

Although I was present as a journalistic observer—and my culinary prowess is pretty much limited to melting Velveeta—I was also invited to participate.

My assigned task, perhaps mercifully, was to blend the tres leches ingredients into a velvety symphony of num-num-numiness ready for the oven. Based on the baking, cooling, and refrigeration time called for in the recipe, I had accurately surmised that Dreesen had prepared a cake, the one we would later be eating, a day in advance, but I was still resolved to approach my job as if I were engaged in the sacramental rite of turning flour and eggs into manna from heaven. My apron, not to mention my nascent reputation as a capable hand in the kitchen, emerged unscathed. High fives all around.

Dreesen is often asked to take her show into other people’s homes, but now it’s her turn to speak in hushed, reverent tones.

“It’s doing it here that makes it meaningful for me,” she explains. “Cooking right here. Cooking with family helping me. Not just in any kitchen but in my kitchen. It just wouldn’t be the same anywhere else.”


Visit cremedelacremeomaha.com for more information.

This article was printed in the July/August 2018 edition of OmahaHome. 

Chase Thomsen

April 14, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

A former Dundee-area eyesore is now one of the hottest places in Omaha to scarf down eggs and waffles.

For years, a decaying, vacant service station sat near the roundabout that connects Seward, Happy Hollow, and 50th streets. But this past summer, the building began to undergo a metamorphosis. The exterior got a slick, black lacquer-like paint job. The 5-foot hole inside the building was filled in. And for a final touch, a hot pink neon sign boldly displayed four letters: SCBC.

Today, visitors to the Saddle Creek Breakfast Club can expect at least two things: a sweet or savory breakfast in the $10 range, and about a one-hour wait. The breakfast-themed restaurant is the vision of executive chef Chase Thomsen and his wife, Niki. The restaurant serves up high-end takes on standard greasy spoon fare: biscuits and gravy, chicken-fried pork, as well as sweet offerings such as banana pancakes or a waffle that’s topped with candied macadamia nuts. They also have a vegan menu, which, like their primary menu, is seasonally adjusted.

Chase’s restaurant experience came at an early age. His godfather, Malcolm Thompson, was the former owner of Taxi’s Grille and Bar. Chase took his first job at age 15 at the now-closed Yo Yo Grille, which was located around 120th and Pacific streets. Then he went to the University of Nebraska-Kearney to study graphic design, but dropped out to work full time as a chef.

In 2007, he worked at Taxi’s. In 2009, he was in charge of that restaurant’s back-end kitchen. He later went to work at Plank, then, after returning to Taxi’s for a brief time, he worked at The Market House. While at The Market House, Chase worked with executive chef and fellow Millard North alum Matt Moser, who now co-owns Stirnella.

“Chase is an extremely talented and hard worker,” Moser says. “I can see why he’s getting the press and reviews he is getting.”

Both chefs’ culinary careers took a radical shift on Jan. 9, 2016, when an early afternoon explosion ripped through M’s Pub. Chase had a dinner shift at The Market House, which was adjacent to the beloved Omaha institution. On that frigid afternoon following the fire, he thought they’d be closed for dinner at most.

“We were still thinking that he may have to work the next day,” his wife Niki says. “Obviously, by the next morning, there was another story.”

Sitting at one of the tables at SCBC, Chase ran his fingers down one of the strings in his dark-blue hoodie and recalled the first thing he thought after hearing The Market House was damaged beyond repair. “I have to find a job,” he says with a laugh.

He took a job as a food consultant at a senior living community to pay the bills. During that time, his son, Lennon, was born. Throughout 2016, Chase and Niki began to come up with the concept of a breakfast-themed restaurant. Niki knew contractor Jeff Hubby, who ended up turning the old service station into what is now an eating hot spot on the northeastern edge of Dundee. The entire construction process took less than five months, Chase says.

Niki worked on the interior theme. Some of the inspiration for the design came from stuff she saw on Pinterest. When she heard the tile work for one of the walls would cost more than $20,000, she went to tile stores to get the white, black, and grey diamond-style design she wanted.

“Every decision we made was honestly dictated by budget,” Niki says.

Doing a breakfast-themed restaurant serves two needs for Chase. First, it gives him the opportunity to focus on his favorite meal. Second, it provides the opportunity to be at home in the evening for his family. With half a year into operation, he’s still trying to fulfill that second need. For the first few months after its October opening, he found himself getting home after midnight, even though service stops at 2 p.m.

“Our son is 1 now. I’m thinking, ‘Get this place open, become a morning person, and be able to have evenings at home,’” Chase says. “We’re not quite there yet.”

Saddle Creek Breakfast Club is located at 1540 N. Saddle Creek. Visit @scbcomaha on Facebook for more information.

 

This article was printed in the March/April 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine.

In Bloom

April 13, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Just as bright yellow dandelions emerge throughout the city in spring, Dandelion Pop-Up will re-emerge in the Greater Omaha Chamber Courtyard, adding a dash more culinary color to Omaha (at 13th and Harney streets).

Dandelion creator Nick Bartholomew says the weekly Friday lunch series featuring an ever-changing menu and rotating roster of all-star chefs is slated to return in late March 2017—though, like its flaxen-hued namesake, warmer weather will ultimately dictate its arrival. Bartholomew, who’s also behind beloved eateries The Market House and Over Easy, launched Dandelion Pop-Up in partnership with Secret Penguin so he could still contribute to the neighborhood after the M’s Pub fire put his Old Market restaurant on hiatus. The golden concept allows chefs to satisfy their creative cravings and lets diners sink their teeth into a unique edible experience.

Bartholomew wanted to offer seasoned chefs and up-and-comers alike the chance to break away from their daily bread, so to speak—to get creative, feed their passion, incubate new dishes and restaurant concepts, and have some fun.

“[At Dandelion] chefs can follow their passion with 100 percent creative control,” Bartholomew says. “They can test ideas and try out potentially off-the-wall stuff, then get feedback on their vision and see how it’s received before debuting it on a broader scale. I think the genius behind it is the versatility, which allows creativity, and that’s really engaging to the chefs. When the chefs are this excited, you know the food will be amazing.”

Dandelion began in July 2016 with Chef Tim Maides and his T.R.E.A.M. (Tacos Rule Everything Around Me) team, who started the party with chicken and vegan tacos that sold out early.

“It’s basically like a little playground for chefs to do something different, with a low risk and the chance to try out new flavors,” Maides says of Dandelion. “It’s similar for the people there to eat; it breaks up their normal downtown routine with a temporary option for lots of different flavors from different chefs in one location.”

“Tim is great, and we love doing the creative process together,” Bartholomew says. “The Chamber of Commerce has also been amazing. When we asked them about it, they didn’t think twice; they totally got Dandelion’s potential as an incubator and shared the vision.”

Since the Chamber doesn’t charge Bartholomew, he doesn’t charge the chefs, who keep all food profits. For his part, Bartholomew designs a signature lemonade corresponding with each Dandelion theme.

“For [Maides’ lunch] I did a cucumber-jalapeño lemonade that went great with his tacos,” says Bartholomew.

Next, Dandelion offered a barbecue lunch from chef Dan Watts, featuring his coffee-black-pepper-rubbed brisket. After a short hiatus, while Bartholomew updated the Chamber Courtyard kiosk’s infrastructure, Dandelion returned with lunches from heavy-hitter chefs like Joel Mahr, Jason Hughes, Dario Schicke, and Paul Kulik. Dishes included bahn mi burgers, pork steam buns, cevapi with pita, soul food such as chicken-andouille gumbo and fried green tomato grilled cheese, Parisian street vendor-style crepes, fried rice, bibimbap (a trial run for upcoming Bartholomew venture, Boho Rice), and other mouthwatering items.

Bartholomew is a proud Omaha native, and like his existing restaurants and soon-to-launch Boho Rice, he wants Dandelion to enhance the neighborhood it inhabits. He’s proud to say that the returning Friday tradition brings the often-dormant Chamber Courtyard to life.

“It’s awesome to see the courtyard with this buzz of activity now, and all these people just enjoying a sunny day, a lemonade, and some great food they can’t get anywhere else,” he says. “It’s a testament to Omaha being ready for these ideas and [customers] being loyal to what they like from certain chefs.”

Like the chefs and restaurants it promotes, Dandelion itself is still incubating. According to Bartholomew, there’s ample potential for the venture to grow like a weed in terms of scope and format, and he welcomes feedback from the public and pitches from chefs.

“I can’t always explain exactly what Dandelion is because I secretly want it to be everything,” Bartholomew says. “If anything, the format will just grow now that awareness is growing, and I hope Dandelion becomes something the city is proud of.”

Fittingly, Bartholomew wants to let Dandelion be a bit of a wildflower.

“We don’t want to tag its ear and process it yet because it’s kinda wild,” he says. “One of the things that makes Dandelion cool is that we’re not limiting it.”

Visit dandelionpopup.com for details and to register for updates on upcoming events.

This article was printed in the March/April 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.

Aloha Bluejays

February 22, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Creighton has long maintained a cross-cultural connection with Hawaii. The university considers the Central Pacific archipelago one of its top-10 recruiting states, and students from Hawaii have been flocking to this “Maui of the Midwest” for nearly a century.

The first Hawaiian student enrolled at Creighton University in 1924, long before the territory became a state (which eventually happened in 1959). Creighton started seeing increased Hawaiian enrollment after World War II in the 1940s, amid heightening racism toward people of Asian and Pacific Islander descent, says Associate Director of Admissions Joe Bezousek.

While resentment lingered from the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and other U.S. military engagements in East Asia, Creighton intentionally rejected riding the wave of then-popular discrimination.

“Creighton has always followed the Jesuit value of being accepting and treating everyone with dignity and respect. So, Creighton kept our doors open and that was a big trigger moment,” Bezousek says.

Current students of Hawaiian heritage say the school does much to foster a culture of inclusion and supply resources necessary for Native and non-indigenous Hawaiians alike to continue being engaged with their culture while thousands of miles from home.

Ku‘uipo Lono is a student at Creighton and a participating member of Hui ‘O Hawai‘i, an on-campus Hawaiian organization. Lono’s favorite part of the Hawaiian club, and the centerpiece of the organization’s calendar, is the annual lu‘au.

According to Lono, lu‘au was first conceptualized in Hawaii as a celebration of life.

“Lu‘au was originally done for a baby’s first birthday,” Lono says. “When Western people came to Hawaii, they brought a lot of diseases with them, and so it was a big deal for a baby to live past one year.”

Today, the number of Native Hawaiians who continue on to post-secondary education remains low, Lono says, so leaving the island for college is a big deal. For Lono, leaving Hawaii was a matter of broadening her horizons, sharing Hawaiian culture, and in some ways, defending her traditional culture.

“There is a big controversial thing happening on the Big Island where the United States wants to build a big telescope on a mountain, and Native Hawaiians are protesting,” she says. “For some people, being Hawaiian is going up on the mountain and protesting—for others, being Hawaiian is getting an education and being part of the committee who decides whether or not to have the telescope built.”

Much like there is a distinction between Native Americans and non-indigenous American people born and raised in America, Lono says there is a cultural difference between Native Hawaiians and people who are simply from Hawaii. Creighton’s Hui ‘O Hawai‘i is inclusive of both groups.

“There are people who are not Hawaiian at all who participate,” Lono says. “A common thing you will hear people say is ‘I am Hawaiian at heart.’”

Sela Vili is a sophomore at Creighton. Although not of indigenous Hawaiian heritage, she is from Hawaii and played a lead role in a play performed at last year’s lu‘au. More than 1,000 people attended the 2016 event, which is inclusive to other Polynesian cultures, too, not just Hawaiian.

Vili says the celebration is different each year, and the food is always authentic.

“We have a food committee, and we bring down a chef from Hawaii,” Vili says. “I love the entertainment in the lu‘au. I love dancing in it, especially given that I have been dancing since the age of 5.”

Vili refers to the Hawaiian community on campus as her family away from home. She says Hawaii is very important to her, which drives a lot of her participation in the club.

“I want to be involved in the lu‘au so I can share my culture with everyone else,” Vili says. “It’s a way for me to keep in touch with home, and also a great way to meet other students that are from Hawaii.”

Hawaiian culture is based on the idea that you live off the land and work in the fields, Lono says, but going to college offers an opportunity for a different type of life. She admits there can be some resentment toward Westerners by Native Hawaiians, especially considering the legacy of colonization and forced acculturation.

“[I used to think] this is not fair. Why do we have to work to pay rent for land we already own,” Lono says. “My perspective changed when I came here. The same thing happened to the Mexicans and the Native Americans, and I think the best thing to do is not really accept it, but to learn about it, make a difference, and move forward from it.”

Lono is thankful for the opportunity to share her culture with the rest of Creighton’s diverse student population, and she praises the club’s approximately 250 members for caring enough about their culture to share with their peers and the general public of Omaha.

“Creighton recruits heavily from Hawaii, and it is nice having so many people from Hawaii so far away from home,” Lono says.

She laments the dearth of Hawaiian food in Omaha; however, the Hui ‘O Hawai‘i organization provides an essential group of friends who get together to cook authentic foods from home, in order to feel a little closer to the Aloha State—right here in Nebraska.

The 2017 Hui ‘O Hawai‘i Lu‘au takes place March 18 at Creighton University’s Kiewit Fitness Center. Doors open at 4 p.m., dinner begins at 5 p.m., and entertainment starts at 6 p.m. Tickets cost $20 general admission, $15 students, $12 children ages 4-12, free to ages 3 and under. Contact Lu‘au Chair Tiffany Lau at tiffanylau1@creighton.edu for more information.

This article was printed in the March/April 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.

Mexican
 Perfection

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

When Anthony Bourdain was asked what food trend he would like to see in a Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything), he said, “I would like people really to pay more for top-quality Mexican food. I think it’s the most undervalued, underappreciated world cuisine with tremendous, tremendous potential.”

At Hook & Lime Tacos + Tequila, North Downtown’s newest addition, you will find that top-quality Mexican food and all kinds of potential, though you won’t necessarily have to pay more for it.

Owner Robbie Malm says after selling his share in Dudley’s Pizza and Tavern, he wanted to do something smaller and more creative. With a little help from his wife, Erin, and his brother, Tim Malm, he has done just that.

Hook & Lime’s menu has a selection of a la carte tacos, small plates, and tortas, all for under $20.

But if you do want to spend some money and have a more decadent experience, you can try the family-style tacos or the tasting menu (with or without tequila).

For the family-style tacos, you can choose between the whole fish, which is currently fried, striped bass, or bone-in barbacoa, which is cooked for 72 hours, crisped in the oven, and sent to the table for you to pick apart.

Head chef Alex Sorens says the tasting menu is something he’s excited about because it gives his crew the opportunity to create dishes and test things out. If they’re good, they’ll go on the next tasting menu.

“It’s stuff that we wouldn’t normally serve to the public,” he says. “It will be a select amount of these things, and when we run out, we run out.”

The menu features a lot of fish, hence the “hook” in Hook & Lime. Sorens says he gets their fish from Seattle Fish Co. out of Kansas City, Missouri. He uses their program Whole Boat Harvest for some of the dishes, like the ceviche. The program sells the “leftover” fish from hauls, fish that would normally go to waste because they’re not as well-known as others.

“The reason for that is because I’m trying to do my part to not be in that same group that’s using all those super popular, over-fished species that are going on endangered lists right now.”

Sorens also tries to support other environmentally conscious businesses, getting a lot of their ingredients from local producers like Plum Creek Farms and Jon’s Naturals.

Malm says these are things you might normally only find at “higher-end, white tablecloth places.” He says their goal is to make that food available to everyone.

“We have this amazing menu, these amazing items, that we’re able to bring to people who normally wouldn’t get to experience them,” he says. “We’re trying to take that food, that approach of sourcing locally and treating these items with respect, and make it more approachable. It doesn’t matter if you’re in a suit and tie or flip-flops, we welcome everybody here.”

Malm says he has been “very, very fortunate” in finding the team to do that.

“Everyone seems to be really excited about their role in this,” he says. “So I quickly found out that my best role is really to enable them to just dive in.”

This enthusiasm extends to the front of the house, where bar manager Brian van Egmond works to create original cocktails using ingredients made in house.

“It’s a fusion between speed and craft,” he says. There will be a couple margaritas available on tap, but the fresh juices are added after they’re poured.

So far, van Egmond says they’ve made their own orange brandy, orange liquor, syrups, and crème de cassis. He is currently working on a strawberry tequila for their strawberry margaritas. They also have a hibiscus-infused reposado, which is used to make the Roselle cocktail.

“That’s one I think both Negroni and Cosmo fans will appreciate.”

Van Egmond says they also have a well-curated spirits list, and plenty of beers to offer, including many from local breweries. There are also several wine options.

Of course, if what you’re really looking for is some straight up, premium tequila, Hook & Lime has you covered.

“Tequila is my favorite thing to drink,” Malm says. “It is my favorite thing to drink,” he repeats, laughing. “And I’m a fairly recent convert.”

But once he fell in love with tequila, it became a little bit of an obsession. He talks excitedly about touring tequila distilleries in Mexico with his wife. He says they toured five different spots, including Cuervo and Herradura.

The restaurant’s offerings reflect his enthusiasm, with more than 100 tequilas on their list and four different styles of flights available if you want to do a little sampling before you commit.

“They say there’s no zealot like a convert,” Malm says. “And that is definitely true when it comes to tequila.”

Undoubtedly, Hook & Lime will do their share in creating converts, both to tequila and to a greater appreciation of top-quality Mexican food.

Hook & Lime is open Sundays through Wednesdays from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., and 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Thursdays through Saturdays.

This article was printed in the March/April 2017 edition of Encounter.

René Orduña

October 13, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

According to René Orduña, a restaurant’s dishwasher is as key as its chef. “He knows what’s coming back,” says the head chef of Dixie Quicks in Council Bluffs. “What people aren’t eating. So if I wanted to work for a restaurant, I’d get a job as a dishwasher and see what’s coming back. And if they’re not enjoying the food, then I wouldn’t stay there very long.”The good chefs, he says, will always check the plates coming back. To this day, a half-empty plate prompts Orduña to ask the waiter if a guest disliked a meal.

Orduña co-owns the Southern-style diner known as Dixie Quicks with his husband, Robert Gilmer. The restaurant has been open in one location or another since 1995. So if Orduña says it’s important to check the plates, he knows what he’s talking about.

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While the chef has worked in a variety of restaurants across the country (New Orleans. Atlanta. San Francisco. New York City), it’s fair to say he’s been in kitchens his entire life.

Orduña was 1 year old when his mother opened Howard’s Charro in South Omaha. He started making tamales on Wednesdays when he was 6. “Spreading the masa, putting the meat in them, putting them in boxes to freeze,” he recalls. As a young adult, he waited tables around town and cooked in a few kitchens as well. “The Golden Apple, worked at M’s,” he recites. From 1971 to 1973, he worked at the French Café in Downtown Omaha before he began traveling.

Today, both he and Gilmer are elbows deep in Dixie Quicks from dawn till dusk. Orduña cooks, serves, buses tables, washes dishes, and Gilmer handles the art of the attached RNG Gallery (“That’s Robert Newton Gilmer,” Orduña clarifies) and the restaurant’s books. “You don’t want him cooking, and you don’t want me doing books,” Orduña says with an emphatic wave of his hand.

Patrons of Dixie Quicks are probably okay with that arrangement. After taking their seats, guests walk over to the gigantic chalkboard menu to decide among Cajun, Southern, and Southwestern options. Orduña says he’s careful about revamping the menu. “Every time I take something off that board, somebody gets …” upset, he says. “It’s almost like I have to open another restaurant to try another menu.”

Do tell?

“Maybe someday,” he dodges coyly. He’s chalking it up to a dream right now, his desire to open several restaurants in one. “A Cajun restaurant. And a barbecue restaurant. And a pizza place. Kind of like a food court.” A place like that, Orduña thinks, would get freshly graduated culinary students used to working in a professional setting. “You can have fine dining anywhere, at any kind of place,” he insists.

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Personally, he favors what he calls the Iron Chef method. “I like going to my refrigerator, seeing what I have, and figuring it out. That’s what I do most days when I go shopping at the grocery store. That’s what usually makes up the menu.”

Has anything new and exciting come out of this experimentation?

“Oh gosh. Just about everything,” he says. “I start playing back there with spices and flavors and textures…” It’s handy that he and Gilmer live just above the restaurant. He could be tinkering in the kitchen at any time of day.

Today, it’s a broccoli cheese soup. “The cheese just looked good,” Orduña says. “And the broccoli was plentiful and gorgeous, and I thought, you know, it’s the perfect day
for soup.”

Article originally published in March/April 2014 in Omaha Magazine.

Update 11/18/2016: After a short battle with Stage 4 cancer, Rene passed away in November 2016. A celebration of Rene Orduna’s Life will b held this Sunday 11/20 at The Max from 4-8 pm

Joy of Cooking

January 15, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Joyeon “Joy” Wang is an artist.

Her medium? Computers and fish. 

Wang, a trained graphic designer and sushi chef, operates Maru Sushi & Korean Grill with her mother, Boksoon Park.

Formerly Han Kuk Kwan Korean Restaurant, established in 2000, Maru expanded in 2010—both physically and in terms of culinary reach—by adding a third bay to the space and sushi to the menu.

Wielding her aesthetic skills, Wang created a beautiful space that belies its strip mall location just off 108th and L. Maru boasts high ceilings, stylish decor, and a long wine/sushi bar that presents a vibe that is simultaneously sleek and cozy.

“I added sushi to appeal to more people,” says Wang, clarifying that customers often first visit for sushi, then get curious about the Korean cuisine. “People love both. It’s a good balance.”

A new name heralded the revamped approach. Traditionally, “maru” is the table at the center of the Korean home where friends and family gather. On a recent visit, this meaning was perfectly personified by new customers being kindly welcomed to explore the diverse, delectable menu as it was by Park hosting longtime Korean friends for an afternoon of reminiscing and “the best homemade kimchi this side of the Pacific.”

As the sounds of Korean language and the kind of boisterous laughter that only blossoms from reconnecting with old friends periodically crescendo around her, Wang shares more about her family, restaurant, and other pursuits.        

The first and juiciest tidbit is that, in addition to her career, she owes her marriage to Maru.

“I met my husband Rudy here,” says Wang. “Well, his parents met me here first, then they told him, ‘We found your wife.’”

With such a confident pitch for the woman of his dreams, Rudy, whose family coincidentally owned O Dining & Lounge, couldn’t resist a visit. The parental instincts were prophetic, and the two married in 2005. At the time, Wang worked in the restaurant and as a graphic designer at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, where she’d earned a degree in studio arts with a concentration in graphic design.

The Wangs soon had two boys, now ages 6 and 8. The kids also love cooking and have even expressed interest in becoming chefs when they grow up. Certainly this affinity owes much to their grandmother, Park, who prepares all of Maru’s sauces and seasonings from scratch and says that, since her own childhood, home cooking has made her feel warmth and comfort—feelings she loves to share with others. 

“This restaurant and food allows me to tell my story,” says Park through Wang’s translation. “From starting in poverty back [in South Korea], to my first restaurant job working as a dishwasher, to now being able to share my passion in food with others.”   

Already proficient at Korean cooking thanks to her mother’s excellent example, Wang had no idea where to start when she decided to add a sushi bar to Maru, so she scouted a New York sushi chef who came to work for her and helped open the sushi bar.

“When he left, I was still a baby sushi chef and couldn’t handle it all, so I learned more,” says Wang, who dexterously extended her artistry from design to sushi, working intensively for months to further develop her skills.   

Wang says while she enjoys sushi preparation and all the creativity involved, the Korean side of Maru’s menu takes up the most space in her heart.

Understandable, as the cuisine absolutely delights the senses. Marinated Korean barbecue short ribs sizzle on a hot metal plate, exuding a savory, grilled aroma. Two varieties of kimchi, traditional cabbage and daikon radish, contribute crisp texture and masterfully developed flavor. The same scintillating sizzle comes from a lovely grill-hot granite bowl filled with beef bibimbap; a colorful feast for the eyes with its array of rice, meat, bright vegetables, and “banchan,” which are small sides accompanying the meal, like Park’s homemade kimchi, bean sprouts, potatoes, and lightly steamed broccoli finished with salt and sesame oil.   

“I love to introduce this food to people,” says Wang, echoing her mother. “People love comfort food, and this is Asian-style comfort food, but it’s not heavy.”

Standing behind the sushi bar constructing one of Maru’s gorgeously creative rolls, Wang suddenly asks if she mentioned she’s in nursing school—a demanding addition to any schedule, much less a chef’s.

“It sounds crazy, right? Somehow it all gets done,” she says.

Since childhood Wang dreamt of working in healthcare, but growing up in a “right-brained family” and watching her brothers pursue art led her in a different direction.

“Ever since I had my babies, I thought more and more about my old dream,” says the Clarkson College senior who plans to work only part-time in a hospital. “I still have the restaurant. My mom needs me. And I love this place. So I will do both.”

It makes sense that Wang, who found an artful connection between graphic design and sushi, also sees a bridgeable gap between nursing and cheffing.

“Being in the restaurant business, I take care of customers and anticipate their needs and what they’ll like,” says Wang. “Taking care of patients is very similar in that sense. Trying to see their perspective and provide what they need.”

Visit marusushikoreangrill.com to learn more.

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Chef Jason Hughes

March 24, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

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 the Completely KIDS-sponsored 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.

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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. 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 the age of 15 he was already working in the only industry he’s ever known. Hughes 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 Colorado 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 are no boundaries.”

Hughes has occupied the private country club arena 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 can’t be doing what he’s doing, and he gave me the private club chef headhunter that brought me to Omaha.”

Getting the Happy Hollow job required Hughes to 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,” says Happy Hollow general manager Jim Williamsen, who admires Hughes’ passion. “He’s elevated our culinary program and the culture of our club. 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,” he says, “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.”

He recently returned from France and Spain with new recipes inspired by those national cuisines.

The “blase” stigma once attached to country club cuisine is no more.

“There’s some people putting it out there in country clubs that could compete with anybody in any city,” he says.

Hughes 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,” Hughes adds. “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, and 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. After a year-plus in Omaha, 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,” he says. “It’s a great city.”