Tag Archives: chef

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.”

Labor of Love

January 19, 2015 by and
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

In his first venture, The Grey Plume, chef/owner Clayton Chapman succeeds in proving an old-fashioned belief true: Food made with love truly tastes better.

Chapman now extends that truth across Farnam Street in Midtown Crossing, from what may be the nation’s most sustainable restaurant to Provisions by The Grey Plume, a retail store, artisan grocer, and private dining space opened last fall.

Those familiar with The Grey Plume’s magnificent house-made butter, preserves, and coffee, will swoon upon entering the lovely new space. Jars of jam, marmalade, mustard, apple butter, sauerkraut, and pickled beets with stylish labels denoting batch and jar numbers neatly line tall shelves, neighboring with coffee, bitters, chocolate, butter, baguette, and other inviting, house-made vittles.

“The [Grey Plume] menu is very seasonally driven and influenced by local farm supply,” says Chapman, “so to continue serving local food in winter months, we did a great series of pickling, canning, and preserving. We wanted to make those things that we’ve come to love so much available for home consumers.”

Chapman says he accounted for the short Nebraska produce season and forecasted demand to create a rather large Provisions inventory, which saw some late-fall additions including nut butters, charcuterie, and chocolate work (organic, fair-trade chocolate blended with locally sourced ingredients).

Beyond crystal-balling Provisions’ inventory, Chapman’s very hands-on with its creation. “The charcuterie production, the coffee roasting, the butter production, the chocolate-making,” he rattles off.

Provisions includes a private dining space accommodating 22 seats. It offers special menus and discreet A/V access, making it ideal for everything from birthdays to business. Provisions also offers a series of Saturday cooking classes in its kitchen, covering canning/preserving, knife skills, meat fabrication, and more. Chapman, his staff, and a series of guest chefs lead the sessions.

“We want to make local foods more approachable,” says Chapman. “It’s important to support your local farmers market; we can help people explore what to do with that food once they get it.”

Ceramic and wooden wares are also available alongside other select handmade goodies from local merchants. “We want to provide a well-rounded experience,” Chapman says, referring to non-edible items, like those from Black Iris Botanicals and Benson Soap Mill—vendors perfectly at home here. “The story behind their business practices are pretty wonderful, so we’re happy to partner.”

Provisions, like The Grey Plume, is certified by the Green Restaurant Association.

“It follows the same model—full recycling, full composting program, LED/CFL lighting, many recycled building materials,” says Chapman, pinpointing dining room fixtures and flooring made from recycled farm wood, as well as a gorgeous walnut table made from downed trees. “Besides just being common sense, we want to maintain authenticity and transparency in all our business practices that mirrors our food sourcing.

“It’s a labor of love,” says Chapman. And it’s true…you can taste the love.

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What a Crock!

October 8, 2014 by and
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Most people of a certain age have tucked-away memories of crockpot cuisine. Usually, that involves a bright orange appliance—maybe avocado green or harvest gold—with a border decoration of cartoonish vegetables. Mom deposited a symphony of canned goods, placed the glass lid on top, and six to eight hours later the components had synthesized into dinner.

Somewhere along the way, the handy-dandy crockpot gained a gauche stigma (Here’s looking at you, condensed Cream of Mushroom soup.) But children of the 20th century should make new memories this millennium, because the crockpot is back. Nowadays the look is sleeker, the term “slow cooker” preferred, but they’re ever the effective kitchen tool and can elevate your home cooking.

Just ask Joel Mahr, head chef at Lot 2 in Benson, and mastermind behind the restaurant’s outstanding fare, which is at once fine dining and comfort food, laidback and sophisticated, local and global.

“I use one about twice a month,” he says, going on to describe his favorite crockpot meal.

“In the morning we’ll put a roast in…come home to potatoes, carrots, celery, onion—a really nice meal,” says Mahr. Sometimes he’ll defat the liquid and reduce it with red wine to create a sauce, but beyond that, just add baguette, maybe a salad, and you’re set, he says.

“It’s perfect,” he adds. “I love it.”

Mahr’s wife, Jill, is from an Iowa farm where family gatherings often mean an infantry of slow cookers and roasters. At the couple’s wedding, they subbed crockpots for expensive chafing dishes and had an awesome spread, including a whole hog, shrimp boil (with potatoes, kielbasa, and carrots), beans, cheesy potatoes, and more. Mahr says it was delicious and easy.

 “A lot of people think, ‘I don’t know how this thing works,’ or it’s taboo for some reason,” he says. “But it’s great. You start the meal in the morning, then when you come home, it’s done. It’s vintage, but it’s vintage cool,” Mahr continues. “Everything comes full circle.”

Mahr says crockpots are great for making stocks, tenderizing trimming cuts, and making kids or vegetable-phobes eat their veggies—they’ll love the simmered-to-perfection mirepoix. They’re also your go-to appliance for beans, Indian dishes, oatmeal, soups, breads, desserts, and mulled wine—they do it all. And cleanup is easy.

“Especially in the fall,” Mahr says, “they’re great for those comforting, homey meals; football game food, that kind of thing.”

Mahr, who’s also worked at V. Mertz, Dario’s, and The French Café, is no stranger to gourmet grub, and says crockpots can create wonderful levels of flavor. It just takes a little more time.

“You can develop a richer flavor by taking your time with a meal, and crockpots [let you] develop really great flavor, just by walking away from it,” he says, joking about the old “set it and forget it” tagline.

Mahr says that even though it’s “still that thing that grandma would dust off,” people might be surprised by the modern wonder of the crockpot.

“In our fast-paced society,” Mahr says, “something simple like this can bring your family together around the table.”

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Isa Chandra Moskowitz

November 4, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Cookbook author Isa Chandra Moskowitz has a lot on her plate right now (yes, that was a cheap pun. Moving on). She’s just released her eighth vegan cookbook, Isa Does It, she’s wrapped filming an online video cooking series produced by Zero Point Zero, Inc., she designs the Meatless Mondays menu at Benson Brewery, and she’s opening her own vegan restaurant in Midtown Omaha next spring.

It’s all a part of keeping up with the growing momentum of the vegan lifestyle in the Midwest. “I think things are happening really fast,” Moskowitz says. “If I just look at my life here in Omaha for the past three years, things have progressed so fast. I think in five years, everything will be Portland. In terms of vegan, not in terms of fixies.” That’s a fixed-gear bicycle, for the non-hipsters among us.

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Welcome to the dry humor that is Moskowitz. Isa Does It is full of her quips, making the book not only an unintimidating introduction to vegan cooking but also a darn fun read.

The Brooklyn transplant went vegetarian as a teen of the ’80s for no huge reason other than that she likes animals. “As soon as I realized, oh, I can cook without meat, it just worked,” she says. Her mother and sister went along for the ride. “It was kind of the reverse of what a lot of people experience,” Moskowitz recalls. “You go vegetarian, your family disowns you, you can’t eat together. My mom came home with a stack of cookbooks and said, okay, let’s do this, and we all just started cooking together.”

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Moskowitz transitioned to veganism shortly thereafter. She tried things out for herself, checked out how her friends cooked, watched The Food Network, and learned from the chefs at the restaurants where she served.

After admittedly being a little spoiled by the wide variety of ethnic food available in New York, Moskowitz moved to Omaha in 2010 to be with her boyfriend, John McDevitt. “You know, just like every other girl who’s not from here originally. Must be a lot of great Midwest guys here.”

It seems she’s settled in, as she lists her favorite places in town for vegan food: Kitchen Table, Block 16, Amsterdam Falafel, and Crystal Jade. If you order off the Crystal Jade vegan menu, look for the Isa Noodle. “I always went in and ordered a specific noodle with all these changes, so they finally just put it on the menu,” Moskowitz says. “They were like, we’re not dealing with you anymore. It’s seitan, cilantro, broccoli…it’s a noodle dish that’s kind of sweet and spicy and herby.”

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Though she experiments with food from all over the world, her own heritage influences the finished dish. “There’s always a Jewish-grandmother feel to everything I do, even if it’s curry,” she says.

Expect to see this unique style of comfort food on the menu at Moskowitz’s debut restaurant at 50th and Saddle Creek. “We’re going to do brunch and dinner,” she says, “no lunch. I’m going to keep the hours manageable.” Due to her commitments with cookbooks and shows, Moskowitz says she’s not going for a high-volume, high-turnover restaurant. “I want this to be a cozy retreat, like they’re in my kitchen.”

She’s still searching for the perfect partners for the restaurant. “I want my chef, even if they’re not vegan, to just love food,” she says. “I want them to love experimenting, with no pretension. I’d rather have someone who can grill tofu really well over someone who’s like, hey, I can create foam out of flax and banana. Someone who loves feeding people and cooks from the heart.”

Railcar Modern American Kitchen

June 20, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Jared Clarke can just as likely tell you how to make a great-tasting vinaigrette as he can the science behind why the mixture is called an emulsion and why oil floats on top of vinegar.

An experienced restaurant chef, Clarke has degrees in both culinary arts and culinology. The latter field focuses on the science of food, and culinologists are equally familiar with beakers and test tubes as they are with pots and pans. While many culinologists work in food-product development, research, quality control, and other roles in laboratories and government agencies, Clarke chose restaurants because of his passion for food and love of cooking.20130517_bs_6706_web

The 34-year-old Fairbury, Neb., native is chef-owner of Railcar Modern American Kitchen, which opened in December near 144th and Blondo streets. Its name and railcar era-inspired decor is a nod to the railroads that were key to Omaha’s growth and development.

Clarke envisioned a restaurant inspired by the dining cars prevalent during the golden age of rail travel. The result is a cozy yet elegant space with wood accents, warm paint colors, vintage chandeliers, and a variety of train memorabilia. Industrial elements such as open ceilings with exposed ductwork lend a modern touch to the dining room.20130517_bs_6709_web

The restaurant sources several products from local food producers, including Little Red Barn Beef, Jisa Farmstead Cheese, Truebridge Foods, and Le Quartier Baking Company. Railcar’s eclectic menu features fresh takes on classics.

“What I try to do is modern comfort food,” Clarke says. “Everything’s from scratch.”

Though hearty meat-and-potato entrees like the Woodford Reserve Tenderloin Medallions and Stout Braised Short Ribs are popular, there are several dishes for fans of lighter fare. When creating the menu, Clarke wanted to include options for a wide variety of guests, from vegetarians to gluten-free customers. A vegetarian-friendly cauliflower hash features cauliflower instead of potatoes, which means it’s also suitable for people watching their carbs.20130517_bs_6699_web

Customer satisfaction has been a part of Clarke’s mission since his first restaurant job at Chili’s in 1998. Just six weeks into the job, he was asked to help train new employees how to cook. In 2005, he moved to Chicago and worked as an executive chef for five years.

“It was pretty awesome,” he says. “I love Chicago. I’m a huge Cubs fan, and the dining scene is really amazing.”20130517_bs_6685_web

Expecting their second child, he and his wife returned to Nebraska to be closer to family. Clarke was a partner in the locally owned Blue Agave, where he developed the menu and headed up the kitchen. A few months after Blue Agave closed in summer 2012, he launched Railcar. With Omaha home to Union Pacific headquarters, he thought his concept would be a perfect fit.

What hasn’t been ideal, however, is a road-widening project at the intersection near his restaurant. Traffic on portions of Blondo Street has been detoured while crews move utilities and do other work.20130517_bs_6672_web

“It’s hard to say if it’s hurting us,” Clarke said, “but it has slowed down our growth.”

Despite inconveniences caused by construction work, which is expected to continue into fall, Clarke plans to keep chugging away and welcoming diners all aboard at Railcar.

Railcar Modern American Kitchen
1814 N. 144th St.
402-493-4743
railcaromaha.com