Tag Archives: culinary arts

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. 

Thunder-bird’s Eye View

July 17, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

This article appears in July/August 2015 Omaha Magazine.

It’s lunchtime in the Omaha Press Club’s spectacular Spiro Agnew Oak Room and Steve Villamonte is humbly puzzled as to why anyone wants to interview him.

“Christine’s the backbone of the Press Club,” he says of Christine Jones, his wife and OPC planning & event coordinator. “She does all the work. She’s a big part of our success here the past 15 years.”

“Well, we’re all important here,” says Jones, with a warm, conspiratorial wink before exiting.

She comes up often in conversation with Villamonte, consistently attached to the adjective “beautiful”—just as in the May 2015 OPC newsletter, where he writes that “the best part [of working] at the Press Club is that I get to see my beautiful Christine every day.”

Villamonte’s succeeded in seamlessly combining his three chief interests—family, food, and work—through roles including husband, father, coach, mentor, certified executive chef, Omaha Press Club Executive Director, and entrepreneur behind Villamonte’s Cuisine and his trademarked Thunderbird Salad Dressing.

But the family-food-work connection is nothing new to Villamonte. At age 53, he’s been in the kitchen 48 years.

“One of my first memories was making Thunderbird salads for my dad,” says Villamonte, recollecting his “job” dressing the iconic salad at Omaha’s Happy Hollow Club. He recalls the plastic deli gloves dwarfing his scant 5-year-old hands, the stepstool he stood on, the kitchen’s layout.

Villamonte’s father, Peruvian-born chef Luis Villamonte, established the Thunderbird as house salad at various country clubs in which he worked throughout the Midwest. While it still remains as such at many, the famous Thunderbird dressing, which the Villamontes now sell commercially and retail, truly reaches its peak as served on the First National Bank building’s 22nd floor, with mixed greens, bacon, bleu cheese, shredded mozzarella, chives, tomatoes, and homemade croutons.

“I still have the old Thunderbird recipe card he gave me,” says Villamonte. “Going to culinary school was one thing, but you couldn’t learn more than I did working with my father.”

Now the teacher his late father was, Villamonte enjoys working with his team, including OPC Executive Chef Barry Brewer, who handles day-to-day kitchen operations while Villamonte continues to steer creative direction, mentor staff, write banquet menus and menu items, and collaborate with clients who’ve commissioned his expertise in achieving the right note for special dinners and events. Villamonte relishes mentoring other chefs, teaching them tricks of the trade, but also to have “a lot of pride and dignity” in their craft.

“I realized I can work through other people and get things done with a lot of culinary flair,” he says.

Villamonte urges chefs to seek ample education.

“It’s one thing to be a good chef, but you must also be a good manager,” he says. “My first manager reminded me [often] that there’s an abundance of skilled chefs, but you also have to be able to work with people. I’ve never forgotten that. So, the more education you get in both business and culinary skills, the better. You also need hard knocks; that’s the best teacher sometimes.”

Villamonte says he enjoys being in the kitchen with his culinary crew.

“You know, Paul McCartney always stays relevant. Here he is, in his mid-70s, with a number one song. I think that’s amazing. And my business is the same; you have to constantly look at what’s out, what’s new, what haven’t I tried yet, what do I want to try … ”

Villamonte’s keen on exploring the culinary world’s cutting edge. He researches extensively for menus and likes to put an updated spin on classics, teaching his staff to fabricate meat and create grand food arts like chaud froid.

“You tweak it so that things still fit to today, to today’s standards, today’s nouveau,” he says. “I want to be classic but current—you know, I want to be like Paul McCartney.”

Starting in January 2014 Villamonte faced the “toughest fight I’ve ever had”—a prolonged health scare resulting in an Autoimmune Liver Disease diagnosis, which his doctor believes was caused by statins. By April 2015, the Villamontes were in “celebration mode” with news that the ALD, although incurable, was not progressing.

“We’re a really close-knit family,” says Villamonte, who has two grown sons and two kids under 10, about whom he boasts freely.

His oldest, “Junior,” is a “very skilled, very talented” third-generation chef. “People person” Joe is a police officer. Nine-year-old Gabe is a master athlete, ambidextrous pitcher, and “the nicest kid ever—he’s Christine all over again.” Six-year-old Justine is “a pistol” who enjoys dance and tee-ball. Both
youngsters love school.

“That’s my passion: my family,” says Villamonte.

A visit to the OPC kitchen reveals a smiling Brewer and his team prepping fruit and other provisions against the backdrop of the club’s famously striking windows on a cloudless May afternoon. It’s an exceptional view,  unlike other kitchens.

“To me, it’s the best kitchen in town,” says Villamonte.

SteveV1

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