Tag Archives: French Cafe

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

Matthew Hansen and Sarah Baker Hansen

August 1, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

All memorable stories, written or otherwise, are filled with turning points. Moments when the next step becomes unmistakably clear. Moments when life’s twists and turns, wins and losses, hopes and heartbreaks, serve up the next chapter.

A few moments for Sarah Baker Hansen and Matthew Hansen defined not only their life together, but also their life’s work. Today, they are a literary power couple, both writing prominent columns for the Omaha World-Herald.

Their pivotal moment together took a while, more than five years after their first date. The couple met in 2000 while working at The Daily Nebraskan, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s student newspaper. Although they acted friendly to each other, a relationship was far from their minds.   

Their first official date wouldn’t happen for another year. It was 2001. Sarah had since graduated from college and was living back home in Omaha following an internship at the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Matthew was finishing up his studies at UNL. A 100-year reunion for The Daily Nebraskan was near, which meant Matthew might see Sarah soon.

“A fellow DN staffer said Sarah had a crush on me years earlier, so then I started emailing her,” Matthew recalls with a smile.

Emails were exchanged, and a little bit of flirting even took place. Sarah missed the reunion, but Matthew eventually asked her out.

Sarah chose the French Café, one of her favorite Old Market eateries. It would become the same spot where Matthew would propose to Sarah, and a venue that would emphasize their vastly different backgrounds.

“I was a dorky, small town sports guy,” says Matthew, a native of Red Cloud.

Matthew found Sarah’s Omaha roots, her affinity for food, and her love of art and culture attractive. But such interest was also met with some trepidation that evening. On their first date, Matthew recalls having a “very quiet, very polite panic attack around the idea of ordering a drink. We sat at the French Café bar. I never had a cocktail that was fancier than Jack and Coke.”

Sarah had already developed an adventurous palate: “I grew up with parents who were foodies before that was a thing. They had these really elaborate dinner parties in the 1980s, and it was a real treat for me to stay up and eat the pâté, watch my dad make the chocolate mousse. And the Cornish hens. And the bone-in pork rib roast with the booties.”

Sarah and Matthew’s first date at the French Café lumbered on somewhat awkwardly. A few days later, Matthew phoned Sarah for a second date. She passed, suggesting that the two remain just friends.

Fast forward five years. Sarah and her sister were in Lincoln at Duffy’s Tavern for a concert. She went for the live music—and to meet a new guy.

Matthew got there first.

The two chatted, catching up over the past five years. The new guy eventually showed up…with another girl in tow. Matthew, Sarah, and their mutual friends made their way to O’Rourke’s Tavern. They talked the whole night.

It was then that Sarah trusted her gut: she offered Matthew her phone number. “That night in Lincoln, there was definitely a connection,” Sarah says.

The following week, the two were practically inseparable. About a year later, they were living together in Omaha.

“We were just entirely comfortable with each other from that day forward,” Sarah explains.

They were engaged in 2008 and married in 2009. This fall marks 10 years since that fateful second date.

Matthew worked previously at the Lincoln Journal Star, while Sarah held public relations posts at the Nebraska Tourism Commission and the Sheldon Museum of Art. Years of freelancing for The Reader and writing her first book, The Insider’s Guide to Omaha and Lincoln, laid the groundwork for her position at the Omaha World-Herald. And traveling Nebraska for her tourism work yielded something else entirely unexpected.

“Working in PR at the state tourism office allowed me to understand Matthew a bit more,” Sarah says. “I didn’t know much about Nebraska. The first time I went to Red Cloud with Matthew was the first time I was ever on a farm. That changed me in a lot of ways.”

Matthew said he was changed not only by moving to Omaha, but by becoming immersed in local art and food alongside Sarah. He’s involved with Hear Nebraska, founded by Sarah’s UNL classmate Andrew Norman. And Red Cloud left its mark on Sarah; she now serves on the Willa Cather Foundation Board of Governors.

The couple can often be spotted at La Buvette, one of their most beloved Old Market establishments, talking about the newspaper industry, reality television, the Chicago Cubs, or their latest meal. As downtown Omaha residents for the past several years, they have found comfort in their urban neighborhood, walking to and from work together each day. They often explore of the greater metro area through restaurants that Sarah is assigned to cover. (Yes, in many cases, Matthew is her plus one.)

There was a time not too long ago when Matthew and Sarah found themselves at a bar in New York City. An opportunity presented itself that would have allowed the couple to pack their things, their roots, and their cat for new lives in the Big Apple.

“We could do this,” Sarah recalls, weighing their options. “We could do this and be happy and successful (in New York City). But we could do things that are meaningful in Omaha, that have a real impact.”

Together, they returned to Omaha. During the following year, Matthew was named an Omaha World-Herald columnist. Sarah was hired as the paper’s food critic.

“We said, let’s try to do something impactful to this place where we’re choosing to be, that we care so much about,” she says. “I feel that’s the path we chose to take.

Visit omaha.com to read their work.

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Flatiron Cafe

April 22, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The Flatiron building is one of the most iconic buildings in Omaha. Appropriate, then, that it houses one of the most iconic restaurants in the city.

Flatiron1Two decades is a long time in the restaurant business and, typically, only the best can make it into their third decade. Like most restaurants that enjoy that kind of longevity, the Flatiron has always been known for great food and service. Owner Kathleen Jamrozy seems to have a knack for hiring great people, most notably former chef Jennifer Coco of J. Coco fame and current chef Rob Hill, who hails from the much-celebrated and now sorely missed French Cafe.

Hill’s food is comforting and familiar, but still imaginative and interesting. The menu features a lot of delicious proteins with heavy, flavorful sauces. He doesn’t shy away from what I affectionately refer to as the “BCs” (butter, bacon, cream and cheese). He is not mired in an obsession for the “cutting edge” like so many other young chefs can be.

The restaurant’s signature, flatiron-shaped dining room has a romantic and elegant feel. Floor-to-ceiling picture windows and white-tablecloth-covered tables with dark wood chairs line the luxurious and unique space. A well-appointed bar provides a perch for both single diners and patrons waiting to be seated. There is also an outdoor seating area that provides a big-city-sidewalk vibe when our fickle weather allows. The Flatiron’s close proximity to Omaha theater venues makes it one of the best places to enjoy fine dining before taking in fine arts.

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On a recent visit, my dining partner and I began with the calamari ($13) and the Brussels sprouts ($9). The calamari was cooked with precision—crispy and tender—and augmented with a south-of-the-border punch of fresh pico de gallo, diced avocado, and lemon. Adding even more zing: The sprouts came along with a habanero yogurt sauce for dipping. This amazing dish made with local honey provided a wonderful kickoff for the meal to come.

Next we tried a bowl of French onion soup ($9). It arrived piping hot with a caramelized onion broth, croutons, and bubbly cheese.

For our entrees we had the grilled ribeye of beef ($37) and the tournedos of beef ($35). The ribeye was well marbled, well aged, and cooked and seasoned to perfection. It was topped with a delicious blue cheese butter and finished with a rich demi-glace sauce.

Flatiron4There is a reason the Flatiron is known for having some of the best steaks in this city known for great steaks.

On the side were fingerling potatoes, shitake mushrooms, and wilted spinach, all of which were fantastic.

My dining partner ordered the tournedos of beef well done, which is very often a leathery recipe for disaster. But like true pros, the Flatiron kitchen staff managed to cook them without burning or drying out the steak. The meat was served with a brandied black peppercorn sauce and tasty potatoes au gratin.

For dessert we agreed to split the chocolate mousse ($7). The mousse hit all the right notes—silky smooth with just the right amount of chocolate, sweetness, and creaminess. It was served in a beautiful cup formed out of chocolate and garnished with fresh fruit.

The service at the Flatiron has always been first class. It was no different on this occasion. We were warmly greeted at the door and my dining partner’s coat was taken and hung up before we were shown to our table. Our server was fun, friendly, and knowledgeable. She made a spot-on wine recommendation that complimented both of our steaks. The timing of each course was impeccable and the quality service enhanced our already wonderful experience.

Cheers!

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Sitting Down, Slowing Down

October 15, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The vibe of Market House restaurant hits customers in the face upon walking in the door—almost literally. The dark interior doors of former tenant Vivace have become a lime hue that projects the type of restaurant diners are about to experience—fresh, green, and interesting.

Such is the same with the chefs at the helm. Executive Chef Matt Moser, formerly of Plank, and Chef de Cuisine Ben Maides, formerly of Avoli Osteria, take pride in crafting their own menu, and restaurant, from start to finish.

The pair, however, originally turned down the gig.

“Nick (Bartholomew) originally approached me to be the chef,” Maides says. “I had no intention of leaving Avoli.”

“And I had an opportunity elsewhere,” Moser adds. “But that didn’t pan out.”

The pair eventually ended up recognizing they wanted to run a restaurant.

“We hadn’t not known each other very long,” Moser says. “I met Ben through a mutual friend when they came into Plank.”

They discovered they share a similar approach to cooking, eating, and running a restaurant.

Moser graduated in 2002 from Millard North, and in 2005 from Le Cordon Blue in Portland, Oregon. He came back to Omaha to work at the French Cafe, then traveled to California, where he cooked in Costa Mesa and Huntington Beach. He bounced back to Omaha to V. Mertz, and spent five years with Flagship restaurant group, helping to open Blue Sushi Sake Grills in Denver and Fort Worth.

“For the first time in my career, it’s modern American cuisine,” he said of Market House. “We can do whatever we want.”

While Moser discovered the fresh, local approach to eating so prevalent in his casual-contemporary gig on the West Coast, Maides’ slow-down method of cooking and eating comes from international travel. He was born in Switzerland and moved to Omaha at age 9. He graduated in 2004 from Westside and in 2006 from Metropolitan Community College. Among his passport stamps is San Cascino in Northern Italy, where he worked at a five-star restaurant and learned the style of cooking owner and executive chef Dario Schicke sought for Avoli.

The third note in the triad is Sous Chef Chase Thomsen, who, unlike Maides, Moser knew well.

“I’ve known him since middle school,” Moser says. “He came to Plank and worked for me then moved on to Taxi’s. When I came here I knew he was looking. I know his work ethic, I know his talent, we’re lucky to have him here.”

Moser and Maides agree, and collaborate, on cooking methods and ingredients. They love to cook in their off-hours—Moser with his wife, Cathryn; Maides with his girlfriend. They own dogs. They also like to eat at restaurants in similar ways.

Moser says, “We discovered we both like to order three or four things and just pass them around the table.”

“Let’s stop, let’s sit down, and let’s eat,” Maides says. “We’re going from surviving
to enjoying.”

That idea of not just eating, but communal dining, inspired Market House. The seasonal menu contains eight passable small plates and five shared sides, along with soups, a salad, and six larger entree-sized plates.

“We like to go to the starter menu, the smaller plates,” Moser reiterates.

The chefs want their customers to experience their love of food in the same way.

“Ben and I get excited when we see Nancy (Crews) of Swallows Nest come through the door with new vegetables,” says Moser, who himself gardens avidly. “That excitement extends to the front of the house and out to the guests.”

The staff at Market House don’t just tell you that roasted grapes with chèvre is on the menu, they tell you where the grapes and the goat cheese came from. They tell you the story of why they love the farmer who makes the cheese. The process of ordering at Market House, like the process of eating, causes patrons to ease their pace.

Slowing down doesn’t mean the restaurant isn’t busy. Several people occupy tables at 2 p.m. on a Monday, lingering over plates of food, and, in a couple of cases, glasses of wine. That makes Moser and Maides happy.

“We’re cooking food we love, and we hope everyone else does, too,” Maides says.

“Yes, we work long hours, but my favorite part of the day is when we get to sit down and talk about what we did, and what we can do better,” Moser adds.

Sitting down, slowing down—a typical day at Market House.

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Ekapon Tanthana

April 25, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

When worldly local photographer Ekapon Tanthana isn’t at a glamorous photo shoot or rubbing elbows with the fashion elite, he drills teeth. Mild-mannered dentist by day. Fashion photographer by night.

There is a method to his madness. Meticulous about his craft, he plans every detail of each shoot, carefully sketching out the images he wants to capture. His work has a signature look. It is, at times, dramatic with flights of whimsy. Always tongue-in-cheek, he likes to push boundaries. With everything from nude models to bondage themes, it becomes clear after seeing his work that he is not your typical photographer. He’s an artist.b

Tanthana did fashion photography for the first Omaha Fashion Show in 2006, which won him the Omaha Visual Arts Award. He has worked in L.A. and New York but prefers Omaha. He is enamored with the Old Market and marvels at the explosion of creative energy on the local scene in recent years. He’s excited to be in the thick of it: creative people coming together to create art for art’s sake.

“Great thing about Omaha is everyone’s friendly in the community and helps each other out,” Tanthana says. He has befriended all the local photographers in town. They help each other out by sharing equipment and contacts.ekaponfinal

He chooses his work with great care and has to really be inspired by a project to pursue it. His eyes light up as he describes bringing his vision to light, that aha! moment when a vision is captured. “There’s that moment when everyone in the room just feels it,” he says. “I want my work to look like a still from a movie, to tell a story.”

Locally, Tanthana has shown his work at the Professional Darkroom Gallery, Jackson Street Artworks, and Nomad. He’s also had his art featured in local magazines, publications in his native Thailand, as well as Omaha Fashion Week. He’s even been invited to be a guest speaker on his art at Creighton University and BW Thai.

Tanthana first discovered his passion for film at age 12, while attending boarding school in England. He has gone on to do artistic and fashion photography, most of which was shot locally on a shoestring budget. He worked with supermodel Samantha Gradoville at a shoot at the former French Café in the Old Market. He works with Rhodora, a local makeup artist who trained with Chanel and is a guest makeup artist for the brand. He has also worked with Payton Holbrook, a local hair stylist who has since moved to New York and does editorials and New York Fashion Week hair.F

Tanthana says that juggling full-time dentistry with his numerous creative projects takes planning but is well worth the effort. Seeing his vision come to life is gratifying.

“I think of these images. They just come to me. Then I have to capture them,” he explains. “To me, being a success is someone being influenced by you, as you have been influenced by others.”

He says he couldn’t do photography full-time because he is so particular about his work. True to his art, he is ruled by inspiration—not always an option for a working photographer. He also adds that it can take time to fully dream up the visual designs he later creates.Elisafly

Like his photography, Tanthana takes pride in his dental work. He shows off pictures of some of his patient transformations. One photo titled Meth Mouth is the before picture of a patient’s rotting teeth. The after picture is a stunning Hollywood smile. Beyond creating a beautiful, healthy smile for patients, Tanthana is touched by making a real difference in someone’s life.

Whether planning a shoot or crafting a smile, Tanthana leaves his distinct trademark of perfection.