Tag Archives: Le Bouillon

Local Farm-to-Table

June 14, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Nick Strawhecker reaches down and opens the oven. There are two whole, cooked chickens resting on the platter within the large industrial appliance. One chicken looks well proportioned, intact, and almost seems to sit rigid as though something was placed inside it to offer structural integrity. It looks delicious, succulent. The other chicken is striking also, but in a very different way. It is of a similar size, but the breast is massive, unnaturally so. The legs are tiny by comparison. Its skin looks like a popped water balloon. This chicken sits in a thick deposit of cloudy, watery juices. It is splayed on the platter, floppy—its spine is broken. This chicken’s liver, compared to the other, looks as though it spent its short life drinking hard liquor in lieu of water. The heavenly, intact chicken was among the living just days ago. It was raised on a cage-free farm near Pawnee City, Nebraska. Where was the other chicken from? Unknown.

Though the difference in quality is obvious on many levels (for example one is pumped with antibiotics and water to add weight and size, while the other is simply a natural chicken) even industry professionals from the free-range, farm-to-table side will admit both types of chicken have their place in the overall food economy. Dean Dvorak, who operates a family poultry business in southeast Nebraska called Plum Creek Farms, says he has never complained about the existence of large companies when it comes to chicken production. 

“The big companies are certainly necessary,” Dvorak says. “People in our country eat a lot of chicken and small producers can’t produce nearly enough to keep up with the demand.”

The price point of some menus just do not fit what small producers can supply, Dvorak says. This adds to the “niche” culture surrounding local, farm-to-table food production. It takes a specific client base willing to invest in high-quality foods.  

“Our efficiency is much poorer than a larger company’s,” Dvorak says of his higher prices. “We lose more chickens to predators, and our pound of feed per pound of gain [the measure of how much chicken a farmer produces per pound of feed] is much poorer because our birds get a lot of exercise by not being kept in a small space.” 

Serving a lower price point is a major faculty of the industrialized farming sector. The USDA reports organic food made up just 4 percent of U.S. food sales in 2012. This means there is a point for consumers where cost simply overrides the level of quality in a more expensive product. Many are not willing to ante up for the good stuff. Additionally, organic food is not yet available on the same scale as the alternative.

Local restaurateur Nick Strawhecker is an advocate of the farm-to-table supply chain. He owns and operates Dante (in West Omaha) and Dante Pizzeria Napoletana (in Blackstone District).

“The way most of the world works is cooking what is around you,” Strawhecker says. “After big agriculture in the United States in the ’50s, all of the sudden strawberries came available in December, or tomatoes came available in January…I think that kind of food is not at all the same, and it does not taste good.”

Strawhecker prefers to cook with food from within 100 miles of his locations and builds his menus on what he calls “hyper-seasonality.” This means an item like asparagus isn’t offered from his kitchen until it is in season, and he compromises this only on things that are absolutely essential as year-round ingredients.

Locally sourced food is healthy for consumers and for the local economy, says Ben Gotschall of Lone Tree Foods (a local food distribution company). He says when you support local food you are essentially supporting local businesses. 

“It puts money back into the local economy,” Gotschall says. “A locally owned business whose suppliers are also local keeps the money from leaving the area.”

Gotschall raises cattle and sells milk to people like Katie Justman, a cheese producer (at Branched Oak Dairy) who works solely with Gotschall’s grass-fed cows for her product. Gotschall also sells milk, cream, butter, and cheese wholesale through Lone Tree and on the site of Branched Oak Farm (located just north of Lincoln) through his company, Davey Road Ranch.

Justman cares very much about the environmental benefits of working with local, farm-raised product, but she says the environmental benefits are not her leading point when talking about why she focuses on farm-to-table food—instead, much like Gotschall, she talks more about the economic benefits.

“A lot of us go with the economics route when describing our philosophy because it is a lot more relatable to talk to people about it in that way,” Justman says. “It is technically less controversial, even though the sustainability aspects are very important to us and we [Branched Oak Farms] are 100 percent grass-fed and organic certified.”

Not everyone using farm-to-table ingredients does it as part of a movement. Jeanne Ohira is the co-owner of Ted and Wally’s Ice Cream. Ohira says when she and her brother, Joe, bought the company in 2000, using local ingredients was just the natural (no pun intended) thing to do.

“That’s just how we were raised,” Ohira says. “My dad was from a farming family. My mom was part of a co-op and we grew up driving way out to pick up different food. As a business, we didn’t really think about it [in terms of participating in a movement] because at the time it wasn’t much of a trend yet.”

The trend has found a welcome reception among Omaha’s high-end culinary scene, with farm-to-table fare on the menus of Kitchen Table, Au Courant, Baela Rose, Le Bouillon, Block 16, Stirnella, Mark’s Bistro, The Boiler Room, The Grey Plume, Society 1854, J. Coco, and Over Easy (among others).

Strawhecker’s Dante and Dante Pizzeria Napoletana demonstrate the local supply chain in practical application. Gotschall raises cows and sells their milk; Justman purchases the milk for her creamery and produces cheeses—including mozzarella—which Strawhecker uses in his gourmet pizzas. Strawhecker is one of Justman’s biggest customers of cheese. He’s also a major buyer of chickens from Plum Creek Farms and a buyer of other local farmers’ products.

But Dante is only one example of this bullish moo-moo-movement. Omaha’s urban place in the heart of Midwestern farm country has helped raise the city’s profile as one of America’s top destinations for farm-to-table cuisine.


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

Flour Road Paved with Dough

October 16, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

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

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

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

-Paul Kulik

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Visit goviafarina.com for more information.

Encounter

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Reinventing the Classic

August 26, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Time travel back to childhood. Sink your teeth into two slices of white bread slathered with creamy peanut butter and purplish jam, the sandwich staple of sack lunches and after-school snacks.

Can you taste the love? Hungry for more? Many Omaha locals drive over to the Old Market Farmers Market on a Saturday morning for their fix. There’s often a line stretching around the black truck with an orange logo, where customers eagerly await gourmet twists on standard PB&J.

PBJ3PBJ—Peanut Butter Johnny’s—is the dream and brainchild of John Jelinek. You won’t find Skippy and processed strawberry jam here. Jelinek’s food truck rolls through town selling sandwiches made from many different types of bread, a variety of nut butters, and artisanal jams ranging from spicy jalapeño to exotic fig. He even puts bacon on his sandwiches.

Jelinek isn’t a chef or a well-known restauranteur in town. In fact, Peanut Butter Johnny’s is his first business. Jelinek previously worked as director of sales vendors for Time Warner. He dreamed of owning his own business, and he initially thought about opening a clothing store.

Then he considered opening a food truck, but he wasn’t sure if it would work for him; “There’s already a lot of pizza trucks and that sort of thing, and frankly, they do it better than I can,” Jelinek says.

Jelinek finally settled upon the idea of serving grown-up versions of childhood comfort food. He took the concept and (literally) rolled with it. Not being a chef, he wanted a professional to make sure his vision was as delicious as he imagined.

He contacted Beth Augustyn in the culinary arts department of Metropolitan Community College. Augustyn made a connection with graduate Jarrod Lane, a sous chef at Marks Bistro. The business owner and chef stuck together like…

Jelinek didn’t just connect with Lane. He also connected with chef Clayton Chapman of the Grey Plume, Patricia Barron of Big Mama’s, and chef Paul Kulik of Le Bouillon. Jelinek asked for help from these local culinary giants, and each helped create the specialty sandwiches on his menu.

“What’s great about John is he has a vision but he allows us to create,” says Chapman. “We went to a few tasting sessions to get that to where he wanted it. He’s incredibly creative and able to see something in its finished place much before it’s started.”

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Peanut Butter Johnny’s opened for business on the evening of Dec. 5, 2015, at a fundraiser for the Nebraska AIDS Project. Over the summer, the truck attended the free Memorial Park concert and fireworks, and the Fourth of July Parade in Ralston. Anywhere the people go, they go.

PBJ serves sandwiches upon sandwiches. And customers can’t get enough. At ConAgra in early July, Jelinek, Lane, and two other employees served 40 orders in little under 30 minutes. “People were telling us they’ve waited over an hour for other food trucks,” Lane says.

Jelinek’s multi-ingredient sandwiches require time and love. Aside from bacon, other dishes feature chicken, and many sandwiches come grilled.

“You can’t go wrong with PB&J,” claims customer Justin Swanson. “I want to support local business owners, plus this is way better than I can make.”

On a sweltering summer day, Swanson saw the truck parked near 90th and Dodge streets. He swung by to support the business (and his bar friend). Swanson is a bartender at The House of Loom, where Jelinek often chooses to spend his free time.

It’s these type of friendships that keep customers coming to PBJ. Chapman says Jelinek’s personality also draws return customers.

“It’s his enthusiasm, it’s his drive, it’s his passion for what he’s doing,” Chapman says. “You’re just naturally drawn to it.”

“So much of business is relationships,” Jelinek says. “So much of repeat business is relationships. Serving them good food and being nice to them so they say, ‘You know, let’s go back.’”

He wants the food truck community to keep making relationships, too, especially in the wake of new regulations.

“It’s important that we have rules that everyone can live by,” Jelinek says. “Food trucks want to find a way to get along well and be something unique.” 

Visit pbjohnnys.com for more information. Encounter

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Ready for Omaha

April 29, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Mention ramen, and the comparison to cheap packages of the staple college dorm food seems obligatory. Though powder-flavored instant ramen is a poor attempt at the real thing, it’s more likely that your first run-in with a proper bowl of this hot, steamy comfort food was sometime over the last decade, if at all.

And yet today in Omaha, real ramen, with its aromatic broth and fresh ingredients, is available at a handful of dedicated spots, with more on the way. A day for Jose Dionicio, chef and owner at Ika Ramen and Izakaya, begins and ends with the broth, which he says came about through years of trial and error. “In our case, ramen is not about rehydrating noodles,” Dionicio points out. “There’s a lot of time, effort, and tears going into making this. It’s a whole meal, something fulfilling. Soul filling, actually.”

Yoahi-Ya

Yoahi-Ya

Housed in what Dionicio calls “a little shack” at 63rd and Maple streets, Ika Ramen and Izakaya is the punctuation mark at the end of any night out in Benson. Slurping up your tonkotsu (rich pork broth) while other tables do the same, it’s evident this is a neighborhood eatery. No tablecloths, no pretension, no frills.

In addition to the main types of broths (chicken, pork, and vegetable) and a handful of appetizers, Dionicio and company serve up a few daily specials—a little spicy seafood with kimchi here, a few crispy chicken skins there—and that’s it.

Chef A.J. Swanda’s menu at Ugly Duck Ramen is even more finite: there’s just one type of ramen available every week, along with a robust vegetarian version, complemented by a small selection of appetizers and sides, and pastry chef Kate Anderson’s inventive doughnut holes (called dodos), which rotate flavors weekly. Haven’t heard of Ugly Duck? It doesn’t actually have its own location—yet. While Swanda would like to open a brick-and-mortar location in the future, his main locale over the past year was borrowed space at the popular bar-and-pub-grub spot Nite Owl, his ramen usually sold out within a few hours. Swanda plans to hold popup events in the near future as he works toward owning a storefront.

Of course, it’s not just soup that Omahans are after. Outside the nearby Scriptown Brewing Co., diners can indulge in their nut butter cravings with Peanut Butter Johnny’s. As a food truck offering about a half dozen sandwiches on the menu—from the Tin Can (almond butter, fig jam, goat cheese, honey and bacon) to your basic peanut butter and grape jelly—owner John Jelinek reports that business has been great.

Brother Sebastian's Steak House

Brother Sebastian’s Steak House

If a slightly more refined experience sounds appealing, down in the Old Market chef Paul Kulik has made a menu at Le Bouillon designed around the best processes of European cookery, in particular the Basque region of France. Diners with a hankering for cassoulet, rillettes, fresh oysters, and the like regularly fill the place.

Dolce

Dolce

But while Kulik would rather serve his interpretation of these classics than fiddle with by-the-book authenticity, he acknowledges that this level of specialization requires a higher degree of thought and determination than at a more generic restaurant—and he’s had experience in both settings. “The notion that Omaha wasn’t ‘ready’ for something was a very pervasive sentiment for a long time, and that’s something that had to be shattered,” Kulik asserts. “Omaha would never just be ‘ready’ for something. You have to present it in a persuasive manner. You have to make good things in an affordable way, in a pleasant setting. You have to win people over one at a time.”Omaha didn’t move from choice-of-vegetable-and-potato places to a hotbed of chef-driven adventures overnight. Dionicio explains the time was finally right last year to present his noodle-centric menu, but that earlier would have been premature. At his other spot, the Peruvian-inspired seafood restaurant Taita, he first introduced bowls of ramen as late-night fodder for service industry folk in 2012, and later on Sundays as a brunch item. Week by week and bowl by bowl, ramen gained ground among food enthusiasts, hungover hipsters, and everyone in between.

But as Brian O’Malley, chef instructor at the Metropolitan Community College Institute for Culinary Arts sees it, this development has historically run slower, citing the decades it took for Omaha to warm up to something like sushi. “For all of my childhood there were zero places to get sushi, and then in high school there was one, in the early 2000s there were two, and then eight, and now I lost count.” O’Malley credits quicker access to information with expediting the whole process—the world getting “smaller” through the Internet and diners having the option of doing their homework on certain types of cuisine.

And still, as a whole, we pander to nothing, especially not fleeting trends. “With new foods and new ideas, we’re open, but we’re slow to open,” O’Malley explains. “But once that embrace occurs—once we love something—we love it for real. That is a proud thing about being an Omaha diner.”

The Grey Plume

The Grey Plume

Collaboration Feeds Success

As the number and breadth of dining options in Omaha continues to expand year over year, the discussion runs deeper than just the sheer number and types of offerings. Generally speaking, Omaha’s leading chefs of today want everyone else to do well.

This sentiment runs deeper than one might expect. O’Malley describes it as a collaborative tension, one that spurs both innovation and craftsmanship. In this way, the creative culture borrows from that of Omaha’s music and art scenes; the sharing of ideas tends to benefit the final product in tangible and intangible ways. There’s also the stripped-down truth about a good, old-fashioned work ethic. Says O’Malley: “We have this super-heightened respect for hard work. Everyone is willing to support you when you bust your ass.”

Careful not to subscribe to rampant boostering that can foul up a creative scene, Omaha chefs have gotten really good at working together. Kulik asserts it has to do with the friendships cultivated over the past decades, often in slavishly small hot kitchens. Collaborative events help, too: everything from Emerging Terrain’s 2010 Harvest Dinner—a five-course meal prepared by 10 area chefs using ingredients from 40 local farms serving 500 diners—to regularly occurring pairing dinners and chef swaps. It’s common to see name-studded menus advertising the provenance of a particular ingredient: French Bulldog sausage, for example, or Culprit Cafe & Bakery bread.

Salt 88

Salt 88

For the Love of the Game

Omaha’s contemporary restaurants are remarkably more genuine than most. Where there’s a great dish, an approachable chef isn’t far behind. In a national climate that pushes franchised fast-casual concepts that don’t let you forget that you are dining inside of a concept, it is refreshing to feel connected to the people making your food and the story they’re trying to tell. Growth is done with caution, and for the most part, no one goes into this field to become rich. It’s much more heartfelt than profit; they’re intent on sharing a special something.

Plank Seafood Provisions

Plank Seafood Provisions

For Bryce Coulton of The French Bulldog, it’s using food as a way to experience something elsewhere, whether that’s your grandma’s smoked braunschweiger or a Thai summer sausage that takes you to the shores of Bangkok. For Maides, it’s growing up around kitchens, and watching his grandmother gather fresh vegetables from the garden to cook with.

At the core of this sincerity is a yearning for the uncomplicated, and the possibility for perfection. When Kulik and his crew make a menu, they first sit down and decide what it is they’re most excited about. Once they have that, the process turns to how they transfer that excitement to the dishes at hand. “If you want to get good at what you do,” advises Kulik, “you have to narrow your focus on the philosophy of the place.” These days, with menus that have mostly gotten over a rough case of identity crisis and executed in a positive environment for the right reasons, Omaha’s kitchens are headed in the right direction.

Mula Tacos

Mula Tacos

Farmer to Table

April 15, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Sarah Farmer wakes each day to a stack of cookbooks teetering at her bedside. The colorful tower of culinary tomes includes works by Farmer’s favorite chefs—Susan Feniger, Sean Brock, April Bloomfield—alongside classics such as an 1895 cookbook gifted by Farmer’s grandmother.

“My collection inspires me. I like seeing how food and the industry evolve over time,” says Farmer, the sous chef at Lot 2 Restaurant and Wine Bar and a member of the team of young chefs who won the 2015 American Culinary Federation Student Team National Championship.

Like her stacked cache of gastronomic guidebooks, Farmer, 26, strives for balance in cuisine, career, and life.

Work-life balance took “a lot of acrobatics” when Farmer studied at Metropolitan Community College’s Institute for the Culinary Arts (ICA), worked three jobs, and practiced with Culinary Team Nebraska, which went on to win the Culinary Federation’s national title for college teams, an achievement Farmer calls “one of the proudest, most humbling moments of my life.”

“Sarah is tenacious, intelligent, talented, calm, engaged, kind, and open-hearted,” says Brian O’Malley, Culinary Team Nebraska Coach and executive director of Metro’s Institute for the Culinary Arts.

Farmer, a native of Rochester, N.Y., moved to Omaha in 2009. In 2012—after stints studying video communications and intercultural studies—she realized it was time to pursue her lifelong passion for food.

“It’s a great environment with a really interesting dynamic,” says Farmer, who graduated in 2015.

She credits faculty members like O’Malley for giving her the skill and confidence she needed to succeed. In 2013, she landed a job with the celebrated team at J. Coco.

“I just wanted to get my foot in the door working in a professional kitchen,” says Farmer, who pursued J. Coco because of chef/owner Jennifer Coco’s talent and reputation. “I also wanted to work for a female chef and get that perspective in my first job.”

Farmer’s current boss, Lot 2 Head Chef Joel Mahr, finds her creativity motivating.

“Her attitude on cuisine is much like how I pushed myself in the early years of cooking,” he says. “Finishing culinary school and getting a sous chef position right away says a lot about her work ethic.”

Farmer, who has also worked at Localmotive Food Truck and Le Bouillon, says she and Mahr share similar visions and a “refined yet approachable” style.

Farmer enjoys dining at favorites such as Avoli, Ika Ramen and Izakaya, Nite Owl, and Block 16. If time allows, she enjoys movies, music, biking, and dancing. She also enjoys reading beyond the pages of her stack of cookbooks.

“I love learning new things,” she says, noting particular interest in current events, biographical nonfiction, and fantasy/sci-fi. She just re-read Lord of the Rings—a favorite and “a nice escape that has nothing to do with food.”

Farmer also relishes her close group of supportive friends.

“They’ve been my biggest driving force in Omaha for pursuing big goals and dreams,” says Farmer, whose 5-year plan includes continued learning and growth.

“I’m still very new in my craft, and the success and accolades I’ve gotten are actually lots of pressure,” she says. “I feel like the rookie winning the World Series…how do I top that and continue to grow? I’d like to go somewhere else, learn more, then hopefully bring that back to Omaha.”

Chicago is one possible destination. Although Farmer says she’d miss Omaha’s “excellent culinary community,” she’s eager as ever to gain new insight.

For now, Farmer’s balancing act continues here—practicing her craft at Lot 2, celebrating life with her friends, and continuing to push forward.

SarahFarmerOptimized

Le Bouillon

May 17, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The restaurant at 1017 Howard Street made an indelible mark on the city’s culinary landscape.
The sentence above was a factual statement when uttered in any year from 1969 through 2012, when the legendary French Café closed. In opening Le Bouillon in the same memorable space, owner and executive chef Paul Kulik aims to keep those words operative well into the new millennia.

“The history of the Old Market quite literally starts with the French Café,” says Kulik, who is also the executive chef at the famed Boiler Room restaurant located just around the corner. “Everything about the Old Market radiated out from and was developed around that place. You might say that Le Bouillon is, at least in part, homage to the French Café.”

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The commonalities, other than a mailing address, between the two restaurants begin—and to a certain degree end—with Kulik retaining a French aesthetic.

“When talking about French food I want to be very clear to distinguish between a stereotype and a much simpler idea,” Kulik says. “I’m talking about the food the French as a people put on their table every day. It’s not about white tablecloths. It’s about getting back to garden cooking—country food that grandma would be proud to put on the table. Fresh. Unpretentious. It’s a French Country sensibility, but with our own spin on it,” he adds of a menu that reflects the heritage of southwestern France and northern Spain.

The most notable change in terms of outward appearance of the restaurant is that Kulik had removed the view-blocking window film that shrouded the once darkish space.

“You don’t build a restaurant overlooking, say, the Grand Canyon, and then cover the windows,” Kulik says. A window seat at Le Bouillon is sure to be one of the most coveted of table assignments, especially as the favorite sport of Old Market people-watching gains momentum with rising temperatures.

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Omaha has always been a big food town. Studies show that we eat out more often than folks in other places. To many, the city is synonymous with steak. But Kulik, one of Omaha’s most acclaimed food pioneers of the past decade, believes in a higher goal—work that will cement for the city the reputation of being a place that has a rich, broad, and evolving culinary scene.

The view of diners at the old French Café was obstructed by film on the windows. Kulik’s vision has no such obstacles.