Tag Archives: Nick Strawhecker

Local Farm-to-Table

August 3, 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. 

Italian Harvest in West Omaha

October 26, 2017 by
Photography by Doug Meigs

Dante Ristorante Pizzeria may be known best for its wood-fired Italian pizza, but when chef Nick Strawhecker teams up with sommelier Adam Weber on a harvest tasting menu, foodies in town should take note.

On October 21, Omaha Magazine joined a small group of food journalists and bloggers to taste the seasonal selections at this West Omaha eatery. Surprise, surprise. Pizza wasn’t even on the tasting menu.

Strawhecker’s autumn offerings featured fresh ingredients—vegetables from local farms—inspired by his culinary training in Italy.

A sulumi appetizer with buffalo mozzarella, arugula, and fried green tomatoes

The six-course meal began with an antipasto that strikes a strong first impression. Strawhecker cured the meat for several months (from a wild boar that he shot in California). The result was a salumi with a spicy kick. A mild but juicy buffalo mozzarella complemented the meat morsel, with slightly bitter arugula and fried green tomatoes adding just the right amount of acidity, making the appetizer an interesting palate opener.

Ocean whitefish tomatoes, garlic, and fish broth

The ocean whitefish with tomatoes, garlic, and fish broth was my personal favorite. Poached in olive oil and fennel pollen, the fish was plump and moist. The tomatoes brought out the sweetness in the fish, adding another layer of flavor. Another unexpected touch was the pairing with a red wine—2013 Cascina Adelaide Barbera d’Alba Vigna Preda. The spice flavors in the wine added playfulness to the subtle fish dish.

Duck polenta cakes with quick-pickled peppers

The next course flew off of plates into mouths: duck and alpine cheddar polenta cakes with quick-pickled peppers. I liked how the polenta cake was charred and thus not soggy from the meat juice. The peppers balanced the rich flavors of the tender duck breasts.

Tortelli with mushroom and foie gras sauce

Other dishes in the tasting menu included potato tortelli with mushroom and foie gras sauce, along with a lumache all’Amatriciana. The tasting came to an end with a delightful strawberry and buttermilk gelato.

Lumache all’Amatriciana

Each dish came with a fine wine with a unique backstory, too. For example, the lumache came alongside a glass of Raineri Cornole, Dolcetto di Dogliani (which the sommelier said came from a vineyard so steep in Italy’s Piedmont region that everything has to be organic because machines can’t cope with the terrain).

Strawberry and buttermilk gelato

Strawhecker revealed that his “fast-fine, counter-service” Dante Pizzeria Napoletana will open in the hip Blackstone district in December 2017. Located on 38th and Farnam streets, the new restaurant will have wines on tap. “It is pizza-focused, fast with a moderate price point. To give you an idea, a liter of wine on tap is about $32,” Strawhecker said, adding that no bottle of wine would be priced over $40.

The new Dante location will add pressure to the Blackstone pizza scene, with Noli’s not far away. But the chef insists that the two pizzerias really offer different products. Strawhecker emphasizes Italian-style whole pies, while Noli’s offers New York-style with pizza by the slice.

“I’m really excited to be going into this neighborhood, going from the richest zip code in the state to the most densely populated,” he said.

Visit dantepizzeria.com for more information.

Dante

April 1, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Dante is Omaha’s first restaurant specializing in authentic wood-fired Neapolitan pizza and rustic Italian cuisine featuring ingredient-driven dishes with fresh produce from local farmers. “We are the pioneers in authentic wood-fired pizza in Nebraska and have been doing it since 2009,” says chef and owner Nick Strawhecker.

Chef Strawhecker has a passion for hyper-local, seasonal dishes. Since the restaurant opened in 2009, Dante has partnered with Branched Oak Farm, in Raymond, Nebraska, (cows pictured) who supplies all the mozzarella for the pizzas at Dante. “I want to know where our food comes from, who grows our produce or raises the animals and how—it’s what our fantastic guests deserve. We are fortunate to work with extremely talented, conscientious, and environmentally aware farmers who provide us with some of the most responsibly cultivated products in the country,” chef explains.

The Omaha community agrees, as Dante has been voted Best of Omaha, Brick Oven Pizza, since 2011. Dante also brings the kitchen to their customers with the Inferno, the only wood-fired, Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana-certified (VPN-certified) mobile pizza oven in the entire Midwest.

16901 Wright Plaza, Suite 173, Omaha, NE 68130

402.932.3078 • dantepizzeria.com

This sponsored content is a page from the publication Faces of Omaha.  To read the entire magazine, click the image:

Field & Dream

November 24, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The rhizosphere is defined as the top layer of the earth’s soil.

“It’s the living layer,” Terra Hall explains. “It’s where all the magic happens.”

Rhizosphere Farm, then, is a perfect moniker as Terra and her husband, Matthew, conjure Mother Nature’s magic on their 5.5-acre Loess Hills farm nurturing heirloom, organic vegetables, fruits, and herbs throughout the growing season.

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As the rhizosphere now sleeps through late fall and winter, the Halls plan and prep for 2016. If you’re the type to wistfully recall summer’s sweet bounty in the face of a fall chill and you’re already pining for the return of farmers markets, here’s a look back at Rhizosphere Farm at its seasonal summit.

“It’s the best time of year to eat,” says Terra of August’s abundant end. As lunch is served in the Halls’ log cabin, Coner, a Polish-breed rooster with a hair-metal crest of feathers obscuring his vision, crows intermittently outside. Summer, though not yet eclipsed by fall, can be felt leaning into its swan song.

The meal, shared with intern Patrick Laird and groundskeeper Ted Engles, comes from the field: a spicy tomato gazpacho with onions and herbs, baba ghanoush, carrots, salad, and a potato-leek dish. Farmhand and good friend Dakia Anheluk rounded out the 2015 Rhizosphere crew, helping considerably when health issues had earlier sidelined Terra.

Matthew is from Omaha and Terra is from Council Bluffs, but they actually met in Oregon when working at Horton Road Organics. Over lunch, the Halls explain how they became farmers.

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“I needed a job and lived up the road,” says Matthew in his characteristically succinct manner of speaking before elaborating that he enjoys working with his hands and deeply values “a hard-ass day of labor. What we do in our field is a form of art which tunes us into the true nature of the world as humans were meant to experience it,” he says.

Terra, whose name is fittingly Latin for “earth,” was a campaign organizer at the University of Oregon before realizing activism wasn’t her path to “change the world.” When she started at Horton, she immediately knew she’d found a calling in organic farming.

“I love the connections with nature and the people I grow food for,” she says. “We’re sometimes missing those connections in our culture.”

The Halls returned to the Midwest, dream of Rhizosphere in hand, and rented land in Waterloo, Nebraska, in 2009. A growing urge to put down permanent roots and perennials on a plot of their own culminated in the September 2013 purchase of their land.

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While Rhizosphere’s a scant 20-minute drive from downtown Omaha, visitors enjoy escaping the city’s hustle and bustle. But the Halls hustle plenty on this plentiful land, working seven days a week March through October. They supplement their income with off-season carpentry and retail jobs.

Rhizosphere grew 35 varieties of crops this past season and now counts such notables as  Dante and The Grey Plume as clients.

“We hit at the right time,” in the farm-to-table movement, says Terra.

“Boiler Room was our first [customer],” says Matthew. “And Nick (Strawhecker) at Dante got our number from them.”

“That’s one of the cool things about Omaha’s wonderful food community,” says Terra. “It’s very cooperative, sharing resources and information, which just makes everybody better.”

The Halls also enjoy a more public profile at farmers markets.

“A light goes on in people and it creates great conversations about the farm, how the food is grown, how it can be cooked,” says Terra. “That’s the best way to pass information about food. Those conversations are some of the most important work we do.”

Love of that educational aspect and a desire to create a more sustainable, all-season outlet for their passion has the Halls considering evolving Rhizosphere into an educational nonprofit, adding classes, workshops, events, and community-building to its mission.

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“The Universe gave me a little time off this year,” says Terra, “which provided perspective. I’m passionate about designing the space and creating a permaculture foodscape, and I love teaching people that. I was so inspired by the people who taught me, and I want to pass that on.”

After lunch, Engles gives a tour of the land. It’s ordered, yet still wonderfully wild. A flock of ducks waddle by as he points out the greenhouses, barn, and an old stable, which Matthew has partially converted into additional sleeping quarters. Various fruits, herbs, and veggies flourish in the field alongside towering, yellow-flowered, now-dormant sunchokes—which Terra discussed in a May 2015 New York Times feature on Omaha’s farm-to-table prowess. The diverse, young “food forest” concept uses companion planting—a common permaculture concept ensuring a healthier ecosystem requiring less work through intelligent design. Yellow, heirloom cherry tomatoes are sampled right off the vine before the tour returns to its genesis, now swarmed by a wandering peep of clucking chickens.

There are no rabbits pulled from hats or “abracadabras” uttered here, but Rhizosphere’s magic is palpable.

Visit rhizopherefarm.org to learn more.

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Brave New Prairie

May 1, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

This article originally appeared in Omaha Magazine’s May/June 2015 issue.

A small sign in Summer Miller’s kitchen speaks volumes about her mission: “Love people. Cook them tasty food.”

Seated in the cozy kitchen of her charming Elkhorn-area country home (formerly a one-room schoolhouse), the love is on full display as Miller flits throughout the room, doing a dance many home cooks and parents know well. She canters left, stirring a pot of homemade soup, then right, fetching milk for her daughter, Juniper. After pausing for a hug with her little “Junebug,” coffee is poured for the adults; its aroma mingling with the lingering scent of fresh-baked bread.

Tasty food is also achieved as Miller, a local journalist, author, and foodie, serves up a preview of the edible delights featured in New Prairie Kitchen, her seasonally driven cookbook that connects home chefs to the local food movement by weaving together the recipes and stories of 25 chefs, farmers, and artisans from Nebraska, Iowa, and South Dakota. In the book, nationally recognized restaurants and Beard-nominated chefs sit at the same proverbial dinner table alongside humble farmers, bakers, and artisans, all united in a passion for local food done right.

“The book celebrates our regional food community through stories, photography, and recipes,” says Miller. “I started [it] at a time in my life when I needed inspiration. From that perspective, I personally needed to find these people and places. Once I did, I was so moved by the experiences I had—the stories the farmers, chefs, and artisans shared, and the beauty of the food—that I wanted to share it with as many people as possible.”

The beauty Miller found over four years traveling and collecting stories is palpable in her preparation of Dante Ristorante Pizzeria chef Nick Strawhecker’s strawberry jam and The Grey Plume chef Clayton Chapman’s ricotta, which team up atop a honey-oat bread recipe from Hastings’ Back Alley Bakery. An earthy, savory braised chicken soup follows. It’s a seasonally adjusted version of a Strawhecker dish from the book, featuring carrots from Rhizosphere Farm (located in the Loess Hills of Iowa just south of Missouri Valley) and chicken from Plum Creek Farms (Burchard, Neb.), and it’s a bowl-tipper to be sure.

George P. Johnson, owner of George Paul Vinegar, says New Prairie Kitchen offers readers “treasured recipes to hand down through generations.”

The recipes and producers here are indeed treasures, and the book is the treasure map.

“I love being around creative, innovative people because they infuse everything and everyone around them with a sense of possibility,” says Miller. “When those personalities exist in the food world we benefit as home cooks and shoppers. Rather than eating food only for sustenance, we get to eat food that nourishes us, yes, but also teaches us about a certain corner of the world. The act of preparing, sharing, and eating food becomes a cultural and emotive experience. When we connect to places, and, more importantly, the people of those places, whether that place is our dinner table, the farmers market, or a restaurant, and the people, family or new friends, we build our community, making it a more enjoyable place to live. Our experiences become more profound.”

The vibrant pages of New Prairie Kitchen, which is set for release later this month, are illuminated with stunning images from the talented photographer Dana Damewood. Wide landscape shots, close-ups of chickens, vegetables, smiling chefs, a red tractor, a handful of grain, exquisitely plated meals, an old Dodge Ram van with the license plate reading “GARLIC” — all a familiar yet striking array of Midwestern artifacts representing a contemporary take on classic Americana. The book manages to simultaneously represent old and new, sophisticated and simple.

“It’s difficult sometimes to get a good sense of the local food movement and what it truly looks like,” says Terra Hall of Rhizosphere Farm, “particularly the connections that make such a strong community. Telling food stories from a particular region, you can really see how everything is connected and the powerful impact of keeping food and its economy local. Summer did an amazing job highlighting the people changing the foodscape in the prairie region. The food we grow and how it is prepared is a true representation of a place, a people, and a climate. Which, frankly, is what I think food should be.”

And you needn’t be from the area to appreciate its riches. Taryn Huebner, Oprah Winfrey’s private chef, calls New Prairie Kitchen “a gift” and its recipes “mouthwatering” and “soul-quenching. This is more than a cookbook—it’s a love letter to the heartland,” Huebner writes.

The French Bulldog’s Bryce Coulton says the book celebrates individual and shared connections to food, as well as a “back-to-basics” approach.

“More than being prideful,” Coulton says, “Midwesterners exhibit an appreciation for the sincere efforts of their neighbors, be they farmers, artisans, or cooks. And Summer has told their stories: stories of relationships, collaboration, working toward a goal outside of our immediate selves.”

“I hope the book inspires people to cook at home and frequent restaurants that support our local farmers and artisans,” says Miller, “but also to explore their communities and discover the resources available to them. We are surrounded by so many wonderful people, flavors, and places. It’s a shame to overlook the diamonds in our own backyard.”

Sarah Wengert, the author of the story above, will moderate a panel at Summer Miller’s reading, discussion, and book-signing event at 1 p.m. Saturday, May 9 at the Bookworm.

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