Tag Archives: Omaha Central

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. 

A Horse Connection

March 1, 2017 by
Photography by contributed

This article appears in the program book for the FEI World Cup Finals, produced by Omaha Magazine in March 2017.

Picasso is a player. He flirts, shakes his head up and down to get the ladies’ attention.  He isn’t above begging for a few cookies by looking cute and innocent with his long lashes and deep brown eyes. Although confident in his manliness, Picasso is an orderly sort of fellow and even a misplaced blanket may upset his night. 

Lola believes she is all that. Small and slightly on the plump side, Lola proudly shakes her behind in front of crowds. In fact, this princess adores attention. It doesn’t matter if everyone else is bigger, faster, or stronger because this little gal is all about working hard.

Cerdi is a hot foreigner from the Netherlands. He is strong and athletic. Cerdi is like a linebacker, but a running back he is not. His personality reminds people of a Labrador Retriever, loyal and happy. And oh, does this boy love to have fun.

A blind date with any of these larger-than-life personalities could make someone all nervous and sweaty in either a good or a bad way. One date could equal a total disaster. Or it could be easy and comfortable.

Finding a horse is just like dating. The rider needs to be matched with the right horse­­—like Tinder without all the swiping. And when someone finds a perfect connection, it just clicks.

“It’s kind of like a husband. This horse,” Karen Ensminger says, watching her daughter’s friend Alyssa Politi ride. “He and I wouldn’t get along.  He’s too excitable.”

Ensminger’s true love was evident earlier when her own horse, Picasso, nudged her with his large white and brown nose, hoping for yet another cookie. She gave in and scratched him behind his soft ears.

“That wasn’t a monster out there, no it wasn’t,” Ensminger cooed. She tried to take him out riding, but a blanket on the bleachers was distracting.

Ensminger owns five horses and is planning on adding two more Argentinians to the stables. Picasso, a paint horse, was “a bribe” from her husband. She then bought a large pony, Lola, to share her love with her two daughters. 

Ensminger soon after purchased Cerdi, whose father was a Dutch Warmblood, for her youngest daughter, Jenni Lanoha, a junior at Marian High School. She has been riding horses since day one, literally. Ensminger was in the saddle while pregnant with Lanoha.

Lanoha, like the other trainees at Elkhorn Hampton Ridge Equestrian Center, started out in equitation. After that, Lanoha moved on to hunters, then graduated to jumping. Tall and thin, she sports tan riding pants, a light gray vest, and a black helmet as she rides Cerdi, schooling him over white picket fences in the dirt-filled practice arena.

“Go out, right heel, half halt,” her trainer yells out as Cerdi takes a tight turn at Lanoha’s command, long black tail flowing behind him.

Her mother doesn’t worry about her daughter falling. Anything could happen, but Ensminger has been watching her daughter since she was trotting over poles on the ground.

Sybil Greene, a trainer and rider at Wynmore Farm in Lincoln, says people do have misconceptions that horse riding is dangerous. However, she adds, other sports such as basketball or football are just as risky with concussions
or injuries.

In fact, the National Trauma Data Bank reported contact sports were the leading cause of traumatic brain injuries while equestrian sports
were third.

“It is safe and rewarding if you match the rider and the horse,” Greene says.

Politi’s turn is next and her horse likes to dive, causing her to slip forward.

“He’s just a little fresh. Happy to be out,” Politi, a senior at Omaha Central, explains.

Politi and Lanoha compete against each other, but there is unity in barns just like there would be on a school track team. The girls laugh, recalling a rotating pairs relay when they dressed up as Superman and Wonder Woman.

“Our plan was bad, really bad,” Lanoha jokes.

She loves to compete in the jumper division, but her mother persuaded her to compete in the hunter division.

“I live vicariously through her (Lanoha) and her skinny thighs,” Ensminger says, laughing. 

The gamble paid off. Lanoha competed at regionals and qualified for nationals at the ASPCA Maclay Final, earning her a 19th place finish.

Lanoha has grown to appreciate hunters, but still needs to balance her time as a student and a competitor. It means late nights and hard work, but Lanoha still makes it to her hour-long practices twice a week. Plus, she gets to see her “good friend” Cerdi.

Training is different depending on which barn someone attends. At Elkhorn, a novice can show up in jeans and cowboy boots. A horse can be leased or he/she can use a school one. Helmet, jacket, and equipment can all be borrowed. From there, it is a matter of how dedicated a person wants to be.

Ensminger, though, feels it is all worth it.  As she explained to her husband when her girls first wanted to get involved, sometimes it comes down to choices.

“Do you want them kissing the boys or the horses?” she asked him.

Luckily, the horses won out.

Jenni Lanoha rides her horse Cerdi

Being Ryleigh Welsh

October 8, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Ryleigh Welsh, 15, didn’t have too many plans for the summer. She’d entered one of her songs in the Omaha Performing Arts songwriting competition. She worked on her International Baccalaureate curriculum. She returned to Omaha Girls Rock and hit up some open mic nights. She took ukulele lessons every day. All that after performing in a spring play with SNAP! Productions at Shelterbelt Theatre.

The Omaha Central sophomore has already accomplished more, artistically, than many folks twice her age. At 12, she released her first album, Being a Unicorn, and at 14 starred as Lottie Adams in the SNAP! Productions dramedy Harbor. She’s even headlined her own “Ryleigh Welsh and Friends” night at Barley Street Tavern, with her name on the marquee and everything—though she had to play first because she’s a minor.

Her life sounds like a juggling act, but she seems to handle everything with uncanny ease—particularly her music, which is catchy as hell.

“I was never really a crying, screaming child, so all I did was write songs,” she quips.

“I’ll come up with a couple lyrics, write that down, and then mostly it’s just playing chords over and over, filling in words with the chords. Eventually it comes together.”

RyleighWelsh2

When that happens, she says it takes about five minutes to finish a song, a pace that rivals that of a young Bob Dylan when he first hit Greenwich Village.

The young artist also has the best resource a beginning songwriter can have: a seasoned musician/mentor to help edit her material, who also happens to be her mother.

Molly Welsh is a staple of Omaha’s art scene. She’s acted in, and directed, several performances; played guitar and sung backup for multiple high-profile Omaha bands, including All Young Girls Are Machine Guns; and has worked for the Omaha Symphony, Omaha Performing Arts, Nebraska Shakespeare Festival, and Film Streams. Ryleigh is the beneficiary of a household suffused with creative energy.

Take, for instance, the song “Reality Avenue,” (search her name and Boombox Productions to have a listen) which Ryleigh wrote in 2011. She says she “kinda had it all jumbled because I was so young…it was like ‘What are you saying?’”

Molly knew. “I could tell what she was trying to say, but none of the words were in the right order that would make sense to a person listening to it.” So Molly helped Ryleigh clarify the song. The result is a catchy, ukulele-driven tune with such lyrical gems as “You planted a yellow seed for me / to grow a bubblegum tree, and I don’t live in a house on Reality Avenue.”

When asked if she’s internalized any mantra to keep her going, Ryleigh pauses, then rattles off the title of an obscure book from the ‘60s which she recently read: How You Live Is How You Lose Your Mind. But she doesn’t look quite satisfied with that answer. Though fun-loving, she wants to do her best at everything. So she substitutes something better.

“My mantra is: I do what I want. I’m punk rock.”

Carol Rogers

July 17, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

This article appears in July/August The Encounter.

Something in Jeanne Rogers broke. It fissured slowly, building and building until it exploded into one moment. That moment came in 2007 in the piano room, where she had sat side by side with her daughter, Carol Rogers, for so many years.

“At last, my love has come along/my lonely days are over/and life is like a song.” The Etta James music drifted over Carol with an ironic sort of hopelessness.

Her mother was not playing the requested song.

A look of incredulity and sorrow passed over Rogers’ face. Jeanne noticed, and her fingers stopped on the keyboard.

“Guess I’m not good for anything anymore,” Jeanne said. She walked away, shut her bedroom door, and wept.

Rogers’ heart shattered, seeing her once proud mother struggle with the music they both loved. Growing up in north Omaha, their house was a like a “nightclub 24/7.”  Music was a connection in a city filled with prejudice, and people of all races flocked to the Rogers’  home to sing, jam, and dance.

As a Central High student, 16-year-old Rogers flew to the Arctic Circle (“probably as the token black person,” she says, laughing) with the Omaha Can Do Ambassadors tour. She later studied music at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, but felt she was destined to leave and do something amazing.

Four years later she auditioned for Stevie Wonder. She recorded one song, was not hired, and did not even get to meet Wonder. Depressed, desperate, and distraught, she moved back to Omaha. Rogers heard God’s voice late one night telling her to go back to California, and a week later she packed everything she owned into her Volkswagen to audition for Trini Lopez.

At least that was what she thought. It turned out to be for Brazilian jazz singer Sergio Mendes. Rogers was soon selected to be one of “Sergio’s Girls.” Disciplined and focused—she’ll sing something 100 times just to get to the right spot—Rogers picked up the mixed style with ease.

“He (Mendes) is a genius, and a genius doesn’t let things slide,” she says. “I appreciated that.”

Rogers sang around the world.

“It was my finishing school,” she says. She grew up in the limelight, learning embarrassing life lessons along the way.

Rogers greeted King Hussein of Jordan with a hair pick in her Afro. She laughed so hard she could barely perform.

She jokingly mimicked Frank Sinatra while on a Brazilian state visit at the White House during Ronald Reagan’s term. “I did it my way,” she crooned in a Sinatra parody.

“Psst—Frank. . .look,” one band member whispered.

“Old-blue-eyes has better things to do,” Rogers said. She turned, shocked to see Sinatra standing behind her. He just laughed.

At the same event, she placed her makeup bag and silver stilettos on top of an antique piano. She saw the eyes of the security guards widen and heard audible gasps from the room.

“It was Martha Washington’s piano,” she recalls. “I just felt so at home.”

Rogers called friends in Omaha from the White House but no one believed her.

“If you are calling me from jail, you better not be asking me for bail money.”—Click.

“Are you drinking?”—Click.

She had the chance to again perform in front of Stevie Wonder. Rogers felt she wasn’t worthy to touch the hem of his record sleeve, but after hearing her smooth vocals he wanted to steal her away.

She was surrounded by glitz and glam—John Travolta’s birthday party, Bruce Springsteen’s gala, even getting flown to a private island in a helicopter.

She was also a single mother, and needed at home. So after 25 years with Mendes and 12 releases, including the Grammy Award-winning Brasileiro, Rogers called it quits. She became a vocal instructor to celebrities and continued to record albums.

“She is a real pro, one of the best,” Omaha pianist-composer Chuck Marohnic believes. “I just think she’s a treasure. Omaha is lucky to have her.”

While living a dream life with the stars, she, along with her siblings, kept a close eye on her mother. Rogers didn’t want to “uproot this old tree” and move Jeanne to California. Instead, she came back to Omaha in 2013 to be near her mother, currently at Douglas County Health Center.

Now 60, Rogers has time for herself. Snow showers replaced sunny skies. Her fast-paced, action thriller life became a slow motion picture.

Her hair is a mass of silvery dreadlocks, her posture elegant, and her face still smooth. She even started dating again. Perhaps her “lonely days are over” but Rogers refuses to settle for anything less than the best.

Her jazzy tone now has a gospel-like soul to it. She takes a sip of her Bloody Mary (with a bit of “stank” in it like her grandmother taught her) and smiles. Last night at Omaha Lounge, she sang from the heart. Even though her mother brought her back to the open plains of the Midwest, music will always be the catharsis, the glue that holds everything together.

“Music,” Rogers says, “is the thing that keeps me alive.”

CarolRogers1