Tag Archives: Paul Kulik

Jose Dionicio’s Year of Change

November 4, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Illustration by Matt Wieczorek

The chef responsible for some of Benson’s hippest eateries had a tumultuous year in 2017.

Taita closed (February); Ika Ramen and Izakaya relocated to the former site of Taita a few blocks east on Maple Street; Taqueria Chingon took the place of Ika (July); in the fall, the relocated Ika debuted a basement sake bar (called “Kaitei,” which translates to “under the sea” in Japanese).

Jose Dionicio’s decision to close Taita after five years was not easy. “We were doing really well down the street [at Ika]; Taita was doing alright, but we thought it would be a good business move to take the ramen shop to Taita’s bigger and more central location,” Dionicio says.

Fans of Taita’s unique fusion of Japanese and Peruvian cuisine—which the chef calls “Nikkei”—will be happy to learn Dionicio is considering reopening Taita at another location. “It’s still in the early stages, but some people are interested,” he says.

The opening of Chingon took inspiration from Dionicio’s girlfriend, originally from Mexico. “We wanted to bring authentic-style Mexican tacos to Benson,” he says, explaining they were motivated by regular trips south of the border to visit family with their son.

Dionicio’s odyssey to becoming an Omaha restaurateur has spanned nearly 20 years and three states. It all started with his long journey from Lima, Peru.

It’s about 4,000 miles from Lima to Omaha. “My father was the first member of my family to come to the United States 30 years ago. I was only 5 when he left. When I turned 19, I decided to follow him,” Dionicio says.

With a population close to 10 million, life in Lima is a bit faster than Omaha. “Lima is a really big place,” Dionico says. “I was used to the lifestyle. It’s so fast. Honestly, my plan was to never stay in Omaha, but I just kept coming back.”

In 2004, after a year in Charlotte, North Carolina, Dionicio moved back to Omaha to care for his daughter. But it was during his time spent in Charlotte, exposed to the abundance of sushi joints, that he rekindled his love of Japanese cuisine, a throwback to the Nikkei cuisine of his homeland.

“Based on the immigration of Japanese citizens during World War II in Peru, [Japanese traditions] have a strong influence on the culture of Peru. The dishes that they made are very much a fusion of Peruvian and Japanese, not necessarily Japanese or Peruvian. It’s a really good marriage,” he says, adding that the word “Nikkei” refers to someone of Japanese descent who is born in a different country.

“I knew that when I moved back to Omaha, I wanted to work for a Japanese restaurant,” he says. “I ended up getting a job with Kona Grill, and that’s where I met my mentor, Ichi Takei.”

With more than 50 years experience in Japanese cuisine, Takei helped Dionicio learn the business. “I made a lot of really great connections at Kona. Ichi taught me everything I know about sushi,” Dionicio says of the chef who worked with him in Omaha for less than two years. “Then I worked at Kona as the executive sushi chef and things were great. One day, out of the blue, Ichi calls me from Cape Cod. He wanted me to come up and work for him.” So, in 2008, Dionicio headed to Massachusetts to reunite with his mentor and friend.

Life on the East Coast was great. Dionicio was able to work with the freshest ingredients–sea-food caught the same day. “I loved the vibes up there,” he says. However, the off-season proved challenging. “This was seasonal work,” he says. “So when the tourists left, things got pretty slow. I needed something more secure to support my family. So I moved back to Omaha.”

Dionicio’s final trek back to the heartland would turn out to be his introduction into the Omaha food scene spotlight. It was his experiences as a member of Paul Kulik’s opening staff at The Boiler Room and working alongside Jared Clarke at the now-defunct Blue Agave where Dionicio received the most support.

“I’ll always be grateful to Paul and Jared for what they taught me,” he says. “We were never content with what we were creating. We were always pushing the limits with our food. Paul and Jared always motivated me to be the best chef I can be.”

And when it came time for Dionicio to be chef of his own restaurant, fate couldn’t have played a better hand. “I just happened to be driving through Benson, and I noticed a ‘for lease’ sign on what used to be the Today Café [the future home of Taita, now Ika]. It was pretty rough inside.”

The story of Ika’s first venue—now Chingon’s space—came from a similar chance passing. “Two blocks from Taita, we saw an empty spot next to a barbershop.” So, he dropped into the barbershop to inquire, managed to contact the owner of the empty business space, and soon had another major renovation project underway.

When Dionicio needed them most, all his friends and kitchen connections stepped up to lend a helping hand in getting his new ventures off the ground.

“I just really want everybody to know how much they mean to me, and how grateful I am to them for the support. Barbara [Schlott, an early supporter of Taita], Paul, Jared, my friends, and family—they’ve all helped me reach my goals.”

Jose Dionicio and his son

Visit ikaramenandizakaya.com for more information.

This article was printed in the November/December 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

viafarina2

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.”

20140305_bs_9746

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.

20140305_bs_9768

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.