Tag Archives: The Grey Plume

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. 

Maker of Chefs, Feeder of Children

October 13, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

In a culture where top chefs enjoy celebrity status, Omaha Salvation Army Kroc Center executive chef Kevin Newlin manages to stay humble and grounded. In fact, Newlin was confused as to why anyone would want to write a profile about him.

Don’t be fooled by his modesty. Newlin has trained some of Omaha’s top chefs during his tenure at Metropolitan Community College, and he is doing crucially important culinary work for the community. His Kroc Center programs have introduced countless kids to fresh foods that they might not otherwise eat.

“Sometimes kids will see blueberries or cucumbers or mushrooms, and they seriously will not know what it is because they’ve never seen it fresh before,” says Newlin. One of his favorite tricks is to first give kids cucumber slices, and then a couple days later give them pickles and explain the correlation. “To see the looks on their faces when they realize the pickle used to be a cucumber is fascinating, and it’s really something that drives me in my career where I am right now,” he says.

The summer feeding program offered by the Kroc Center (funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture) has grown exponentially. “We served just under 10,000 fresh, hot meals from May 23 to Aug. 12,” says Newlin. He’s responsible for rallying the food donations that help make this program possible, and he also plans and prepares the meals. “The kids get fresh food every day. We try to use fresh food as much as possible, but we’re restricted by budget.”

“Sometimes kids will see blueberries or cucumbers or mushrooms, and they seriously will not know what it is because they’ve never seen it fresh before,” says Newlin.

In September, Newlin was responsible for coordinating the celebrated Omaha chefs who participated in the fourth annual Kroc Center’s BaconFest, a local scholarship fundraiser.

His attraction to the Kroc Center was largely due to his desire to spend more time with his children. “I’ve been here since the beginning,” says Newlin, noting that before he accepted the role at the Kroc Center he was chief of operations at Metropolitan Community College’s Culinary Arts Program. His love for teaching compelled him to retain his position as an adjunct professor with MCC until last year. “I miss it because I miss the teaching aspect,” he says, adding that he also misses working with some of the people there.

His love for food is the reason why he also works at The Grey Plume three nights a week. “Cooking, for me, is a lifelong process,” he says. “Nobody knows it all and you’re never done learning, and if you think you are, then you probably don’t have food in your soul.”

Newlin says he noticed that his role at the Kroc Center has changed his own perspective when it comes to helping the community. “Since I came here, I notice that my willingness to help people has increased. I’ve always volunteered, but it’s more now.” Whether he’s conducting a cooking class for kids or running the Kroc Center Program designed to help people learn the skills necessary to obtain a Douglas County food handlers card, Newlin is busy helping others.

“I love to feed people,” says Newlin with a shrug, trying to sum up everything he does in simple terms. He isn’t looking for praise. He simply wants to share his love for food with others.

Visit omahakroc.org for more information.

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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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Now Serving Omaha

February 10, 2015 by

Ranked as a Top 10 Foodie City by Livability.com, Omaha’s reputation as a great dining destination continues to grow. In choosing Omaha, Livability.com raves, “Innovative chefs throughout the city are creating sensational menus that surprise many visitors.” The Grey Plume and Boiler Room are constantly receiving high praise from national food critics. Open Table’s “100 Hottest Restaurants in America” list includes Pitch Pizzeria in the Dundee neighborhood, and the Food Network has featured Big Mama’s Kitchen, California Taco, and Brewburgers on its national broadcasts.

To capitalize on the growing interest and to increase awareness about Omaha’s culinary landscape, the Omaha Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB) just started its own web series called “Now Serving Omaha.” Each month a new restaurant is featured in a short video webisode that is distributed to more than 165,000 people from all over the country via the CVB’s social media network. There is also a dedicated webpage featuring all of the videos at visitomaha.com/nowservingomaha.

In addition, the Omaha CVB partnered with Food and Travel magazine, a national publication with a readership of more than 81,000, to create a full-page editorial showcasing many of Omaha’s beloved restaurants such as The Drover, Piccolo Pete’s, Dundee Dell, Johnny’s Café, Crescent Moon, and Blue Sushi. Thanks to a Nebraska Tourism-sponsored media tour, Omaha restaurants have also received media coverage in magazines in Austin, Texas, Des Moines, Iowa, and Kansas City, Mo.

So is all the attention focused on promoting Omaha restaurants worth it? Consider this: Research shows out-of-town visitors spend more than $274 million a year dining out in Omaha restaurants. So the answer is a resounding yes—Omaha is serving up travel-worthy food and visitors are eating it up.

Dana Markel is Executive Director of the Omaha Convention & Visitors Bureau. Questions or comments? Email the Omaha CVB at info@visitomaha.com.

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Labor of Love

January 19, 2015 by and
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

In his first venture, The Grey Plume, chef/owner Clayton Chapman succeeds in proving an old-fashioned belief true: Food made with love truly tastes better.

Chapman now extends that truth across Farnam Street in Midtown Crossing, from what may be the nation’s most sustainable restaurant to Provisions by The Grey Plume, a retail store, artisan grocer, and private dining space opened last fall.

Those familiar with The Grey Plume’s magnificent house-made butter, preserves, and coffee, will swoon upon entering the lovely new space. Jars of jam, marmalade, mustard, apple butter, sauerkraut, and pickled beets with stylish labels denoting batch and jar numbers neatly line tall shelves, neighboring with coffee, bitters, chocolate, butter, baguette, and other inviting, house-made vittles.

“The [Grey Plume] menu is very seasonally driven and influenced by local farm supply,” says Chapman, “so to continue serving local food in winter months, we did a great series of pickling, canning, and preserving. We wanted to make those things that we’ve come to love so much available for home consumers.”

Chapman says he accounted for the short Nebraska produce season and forecasted demand to create a rather large Provisions inventory, which saw some late-fall additions including nut butters, charcuterie, and chocolate work (organic, fair-trade chocolate blended with locally sourced ingredients).

Beyond crystal-balling Provisions’ inventory, Chapman’s very hands-on with its creation. “The charcuterie production, the coffee roasting, the butter production, the chocolate-making,” he rattles off.

Provisions includes a private dining space accommodating 22 seats. It offers special menus and discreet A/V access, making it ideal for everything from birthdays to business. Provisions also offers a series of Saturday cooking classes in its kitchen, covering canning/preserving, knife skills, meat fabrication, and more. Chapman, his staff, and a series of guest chefs lead the sessions.

“We want to make local foods more approachable,” says Chapman. “It’s important to support your local farmers market; we can help people explore what to do with that food once they get it.”

Ceramic and wooden wares are also available alongside other select handmade goodies from local merchants. “We want to provide a well-rounded experience,” Chapman says, referring to non-edible items, like those from Black Iris Botanicals and Benson Soap Mill—vendors perfectly at home here. “The story behind their business practices are pretty wonderful, so we’re happy to partner.”

Provisions, like The Grey Plume, is certified by the Green Restaurant Association.

“It follows the same model—full recycling, full composting program, LED/CFL lighting, many recycled building materials,” says Chapman, pinpointing dining room fixtures and flooring made from recycled farm wood, as well as a gorgeous walnut table made from downed trees. “Besides just being common sense, we want to maintain authenticity and transparency in all our business practices that mirrors our food sourcing.

“It’s a labor of love,” says Chapman. And it’s true…you can taste the love.

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