Article originally published in May/June 2015 Omaha Magazine.
I meet Chad Lebo at Whole Foods early on a Wednesday evening. He’s made his way to the café section by way of the store’s cured meats area, and he’s unexpectedly teaching me about nitrates.
The longtime subject of controversy regarding their possible toxicity, nitrates give cured meats their pink color and signature flavor, Lebo says. They also occur naturally in many green vegetables—kale and spinach, for example. Thus so-called nitrate-free meats cured with celery powder aren’t actually nitrate-free, Lebo says, and from there, we launch into a tangential discourse about food humans crave, and why.
It’s not really a surprise that the interview begins this way. Lebo is, after all, the owner of Cure Cooking, through which he leads private cooking classes and, from a commercial kitchen in Fort Calhoun, sells ham, bacon, cheeses, spices, and more. In all cases, Cure Cooking’s food is made with heritage techniques—the kind your grandparents’ grandparents used. The kind that, in the case of bacon, involve nitrates; in the case of bread, sourdough starter. He stops short of teaching people to make sauerkraut in crocks.
“We make sauerkraut in a bag,” he says. “We’re not just teaching real traditional ways, but traditional ways you can do in your own kitchen.”
The culinarily curious can invite Lebo into their own home kitchens, visit Lebo’s own kitchen in his Dundee home, or head to Fort Calhoun to learn traditional food preparations that include curing and smoking, fermentation and pickling, canning, cheese and chocolate making, sourdough bread baking, and cooking a pizza from scratch—read: making the dough, cheese, and sauce from scratch. Each class is three hours; Lebo provides ingredients and any equipment he thinks attendees might not have already.
Lebo adds that he’ll soon be offering intermediate-level supervised cooking sessions at his Fort Calhoun kitchen for those who’d like to make sausages, bacon, cheddar cheese, and other foods in larger quantities to take home. Cure also serves its own creations Saturdays at Too Far North in Fort Calhoun.
During each session, Lebo also delves into the science and history of the process in focus. At the end of the class, participants leave with their own finished products, plus recipes.
“These are things I think people are afraid to learn just from a book or YouTube,” Lebo said. “It’s more of a scratch-and-sniff kind of thing.”
And Lebo would know. Though he grew up in Pennsylvania Dutch country amid Mennonite relatives, he didn’t start learning traditional cooking methods himself until he and his wife, a geneticist, moved to Madagascar in 2008. What was going to be one year turned into six—and the prospect of not having readily available bacon wasn’t one Lebo wanted to face. So he learned to make it. Then he learned to make cheese. And eventually, he learned enough to make things he and his wife—and his neighbors—wanted to eat.
“The idea of self-sufficiency and taking care of yourself isn’t hipster—it’s what you do,” Lebo says. “Food is a trade. It’s a skill, not an art. For most of the world, it’s what you can get that day. I feel bad calling it an art. We’re lucky we can do it in a craft way.”
And based on the interest the classes have garnered, Lebo said locals want to get back in touch with the slower, more detailed methods in the kitchen. Class attendees want to know where to get local ingredients and how to support local farmers. And while they might not have three hours every night during the week to utilize what they learn in class, they can extract practical techniques, Lebo says—making bread on the weekend or making fresh ricotta in about five minutes.
“There’s something great about that,” Lebo explains. “It’s the tradition, and it’s made by you and it’s cheaper. You control the complete process. These are things you can do.”