August 20, 2019 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Lying on the floor in a fetal position, Robert Wilson thought this was the final conversation of his life.

“I’m going to die like my mother,” Wilson said to himself. “Drunk and alone. Is that [what] I want…yes.”

A sense of calmness overtook him. Passing out, he didn’t know if he’d wake again. Then, something happened. “It was divine intervention,” Wilson says. “It had to be the Great Spirit.”

Wilson woke his roommate and asked for help. They arranged for him to be admitted to the Campus for Hope detoxification center. After detox, he stayed at the Stephen Center, where he eventually became the head chef.

The road to sobriety took roughly 30 years and included several potholes along the way. As the child of an alcoholic mother and a drug addict father who served time in prison for drug running, Wilson says life was stacked against him. Suffering sexual abuse at the hands of two men in his South Omaha neighborhood, Wilson tried alcohol and marijuana for the first time at age 13. He says he enjoyed self-medicating.

“The first time I tried alcohol I got full-blown drunk,” Wilson says. “It was never a social thing for me. I always drank to get drunk. Then I added drugs at an early age.”

As an adult, he worked as a dishwasher at Original Caniglia’s Italian Steakhouse. His cooking career took off one night when he stepped in to replace the pasta chef, who didn’t show up for work. He eventually worked at some of Omaha’s finest restaurants, including Indian Oven and the French Café in the Old Market. As a sous chef at the French Café, Wilson realized he could make the culinary industry a career. But his addictions were never far away.

In 1995, Wilson’s father persuaded him to move to California. He landed a job at a Wolfgang Puck’s Kitchen in Costa Mesa. The self-taught chef thought his future looked bright. Then he learned his father managed an operation delivering drugs and guns to Nebraska.

“[A] whole trailer was full of weapons,” he says. “It was something out of the movies. I’d never seen so much drugs and money in my life.”

Though the younger Wilson never sold drugs, he says he served time in prison for possession.

Following a couple of years living on the street, Wilson moved back to Nebraska. After getting his job back at the French Café, life was good again. However, his demons kept attacking. He lost the job less than a year after his return.

Then came the night of divine intervention, and Wilson became sober at 45. An opportunity to work in the kitchen at Stephen Center proved to be just what he needed.

Today, nearly seven years after his epiphany, Wilson appreciates giving back to the place that helped save his life. While serving roughly 150 meals per daily lunch and dinner service, Wilson seeks to provide a special experience.

Working with donations from local grocers such as Hy-Vee, Trader Joe’s, Fareway, and Whole Foods, Wilson says, “Sometimes, you have to be creative with the food they send you because of the expiration date.” But creating menus is a challenge he loves.

“I like to treat people like they’re enjoying a meal at a restaurant and not an institution,” Wilson says. “I like to do food you won’t see at other [centers].” He also likes to take “plate pictures” of the food, which he posts on Facebook.

Life is good for the 52-year-old Omaha tribal member—with a fiancée, new house, and Harley Davidsons to ride—but Wilson never forgets where he came from.

“The Stephen Center is part of me,” he says. “The new me serves the Stephen Center. I couldn’t do what I like without them.”


Visit stephencenter.org for more information.

This article was printed in the September 2019 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Chef Robert Wilson of Stephen Center

Chef Robert Wilson at the Stephen Center