Hospital cafeteria food can bring to mind sad combinations of mushy vegetables, mystery meat, limp salads, and green Jell-O. At the Fred & Pamela Buffett Cancer Center’s restaurant, those bland and boring foods are replaced by beautifully plated appetizers, perfectly cooked fish, and salads bursting with fresh, local produce.
Kale salads and cheese plates aren’t typical menus items in hospital cafes, but both dishes are among the options that guests can enjoy at the Buffett Cancer Center’s 75-seat dining venue, simply called The Restaurant.
Executive chef Tim Jones and his team deliver dishes using fresh, seasonal ingredients, much of it locally sourced. “We try to make as much from scratch as possible,” Jones says. The menu, which changes each season, features a handful of starters, salads, soups, and about a dozen entrees. The prices are reasonable, and there’s a focus on fresh, healthy ingredients such as leafy greens, lean protein, nuts, and whole grains. High-fat foods such as cream are used sparingly.
The $323 million cancer center is named in recognition of a gift from Pamela Buffett, through her foundation, the Rebecca Susan Buffett Foundation. Pamela’s husband, Fred, a first cousin of Warren Buffett, died in 1997 of kidney cancer. The facility, a joint venture between the University of Nebraska Medical Center and clinical partner Nebraska Medicine, opened in 2017. It’s the largest public-private partnership in the history of the state. To fund the project, the state of Nebraska contributed $50 million, the city of Omaha $35 million, and Douglas County $5 million. The rest of the funding was privately raised.
The cancer center doesn’t really look like a hospital, says Jones, and The Restaurant doesn’t look like a traditional hospital cafeteria. “It’s modern, eclectic, trendy,” Jones says. The open, airy dining space features soaring ceilings, bold artwork, a self-playing piano, and contemporary décor highlighting soothing colors and warm woods.
The good looks extend to the food as well. Long spears of chilled asparagus, draped with thinly sliced serrano ham, arrive topped with shaved Pecorino Romano cheese, fava beans, and juicy grapefruit segments for brightness and acidity. Another highlight among the starters: a cheese plate—complete with grilled brie, cheddar, blue cheese crumbles, Marcona almonds, aged balsamic, honeycomb, and microgreens.
Grilled tiger shrimp, which popped with color and flavor, was served on a bed of diced papaya, crunchy cucumber, and hearts of palm drizzled with a zesty sauce that balanced spicy, sweet, and citrus flavors. Salmon with crispy skin arrived beautifully seared and served with rock shrimp-sweet potato hash and French green beans. A lightly dressed kale salad studded with nuts, fruit, and cheese delivered a nice variety of texture and flavor.
Jones, whose fine dining background includes luxury hotels, is a native New Yorker who honed his skills at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park. He has served as The Restaurant’s executive chef since it opened in June 2017. Soon afterward, he received a kidney transplant at Nebraska Medicine, made possible by his wife, Jennifer, who was the donor.
He’s grateful for the second chance and appreciates the work-life balance the Buffett Center allows him. Unlike most chefs, he rarely has to work nights or weekends. He also likes the creativity that cooking offers and enjoys showing others that hospital food and fine dining experiences can go hand in hand.
With fall on the way, Jones looks forward to getting inspired by what’s in season, what’s local, and what’s fresh. New menu items may include heartier salads, braised meats, and other comfort foods that are not only delicious, but also nutritious.
This article was printed in the September 2019 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.