Tag Archives: john thompson

King and Queen of the Blacksmiths

May 5, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

These days, many couples find each other via dating websites or apps. John and Trena Thompson literally found each other at a meat market.

He was just a guy working in Hy-Vee’s meat department, and she was a gal in the deli who sometimes needed said guy to help take out the trash.

“When he asked me out, he took me to a Renaissance festival and spent the whole time looking at swords,” Trena says. “I can’t say it was the best date in the world.”

Three decades later, Trena and John are happily married (despite their one-of-a-kind first date) with a home filled with more swords, knives, spears, and axes than she could have ever imagined.

For the past 25 years, the two have worked as professional blacksmiths in the Renaissance festival circuit. He’s the muscle—the artisan who carefully crafts each Camelot-worthy weapon—and she’s the brains behind each sale. Together they have sold out stock at fairs from Texas to Kansas, and they annually dazzle local folks at myriad events around Omaha.

“What makes our product so unique is everything is 100 percent handcrafted by just one person,” Trena says. “John even makes his own pins to connect the handle and blade.”

It was due to a fair amount of scheming on Trena’s part that John got his first taste of blacksmithing. What she told him was a trip to visit family in Colorado was actually a secret vacation to stay in Albuquerque with an award-winning knife-maker. In Albuquerque, John learned to make his first knife from start to finish.

In a pre-Braveheart, pre-Game of Thrones, pre-internet world, John scavenged what little literature there was on knife-making to hone his craft. And in 1996, for John’s 30th birthday, Trena submitted her husband’s resignation at Hy-Vee so he could focus solely on blacksmithing.

“There were a lot of days spent in the shop messing up a lot of steel,” John says. “It’s surreal because now we’re the experts. People come up to us at festivals to ask how it’s done.”

And after 25 years of participating in festivals, it makes sense that John has become a master blacksmith. In addition to running the couple’s business, Dwarf Mountain Knives, John teaches classes at the Blacksmith Shop of Omaha.

Annually, the couple spend about 16 weekends a year at festivals, including the Nebraska Renaissance Faire (held at RiverWest Park for the first time in 2017), which is about half the number they used to attend before having two boys. Kyle, who is 25 years old, helps to polish and prep finished blades. Their youngest son, 10-year-old Zayne, is already sketching designs for Dad.

In this trade, it takes the whole family to keep the Thompson reputation sharp.

Through it all, Trena says, John has proven to be her knight in shining armor. After all, the two have slashed and conquered obstacles to their business and family like the mightiest of sword-wielding dragon slayers.

“Working Renaissance festivals is the hardest job I’ve ever had,” Trena says, “but it’s easier and way more fun knowing we have each other’s backs.”

The metro area’s longest-running medieval-themed festival, the Nebraska Renaissance Faire, relocated to RiverWest Park on April 29-30, 2017. It was previously held at the Bellevue Berry and Pumpkin Ranch, which now hosts its own Renaissance Festival of Nebraska during the subsequent two weekends in May (May 6- 7 and May 13-14). Visit blacksmithomaha.wordpress.com for more information about learning the blacksmith trade in Omaha. Visit dwarfmountainknives.com for more on the Thompsons’ company.

This article was published in the May/June 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.

J’s on Jackson

October 28, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Ask Jay Siers what the best thing is on his menu.

“Our filets.” This is said with finality.

The owner of J’s on Jackson will have his medium rare, thank you. Carrots and asparagus on the side, please, with a little seasoning and butter. Possibly accompanied by a glass from one of the Old Market steakhouse’s 300 bottles of wine.

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General manager John Thompson is well-versed in the type of restaurant Jay Siers wants J’s on Jackson to be. Thompson began working with Siers in a consulting capacity last fall for his Norfolk steakhouse.

 

Siers’ confidence in his steaks stems from the fact that J’s on Jackson sources and cuts all of its meat through its own steak-cutting operation, Platte Valley Meats, in Fremont. “It gives us much better quality control than if we just tried to source meat on the open market,” Siers says, “and it’s almost 100 percent Nebraska beef.”

Platte Valley Meats seems a natural addition to Siers’ empire. J’s on Jackson is, after all, his third restaurant. Dedicated patrons can find a J’s Steakhouse and Winebar in both Norfolk and Fremont. “Our core menu’s pretty much the same,” Siers says, “but I wanted this one to be a little different.”

J’s on Jackson manages to have a traditional steakhouse feel (you know the type: dark wood, white tablecloths, heavy bar) without completely closing off diners from the bustle of the Old Market. The dining room overlooks 11th Street, and a small patio affords fantastic people watching on Jackson.

While you’re out there, consider the chef’s patio special of the evening. “It’s usually a unique appetizer, like Chesapeake Bay oysters,” says John Thompson, the restaurant’s general manager. For dinner, try the nightly feature. J’s on Jackson differs from traditional steakhouses in that it serves a composed plate rather than a la carte, so your pork filet might come with a cherry remoulade sauce and a side of pureed sweet potato.

 

Of course, with Zeb Rogers in the kitchen, who knows what will be featured on any given night. “He’s dying to do a stuffed squid,” Thompson comments, “but the market’s a bit high right now.” The restaurant’s executive chef was a sous chef at several restaurants in Minneapolis before moving to Omaha, where he became executive chef at 801 Chophouse and then Mark’s Bistro. He finally joined forces with Siers and Thompson at J’s in 2012.

“He’s been here since we opened,” Siers says. “He’s an amazing guy, and he has full latitude over the menu. He can do whatever he wants.”

That’s another twist at J’s: Even if you’re not in the mood for a steak, chances are you’ll find something to tempt the palate. The restaurant offers seafood fresh from Omaha’s own Jacobson Fish Co. and makes its gnocchi and pasta sauces in house. “It’s not that we have so much,” Siers says, dismissing the idea that the menu’s variety would indicate a lack of focus. “We don’t have 16 chicken dishes. We just tried to cover everything.”

And if it’s still not quite what a diner needs?

“They’ve never said no to a special request,” says Kim Kanellis, a regular at J’s. As a sales and marketing rep for an insurance company, she frequently entertains clients at the steakhouse. “If they have it, they’ll do it.” During one particular business lunch, a fellow diner wasn’t finding a vegetarian option on the menu that appealed to her. “So they asked her some questions and made a Portobello sandwich up for her,” Kanellis recalls. “Fabulous service. That’s what it’s all about there.”

It doesn’t sound like Siers is willing to rest on his laurels though. When asked if he has plans for a fourth restaurant, his quick response is, “Always.” The details are still being hashed out, but look for something in the way of a raw bar in southwest Omaha sometime this spring.