Jim Trebbien has been knocking around the Omaha food scene awhile, the last 25-plus years as dean of culinary arts, hospitality and horticulture at Metropolitan Community College. During that time he's seen the local food culture evolve from parochial to cosmopolitan and Omaha diners and home cooks grow more adventurous in kind.
"Omaha's always had good food," he says. "It was just more simple food. You know, a great steak prepared very well. Now, what type of food can't you get here?"
He says thanks to a strong chef community, the Food Network and the farm to table movement "people have learned to love good food again and are just fascinated with exploring new foods and flavors.""
A vital food culture is about more than eateries, it's also about local growers and farmer's markets and specialty stores like the one he opened June 15 in Midtown Crossing. Now that Omaha's palette has matured he's realized a long-held dream to own his own food business with Chef2 (Chef Squared) at 3157 Farnam St. This new entry in the local foodie mix is centered around flavor-infused extra virgin olive oils and balsamic vinegars (made from Trebbiano grapes in northern Italy). The shop also carries complimentary products ranging from flavored (sea) salts and sugars to locally produced goat cheese and red wine vinegars to fine lines of bruschettas, tapenades and dips to gourmet pastas, crackers and cake mixes.
The mostly central Calif.-derived oils and balsamics, plus some imported varieties, are stored in attractive stainless steel containers called fustis that preserve more freshness and flavor than bottles do. The fustis are lined in rows atop an eye-level counter. The contents of these "casks" are dispensed by tap to complete the oil and vinegar bar motif. Customers are welcome to sample any of the products in tiny paper cups that hold a cube of baguette for soaking up the drizzle of oil or vinegar and the dash salt or sugar.
Trebbien is partners in the business with old friend and fellow chef Mike Combs, who teaches at ICA, and entrepreneur Shirley Neary (Cupcake Island). Trebbien's son Ben, the shop's business manager, also has an ownership stake.
Where Trebbien couldn't imagine such a store in Omaha even a few years ago it suddenly fits. At least two others with similar product lines, Old World Oil and Vinegar and Vine and Branch, recently opened.
"But we've got a little different spin on it here," says Trebbien, referring to Chef2's soon-to-launch classes teaching participants ways to use the oils, vinegars, salts and sugars with other ingredients. "The store is on the edge of just being a little bit ahead of its time maybe."
He says the name reflects its niche as a resource for chefs and home cooks alike to experience products and experiment with them.
"We're about oils and vinegars, but we're about a lot more than that. We're a place to come and learn. People who learn how to use this can become the star of the show without necessarily knowing how to cook a lot. All these products can be incorporated into simple food that tastes fantastic without a lot of work."
Learning pairings and applications, much like with wine, is "half the fun" says Ben. Education at Chef2 is a two-way street as not only do the proprietors share ideas but customers do as well.
Staff member Adri Montano, who's training to be a chef at ICA, says it's all about finding the right combinations that create the flavor profiles people want for whatever dish they're making.
Chef2 will soon market a cookbook featuring recipes that highlight uses for its products.
What makes olive oil the sexy star among foodies, say Chef2's proprietors, is its many varieties, its versatility, its fruitiness and its ability to pair well with infused flavors, whether spicy or sweet.
"Different types of olives give different types of olive oil with different flavors and depths of flavor," says Montano. "You can really change a dish just by using such a simple ingredient. We have a Picual olive oil with Tuscan undertones which has a peppery taste. It gives another definition to a plate. We have another called Arbequina that is very light and has an undertone of grassiness, so you can mix it with anything.
"It depends on what you're making completely. I made a vanilla cake and used the blood orange infused olive oil in place of butter. Not only was it healthier but it had this amazing citrus undertone and sweetness. An amazing pairing which is really unlikely is chipotle olive oil and vanilla balsamic. Chipotle olive oil has a peppery undertone and smoky flavor and the vanilla balsamic is very sweet, so when you combine them together it tastes like barbecue."
All of Chef2's olive oils are cold-pressed.
The balsamics and their aged varieties are versatile players too with their complex notes of sweetness and acidity. Balsamic reductions, for example. make yummy gastriques over everything from meats and fishes to veggies to desserts to waffles or pancakes.
During Jazz on the Green and other Turner Park events Chef2 sells flavored popcorns: a chipotle olive oil, Vermont maple salt, toasted coconut sugar and vanilla sugar variety and a garlic olive oil and white truffle salt variety. "It's very good and addictive," says Mantano.
Chef2 sells pre-made and custom-filled gift boxes with small bottles of oils and vinegars.
Overall, business has been better than Trebbien expected though he acknowledges "we have our good days and our bad days."
Ben Trebbien says the key is getting people to come in to discover the possibilities of integrating the products in their own food preparation and cooking. "Once we get them through the door they leave happy."
For store hours visit www.facebook.com/Chef2Midtown. A Chef2 website is in the works.
Read more of Leo Adam Biga's work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com.