The cutting edge of Omaha’s culinary scene is sharp and swift, slicing the city wide open to possibilities and to characters ready and willing to realize them. Trying to find the carefully honed edge of the craft is a rabbit hole, and I learned that each chef in Omaha will have drawn deep inspiration from another, creating a circle leading straight back to where it began. This infinite loop of respect, humility and creativity in the community speaks volumes of the men and women who comprise the culture, and the result is genius on a plate.
In a city with such well-known names as Dario Schicke, Jennifer Coco and Nick Strawhecker setting standards, it isn’t hard to see how Omaha was named the country's No. 2 foodie city by Livibility for 2015. A deep respect for food, growers and the art of feeding people delicious dishes in a loving way has created an environment where chefs compete not for your dollars, but for your ultimate enjoyment.
She Wrote the Book of [Modern] Love
The story of vegan cuisine is not a centuries old tradition passed down over the generations, as with most of the foods we currently love. In fact, the book is only just being written. Isa Chandra, owner of Modern Love, has given her staff the faith and freedom to weave these culinary tales, resulting in the most creative use of what Mother Nature has to offer. Isa vets her staff and keeps only the most daring, adventurous vegetable vigilantes on board. It’s not uncommon to learn that a member of her team has a science lab set up instead of a kitchen at home, concocting formulas for vegan cheeses, frostings, and ice creams. Cultures and enzymes litter tiny apartments while cookbooks spill from what was once a kitchen table, pages stained with beet juice and smeared in kefir. This isn’t simply forming tofu into the shape of food you recognize as in vegetarianism of old, but true culinary masterpieces that leave you wondering why anyone ever decided to steal milk from a calf to concoct with. Isa has spread her knowledge and passion for vegan fare as far as she can, releasing several cookbooks, hosting the cooking show Post Punk Kitchen, giving lectures and demonstrations, and spreading Modern Love all the way to Brooklyn where she is opening a second location.
The Most Nom-Nom-Nominated in Omaha History
Clayton Chapman has a team of about four dozen growers and producers helping him elevate his culinary ventures in not only flavor, but sustainability. Having begun his career in the food industry at the ripe old age of 15, Chapman has had years to develop his craft, and gives the strong impression that he cares even more about your dining experience than you do. Racking up more James Beard Award nominations than anyone in Omaha history, Chapman proves time and again that you need look no further than your local farm for the ingredients to the best meal of your life.
A change in the culinary world in the ‘90s and ‘00s took food from the farm to the factory, and genetic modification and molecular gastronomy threatened to make heirloom foods and family farms obsolete. Chefs like Chapman are working diligently to bring us closer and closer to nature, nurturing us with fresh foods prepared with love. He has spent time sharing this knowledge as a chef/instructor for Metropolitan Community College’s culinary program, and is always quick to accept an offer to use his talent to advance real food and philanthropy. Last October, Chapman joined several area chefs in partnership with Table Grace Food Rescue to create an amazing dish from ingredients that would have otherwise been thrown away. The event “Feeding the 5000 Omaha” served to raise awareness of hunger in our community and the severity of food waste. He took time to literally create art and love from refuse.
A Real Kulik Hand, Paul
When a 15 year old kid tells you he’s found his calling, you smile and encourage him and wait for the tide to change. When Paul Kulik stepped into his first kitchen job at that age, he knew he had found a home. At his parents’ urging, he pursued an education in both engineering and French. With a pretty hardy fall-back in place, Kulik found that his heart remained in the kitchen, and so he set out to Chicago, Washington DC, Berlin and Paris before finding himself back home. He settled at La Buvette for the next 5 years, building relationships with local growers and learning the business of food.
The mention of French cooking conjures images of decadence, creams and butters, wine sauces and reductions. Kulik wanted to take a different approach when opening Le Bouillon in 2013, offering meals much closer to what the French put on the table for their family, not for a tourist. Kulik’s other venture, The Boiler Room, lives on every “Best of” list in the Midwest. He maintains the title of executive chef and serves each meal like he’s plating it for a friend.
Kulik has a talent for finding the most capable, innovative staff to continue his vision. in 2012, Tim Nicholson traded in a pair of sticks, drumming for the local band Mixed Martial Audio, for equally unpredictable hours, only slightly fewer groupies, and a chance to flex some serious muscle alongside Kulik at The Boiler Room. Earlier this year, Nicholson switched places with Chef John Engler of The Grey Plume for a fun chef swap event. When you surround yourself with excellence, you can’t help but compete. The environment that Omaha’s biggest names have created for up-and-coming chefs is one of learning, camaraderie, and passion. Nicholson is well on his way to star status, and I’m excited to follow his journey.
Farmer is Freshly Grown Talent
The chef to watch, however, is Sarah Farmer. Like many of the deeply committed and creative chefs in Omaha’s rich culinary culture, Sarah studied under Bryan O’Malley, chef instructor of Metropolitan Community College’s Culinary Arts Program. Upon graduation, Farmer dove straight into the deep end, becoming a sous chef at J.CoCo. Her career has already included honing her craft at Localmotive, Le Bouillon, and the restaurant you will find her wielding her knife at these days, Lot 2. Farmer has shown determination not to rest on her prodigy status, but to dedicate herself to learning and growing in the craft.
Farmer did not see her win at the 2015 American Culinary Federation Student Team National Championship as earning herself a break, but as fuel to the fire that drives her to compete with the best. When I asked Sarah about her future plans, she said “Right now I'm gearing up to move to Chicago and learn and grow a bunch there. Hopefully gain some new skills and exposure to new cuisines and styles. Ideally I'd love to bring what I learn back to Omaha or somewhere similar, I guess it just really depends on where life takes me in the end.”