On any given morning passersby might catch a peek of a platinum blond-curly haired boy stirring raw coffee beans on a prep counter or walking the pathway between white linen covered tables wearing puppy pajamas and rocking a pair of black cowboy boots.
A little red, blue and yellow push car sits parked near the entrance to the kitchen awaiting its rider – Hudson Grey. The sleepy boy is passed gently to Chef Clayton Chapman, while Hudson’s mom, Bernadette, starts peeling off layers, first a stocking cap and then a blue and green sweater. Clayton stood holding his 2-year-old son, pretended to gobble up his hands then disappeared with him into the kitchen, his voice trailing behind him, “Are you ready for breakfast?”
Breakfast in the Chapman home is as sacred as dinner is in many others, and served at the restaurant for this interview. Mornings and Sundays are the only time they have together as a family and its time they cherish.
Moments later Bernadette sat down at the amber-hued chef’s table to tell me about what life is like one year into being a restaurant family. Clayton brought her freshly roasted coffee in a French press, served on a sliver platter as if she were any other diner at The Grey Plume and Hudson came running out of the kitchen to greet the toy that had been patiently waiting for him. They are small but telling moments in the first year of one of Omaha’s newest restaurants, and quite possibly, its best.
It is this gentle sense of ease and family togetherness that permeates The Grey Plume. It might also be why diners are certain to feel this “come as you are” comfort while eating some of the most technically difficult and tastefully composed contemporary cuisine in the region. Sure, the seasonally-driven restaurant earned national recognition the first week it opened for being the Greenest Restaurant in America, but being green is really a sidebar to the deeper story – how a love of food and family brought them to this place –confident of their purpose in life and on the brink of eminent success.
Love of Food
It’s easy to read the accolades received in one short year on The Grey Plume’s website -- Time Magazine, Cooking Light Trail Blazing Chef, Bon Appétit, Travel and Leisure, Wired Magazine, New York Magazine, James Beard Rising Star Chef Award Nominee - and think this 25-year old chef and restaurateur must be a protégé, but that implies everything came naturally with someone holding his hand and guiding his way. On one level his friendship and business partnership with Chef Michael Howe could support the protégé theory, but it would undermine the commitment and work ethic required to be this good at this stage in life.
“I think it’s the right thing to do -- this whole thing, it’s more of just a calling than anything,” said Clayton. “I mean I’ve been in the restaurant industry since I was 13. I’ve known since I started that I was never getting out of it.”
Eager to learn and develop his craft, Clayton constantly sought opportunities to develop and test his skills. At 16 Clayton submitted an original recipe in a national Best Teen Chef Contest. He placed in the top 10 which provided him the opportunity to compete at a national level against 40 or 50 other adolescents at the Illinois Institute of Art in Chicago. Clayton arrived with his knives rolled up in a towel and his mom by his side, only to find himself surrounded by boys and girls adorned in embroidered chef’s coats and holding professional knife packs.
“I bombed. Just bombed. It was terrible. I didn’t even place. I burnt the broccoli. I was extremely nervous,” Clayton went on to describe every detail of the Chicken Chasseur he prepared that day reliving the experience with each ingredient. But if it weren’t for bad sauce and burnt broccoli he may not have met Howe, his future professor and business partner.
“He was the only kid who stayed around to talk to the chefs to find out how he could do better. I said to myself, ‘This kid is really sharp. He’s going to do really, really well. That fall he came to [the art institute], ’” said Howe who has been a chef instructor there for nearly a decade.
It was the first time Clayton had been in a formal kitchen where food had to be cleaned a certain way, cut a certain way and everything was punctuated with the respect of two words, “Yes, chef.” The discipline and commitment to detail opened Clayton to a world he was destined to enter.
“I really wanted to be there. I enjoyed the environment and I wanted to be a part of it. I think when you find something you are called to do you want to be better at it,” said Clayton.
Curiosity that had started in his early teens continued to evolve. Rather than party in college, he was more likely to stay home and read a book on cheese making, put in 60 hours a week at Tru, one of Chicago’s premier fine dining establishments, and study under some of the great names in food – Joel Dennis and Laurent Gras among them. Once he felt he had garnered the most out of his experience at Tru, he set his sites on traveling in Africa and Europe, before returning to Omaha to teach, save money and pursue the famed French Laundry in California. It was while saving money to leave Omaha that fate intervened and kept him here.
Love of Family
Sitting across the cooking demonstration table at the now closed Classy Gourmet, Bernadette Martens first set eyes on Clayton Chapman. He was young, blond and had an energy about him – “something magnetic” that drew her in. She had just left her old life in Tennessee and returned to Omaha to live with her parents, save money to buy a house and start over. He was showing the students how to make rice pilaf – a relatively simple dish made in the homes of most people. What began as a simple flirtation carried them upon what she refers to as a holy journey and he as his life’s purpose -- a connection that changed both their lives, and is, arguably, pushing the expectations of local food in this community.
“I was torn to go chase my dragon somewhere else and be a number in a 25 or 30- man kitchen or to set my own standard and push myself to grow here. My family is here and we are very family driven people, so that was huge,” said Clayton.
Once he committed to Omaha his dreams took flight. He and Bernadette were married in 2008 and Hudson came along in 2009. While Bernadette was hoping to quit her job to be a stay-at-home mom, Midtown Crossing wanted a local restaurant to help diversify national chains entering the development. Clayton, who had already built a reputation as an excelling chef and leader, was approached. After lots of planning and serious conversations, he quit his stable executive chef position at Spencer’s Steakhouse and Chops to start a seasonally driven, fine dining restaurant in a city with long, harsh winters.
“At first all I could think about was how it was going to selfishly impact me – we just had a baby, I was like ‘are you crazy?’ But at the same time, he had been working on this restaurant his entire life,” explained Bernadette. “He already had a vision, and I knew when I married him that this is what my future would be. I just didn’t realize how much it would control everything we do. That being said, there was no way it wasn’t going to happen, there was no stopping him … being with Clayton is like hanging on to the tail of a comet.”
A little more than one year later, The Grey Plume opened with national attention for being the Greenest Restaurant in America, an honor bestowed upon it by the Green Restaurant Association and publicized in Time Magazine. Thousands of hours of preparation and planning lead to one moment that opened the door to the rest of their lives. They support the families of 20 employees and work with more than 50 local producers predominately from Nebraska and Iowa.
“Being green is just the skin, and this,” she said, holding her hands up to exalt the kitchen, the food, “this is the flesh. It just seems like such a holy journey. It would be really hard to commit yourself to something all the way, without truly believing in it, but we do, we both do. It makes up for the lonely nights, for putting Hudson down to bed without him, because we know we are doing something good and we are doing something that’s right in our hearts.”
Love of Place
Throughout the morning one thing was noticeably absent – a giant refrigeration truck. Instead, one by one, a farmer, a producer, a rancher walked in wheeling a cooler behind him, exchanged pleasantries or sometimes just a wave before delivering what was sure to be part of that evening’s meal.
“Food in its most primary form is nourishment,” Clayton said briefly then paused, putting his chin on his hand and looking out the window toward Farnam Street. The day was sunny and beams of light filtered through the ivory curtains. Chapman has a very serious, “no bones about it” approach to things, not to say he doesn’t enjoy a good joke, but more in the old-world sense that hard work and a humble nature is the only way to get what you want out of life. “It’s more than that to me, it’s a way of life to me – it is life. It’s what our life revolves around -- that life cycle of food, planning, setting the list, picking seeds, working with the growers. Then you wait and you wait and you wait for the bounty, then you have the height of the harvest where everything is in its freshest form.”
Farm to fork, farm to table and local have become buzzwords in the world of food. The National Restaurant Association listed locally sourced meat, seafood, locally grown produce, hyper-local items, sustainability as a culinary theme, and farm-branded ingredients among their Top 10 menu trends for 2011. The everyday diner can easily search a restaurant website to find it boasting about its use of locally sourced food. Few establishments, however, can match Clayton’s ability to share how the bison served for dinner that night was harvested, the endless hours it takes to churn butter or even the educational process required on both sides to bring food from the farm to the fork.
“We often ask a good series of questions in regard to growing practices, chemicals used and delivery. Like any new relationship, we have to feel them out and vice versa. It’s taken about five years to develop the relationships we have established and we know there are many more to make,” said Clayton
“I think most people write a menu, then they source the ingredients. For us, we call the farmers and growers, say ‘what do you have this week,’ then we write our menu. We place our order; the food will come. Sometimes it will be different than what we ordered, then we write the menu again.”
The summer before Grey Plume opened, Clayton and his team canned 1,000 jars of produce at the height of the bounty. It was they only way they survived opening a locally sourced, seasonal restaurant during a Nebraska winter. They did the same this year, but what diners who enjoy the subtle bite of pickled kohlrabi don’t know is that Clayton spent a year and a half working with George Paul Johnson, maker of fine artisan vinegars, to create a quality vinegar he could use for canning. Part of what makes The Grey Plume so wonderful is the effort made to locate and showcase the best the Great Plains has to offer.
Everything – tomato marmalade, antique clocks, canned peaches, a chef’s table -- has a story, which is why eating at The Grey Plume feels like a dinner party at your best friend’s house. Places with soul are filled with things that have meaning. If food can be considered the heartbeat of a family, then The Grey Plume is the pulse of its community, using culinary expertise and gentle pressure to reshape the concept, the flavor and the experience of local food.