If you're an Omaha foodie who believes as many do the local dining out experience has never been better, then you can thank an infusion of original chef-driven and chef-owned eateries for it.
Not coincidentally, many of these places are steeped in the locally-sourced organic food, farm-to-table, artisan, made-from-scratch movements. Classically trained culinary artists have built relationships with area growers and producers, in some cases designing daily or seasonal menus around what's at peak freshness and flavor.
Grey Plume chef-owner Clayton Chapman, a strong adherent and leader of the sustainable model, says there are about 50 growers-producers he works with on a regular basis.
"It's a good healthy number. Some folks grow seasonally, some grow year-round, some are local, some are in western Neb., some are in Iowa. We work with a few as far as Jefferson, SD and Caledonia, Minnesota. Yeah, I feel like our list is vast and it continues to grow."
The Omaha research and design collaborative, Emerging Terrain, helped bring chefs and purveyors together at two communal events, 2010's Stored Potential's Harvest Dinner and 2011's Elevate, that some point to as tipping points.
"Those events were so ambitious, so crucial in interconnecting the community," says chef Paul Kulik, the driving force behind the Boiler Room and Le Bouillon. "I know we were introduced to a bunch of new suppliers and growers that were extremely helpful. That's when I really saw through the looking glass."
The Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society holds similar events, including the annual Producers Choice and monthly Sustainability Happy Hour. Organizations like No More Empty Pots educate and empower underserved communities about the benefits of farm-to-table growing and eating. Community Supported Agriculture food markets and collectives like Tomato Tomato bring growers and consumers together.
Metropolitan Community College's marriage of its well-ranked Institute for Culinary Arts with its Horticulture Department is considered cutting-edge. MCC instructor chefs like Brian O'Malley champion a local foods infrastructure. ICA graduates permeate the local restaurant scene.
Chapman has taken things to the next level with his Grey Plume Provisions store that opened in 2014.
"It only increases our network of farmers because of the volume we're purchasing. We really wanted to be able to provide the Grey Plume quality of food – the marmalades, the jams, the preserves, our house-roasted coffees, our series of hand-crafted chocolate, the charcuterie – but in an every day accessible retail format for the home consumer."
The sustainable, farm-to-table culinary ethos is nothing new. It's been around since the time of Escoffier but it largely went away in America, only to be rediscovered by Alice Waters in Calif. in the late 1960s-early 1970s. In Omaha the trend never quite took hold, until recently. Now local chefs such as Chapman, Kulik and Bryce Coulton of the French Bulldog, are earning national attention for their rigorous, creative applications of old and new philosophies.
"It's really supply and demand," Chapman says. "It's the demand of chefs because we want the best ingredients available. We want to know where our ingredients are coming from, we want to know the farmers, ranchers, growers raising these products. And I think there's a lot of guest requests for us to procure these items. They want to see them on the menus, too, and it's because the dining public has never been as educated into what they're eating as now and the health benefits of eating organic, local or seasonal.
"There's so much more attention to it in the media that it's really kind of come full circle from consumer to chef to farmer and it's really kind of putting us all on the same playing field, which is neat."
Whether Omaha truly has a signature culinary culture is debatable, but what's not is that a city long pegged as a steakhouse town, albeit with some continental fine dining spots thrown in, has changed its profile. It's hard imagining Omaha's ever boasted this depth of culinary talent and diversity of highly executed cuisines before. This critical mass of good food, served in settings that range from fine dining to ultra casual, and found in virtually every part of the metro, comes just as customers are more discerning and demanding.
"There are a lot of wealthy Omahans who travel domestically and abroad and they see these things happening everywhere and they want it here," says Dante Ristorante Pizzeria chef owner Nick Strawhecker, an evangelist for wood-fired Neapolitan pizza. "We have so many regulars, they've seen the light and they will not go back to the dark again, and it's fantastic."
Omaha's developing distinct dining districts to complement its one holdover, the Old Market. A local food tourism industry is in the offing as Downtown, Midtown, Dundee, Benson, South Omaha and West Omaha roll out ever more interesting restaurants and food stores.
It's a happy convergence of trends for diners, who have far more good options today than even five years ago. There's promise of more to come as some sous chefs and line cooks working at top end places invariably launch their own concepts.
"Because you are seeing more and more Omaha restaurants worthy of that type of apprenticeship or up to that sort of training challenge it really creates a kind of self-sustaining circle of chefs," Chapman says.
Kulik agrees, saying, "They're going to take these work habits into their take on a new place. This is why I think it's not a flash in the pan but a durable change. You have enough people realizing that as an investor you can probably make money in a restaurant that cares."
Kulik has a long history on the Omaha culinary scene and like many of his peers he left here to hone his craft under top chefs across America and Europe. He may best sum up the state of then and now with, "It's really tough to say 10 years ago there was anything relevant to the national food conversation coming out of Omaha at all. The kind of dynamism and enthusiasm happening now is a trend I expect will continue. It's just about as significant a turnaround as you can imagine."
He suggests the culinary evolution has caught up with the arts-cultural-entrepreneurial growth that's witnessed a more confident, vibrant city.
"About 20 years ago the conversation around town amongst people who cared about cooking and restaurants was whether Omaha was ready for this or for that. Fifteen years later we opened the Boiler Room and that conversation hadn't changed one iota. The reality is, much like any professional field, it's incumbent on the professionals to maintain the highest level of continuing education, curiosity, development, enrichment, energy, focus and drive to keep the conversation moving forward.
"The food scene cannot simply wait for the sea change to happen from the customer first, it has to be driven by professionals."
His declaration of principles or food manifesto is shared by many.
"We're trying to update the dining culture to make it so that it's kind of entered into the 21st century and in some ways returned to the 19th century, which is to say going back to real products," Kulik says.
He believes it didn't happen earlier here because of "a prevailing sentiment in the market to simply continue on and customers settling for what they were accustomed to getting. I think that lethargy of curiosity bled over to the culinary, professional side, where any white table cloth, continental cuisine kitchen was essentially serving the same dish, buying product from the same two or three vendors, with almost no thought about the distinguishing traits of regionalism, of raw products, of raw food techniques, which is taking food that came of the earth that day and maximizing its potential on the plate."
Life many of his contemporaries, he's excited by the sophisticated beverage and craft cocktail programs to have emerged in Omaha. He says until now "beverage programs tailored to menus didn't exist here," adding, "So now what's really thrilling is you have determined, in some cases courageous or stubborn cooks and chefs offering the food and the menus they feel most passionate about and are most excited to offer their guests."
"You don't expect to go to every restaurant and expect to receive an identical menu," Kulik says. "Restaurants now can be distinguishable from each other. When that happens you have specialization of labor. Someone can do a particular brand or type of food enough times to become a true expert at that skill set. This is what's happening now and it's happening to such a degree that you're not only getting the chefs doing this but the rest of the kitchen staff. It's having the ability to do a product thousands and thousands of times, whether it's the right kind of bread or pizza crust or house made pasta or charcuterie or butchering whole animals or working with farmers."
Bryce Coulton, whose French Bulldog has won awards for its charcuterie, brought authentic influences here from training he did abroad. He's bullish on the quality of diverse culinary traditions available.
"We now have Omakase (style of sushi) in Benson. Charcuterie is quite commonplace and has more options than just old-school butcher options African cuisine is now within reach. Pastas are handmade and dishes are just as would be found in Italy, and I lived in Puglia for five years. The whole animal concept is a matter-of-course and it's not just ribeye, New York Strip, et cetera. as our steak options. This diversity is part of what has made the culinary scene better. That we're focusing on local products is another aspect that forces cooks to be more aware of the seasons and prepare a menu and dishes accordingly."
Bosnian native Dario Schicke, chef-owner of Dario's Brassiere and Avoli Osteria, has seen a big difference since moving to Omaha in 2002.
"You'd have a really hard time even finding fresh mozzarella on the market. Now restaurants are serving more fresh ingredients we can get from either coast shipped overnight and utilize them in our menu as soon as the next day. That's a huge improvement in that aspect of all ingredients being available to us. More farmers are being more restaurant-oriented and it's kind of pushing local chefs, including myself, to use better, fresher local ingredients."
Kukik describes the benefits a diner like himself experiences at a place featuring this considered, well-articulated approach.
"I'm someone who loves to get taken care of at a restaurant and I love to be able to have a conversation with the sommelier or the bartender about what beverage makes sense with this, what's on their bar back, why are they pouring this, why are they into sour beer or cider. These are all parts of the conversation I get to have now because they cared enough, they spent enough time and energy and money to educate themselves for my benefit.
"For me as a diner I can't imagine anything more rewarding than going to a place and understanding that the people working there care more about my experience than I do. Now there are all these people who are so committed to their craft that it matters deeply and personally if they haven't given the experience the guest wanted. This is such a huge sea change compared to before, when like after service everyone was partying until 4 in the morning and dragging themselves back to work the next day to deal with the rigors of service or being in the industry, throwing around those terms like a badge of courage – when the challenge is to be excellent despite all the pressures not to be."
It's not that Omaha's past food scene was bereft of quality or care. The now defunct French Cafe, Cafe de Paris, Old Vienna Cafe and Marino's Italian Restaurant, for example, delivered countless great meals. Mainstays like M's Pub, V Mertz and Dixie Quick's continue long traditions of excellence. Overall, though, it was a spotty scene and in some instances things began slipping as cooks or owners turned to "shortcuts."
"A lot of Italian restaurants got away from using real authentic high quality ingredients," says Schicke.
Kulik says, "A lot of white table cloth places became sort of really derivative and unmotivated and there was almost no room for thoughtful casual places."
Fine dining can be found at select steakhouses, French and Italian restaurants and Asian spots, while high concept casual places, especially those doing killer, fresh, from-scratch comfort food, abound.
Chefs, along with veteran area food writers Nichole Aksamit and Summer Miller, say the real difference from then till now are the new chef-driven and chef-owned places that display an enthusiastic, even obsessive embrace of well-prepared fresh foods that don't skimp on technique or flavor. Free of corporate pressures, these chefs truly are the masters of their own kitchens as well as the front of their houses and therefore they can stay absolutely true to their vision and passion, including working closely with purveyors to get the best ingredients for their in-house creations.
Brian O'Malley says rather than a culinary culture, there is an identifiable Omaha culinary school.
"If I were to give it four words to define its primary tenets, they would be: Rustic, honest, beholden and brave. Omaha’s food is getting better because Omaha’s craftsmen are getting better. We are growing from the knowledge and skills handed to us, and beat into us, by the craftsmen that came before us. We are not magic. We hold no newer, grander philosophical approaches to food than did our predecessors. We are stewards of the craftsmanship we cherish.
"We have more and more people that care a great deal about their food. This pushes the producers, chefs, restaurateurs in a loving way to be more respectful of the ingredients and how they are prepared."
Some local culinary stars are leading the way and almost all have come up through the ranks of Omaha's finer dining establishments.
"Five years ago Paul Kulik down at the Boiler Room was kind of a lone wolf in regards to his sourcing and his menu practices," Chapman says. "Then we opened and a lot of other people opened after we did but the availability and the accessibility of those ingredients when we first opened was far less significant than it is now."
Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society executive director William Powers says, "Numerous chefs have really gotten behind this idea of an Omaha food culture that works hand-in-hand with local farmers who embody the idea of community and culture. Clayton Chapman at the Grey Plume, Nick Strawhecker at Dante Ristorante Pizzeria, Joel Mahr at Lot 2 and Paul Kulik of Le Bouillon and Boiler Room are leaders in this good food revolution.
"OverEasy, Kitchen Table and Block 16 are all great examples of new restaurants embracing this food culture. At the root of this is a sustainable agriculture predicated on supporting local and craft ideals. Farmers and chefs continue to cultivate the relationships through conversations that in to many restaurants never happen because the sourcing unfortunately is not as important. But a good chef, like a good farmer, knows the value of creating and growing a product representative of the ideals and culture they're trying to create."
Kulik says, "If it's not the Boiler Room at the tip of the spear than it's Dante, it's people coming back in the midst of the economic downturn or the Grey Plume opening and offering another white table cloth experience with an overt and extremely full-throated support for local purchasing and sustainable farming practices. It's Bryce (Coulton) at the French Bulldog with his charcuterie program. Or it's (chef) Joel Mahr and (owners and sommeliers) Brad and Johanna Marr at Lot 2 being a little bit fresher and more progressive in a revived Benson. Or it's the Duggans (Colin and Jessica) moving back from San Francisco and opening Kitchen Table.
"All these things coincide with each other but it starts when somebody says, "I'm not going to dilute the message of my product.'"
Several chefs applaud the camaraderie present on the scene.
"Due to the collaborative nature of the culinary environment here, we share experiences, knowledge-technique and farmer-rancher contacts," Coulton says. "Unless we're resistant to new ideas, we're bound to take on input from other cooks and further develop ourselves professionally, which leads to dishes that possess a bold creativity, yet with a Midwestern reserve."
Chapman says, "We're all kind of rooted in some type of approach. A lot of what we do is rooted in French technique but we combine New American type flavors or presentations. I think it's allowed everybody to develop their own styles but it's also created a universal thread. It's helped build the expectation for the guest, which is probably the most important thing. When we say Contemporary American or New American it just help gives the guest insight into what we do.
"A lot of it is diner or guest awareness. The more educated the home consumer, even the more they cook meals from scratch themselves at home, the more they're going to appreciate meals from scratch when they go out to eat and the more they're going to look for it. I think that's huge and I definitely think that's where the market is headed."
"But really what drives it is the reward, the satisfaction you get for giving a value-added experience that's appreciated," Kulik says. "When enough guests say, 'I had no idea it could ever be like this,' boy are you ever emboldened and want to step it up. It's like a drug and you so desperately want to offer that experience all the time. That's how it really pushes the expectations higher."
The recognition some Omaha chefs have received, including James Beard nominations, can rub off on others.
"I'm a firm believer in a high tide raising all ships," Chapman says.
"As one chef gains acknowledgment for a job well done, it forces the rest of the chefs to want to step up their game as well," Coulton says.
Kulik says where only a few years ago he struggled naming even a few places to steer big city visitors to, he has a ready list today.
"What's awesome now is I can say, 'You need to go here for brunch, here for lunch, here for dinner, here for this kind of meal, there for that kind of meal, this place is great for this or the other thing.' There's like 12 to 18 places I can recommend, from rehabilitated places like V Mertz that's turned this corner and become a really interesting and inspiring restaurant, or Taita, the best restaurant in town nobody's heard of, Lot 2, Kitchen Table, Block 16, the French Bulldog, Avoli, Dario's, the Boiler Room, Le Bouillon, the Grey Plume, Dante…"
Other spots getting love include Mark's Bistro. Dixie Quicks, Le Voltaire, Laos Thai, China Garden, Taqueria Tijuana and Metro's Sage Student Bistro. Ryan Ernst's Mouth of the South is a new player in underserved North Omaha (Florence).
"What are you in for? Where are you staying? That's the whole point right, that there's food to be had all over town that's going to stay with you," Kulik says.
Strawhecker says, "I'm definitely a lot more proud about our culinary scene than before. When I was in Chicago I balked at moving back because I was like, 'There's no place for me to eat'. It was kind of bleak. Now there's like 10 joints I go to on a regular basis that are fantastic. That's just from a personal standpoint but that overlaps professionally because of the discerning guests who have to have certain things we now have in Omaha to offer."
Omaha may be an emerging regional food destination but everyone agrees it has room to grow in terms of more markets and eateries that feature fresh products and authentic ethnic choices.
Vic Gutman, the man behind the metro's largest farmers markets, is planning what may be the next big catalyst on the local food scene – the Omaha Market, an under-one-roof fresh foods hub.
"If there's food tourism coming then that's because we're not only participating in the national conversation about food but in fact we're also directing a portion of that conversation," says Kulik. "That's where I hope we can take what we do here."
Read more of Leo Adam Biga's work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com.