Sore legs, back aching, exhausted from a day in front of an inhumanely hot cook top, chef takes off his black soled shoes and peels out of clothes that have nearly fused with his being. Some combination of sweat and rendered animal and vegetable coats his skin, hair, and nasal passageways so that all he can smell is some stale amalgamation of the day’s ingredients.
Even if he could smell, he couldn’t taste anything. 14 solid hours of sampling has left half of his taste buds chemically burned off by spice and the rest by moving too quickly with a hot spoonful. In all of this, he may or may not have actually eaten a meal himself.He pours over the day in his mind, in his notebook, maybe with another exhausted member of the industry. Why aren’t the numbers working out? Why won’t this dish come together? Where did the meal go wrong?And when he finally sets it to the side of his mind, never to the backburner, he might make time for his friends. Friends are the people at work, the people who know why you don’t hang out. The people who know why you don’t date. There is too much to this life to explain to someone who isn’t in it. You date someone at work, and if it goes wrong, you hate one another silently. You date someone at work and if it goes right, you still hate one another silently.
Who would seek a life so thankless and exhausting? And what’s more, who would spend years attending classes to learn how it’s done?
There is no limit to what a chef can learn, but a finite amount that can be taught. Now when I say “finite”, remember that the oceans are finite, as well. The Culinary Arts Program at Metro is vast and growing, and aims to arm aspiring chefs with so much more than knife skills.
Management classes provide new insight into the workings of the industry. Regardless of a chef’s aspirations, one does not need to own his own restaurant to take control of his kitchen. Delicate handling of overwhelmed support staff in high pressure situations is a life lesson that serves beyond a 5-star establishment. The one with the calm earns the command, and a 200-degree kitchen is a literal trial by fire.
Baking and Pastry classes teach you the exact science involved in the art. Most dishes can get away with using measurements like “a pinch” or “a dash”. You’ll often catch a chef using “some” wine in a recipe. Pastry is not a casserole, and requires precise calculations, consideration for elevation and humidity, and an artistic touch. Patience is not sold with your tuition, so remember to bring plenty from home.
The Sage Student Bistro is a fully functioning restaurant run by the students. This offers a real-life lesson in every aspect of kitchen management. From mise en place [everything in its place] to Sous Chefery, menu development and service, students are learning in an established eatery that seats 90.
There are 2 stages of student service in the Bistro, the first stage is post 1st-year completion and still green. First stage students prep and serve lunch, lighter fare and snacks. These aren’t your standard sandwiches. A recent lunch menu offered rainbow trout with tomato caper vinaigrette, or chicken Marrakesh. The second stage students are approaching graduation, and are responsible for a more elegant menu, dinners, and more extravagant pastries. Recent dinner options in the Bistro consisted of hazelnut corvina or a port wine beef and polenta. You can make a reservation [highly recommended] by going to the Sage Bistro’s website.
Lights, Camera, Cooking
A kitchen theater is established to demonstrate techniques, with a state of the art video system for a chef’s eye view of the action. The Food Network has turned chefery into a voyeuristic pleasure, but has stopped shy of actually sharing knowledge with its viewership. The program picks up where your favorite foodie feature leaves off, providing the simmering visual stimulation of cuisine curation with the kinesthetic art of hands-on learning.
The campus films “Local Flavor” from the theater, and sources ingredients from the nearby horticulture department. You can subscribe to Local Flavor on YouTube, or catch episodes that have recently included grilled pizza and roasted piglet.
Eat Dirt [Or What Grows in it, Anyway]
The Horticulture program supplies the produce for much of the culinary class and the Sage Student Bistro. Program directors know that the localvore movement is more than a passing ego-feeding fad, and teaches the art of responsible sourcing.
Manure, composting, seed saving, and pest control are all ingredients in your favorite dish, assuming it doesn’t come from a box. Chefs are walked through the life of each ingredient, developing a deep respect for each component of their eventual success.
The Culinary Arts and Management program is accredited by the American Culinary Federation Education Foundation Accrediting Commission (ACFEF)
Metro’s mission statement: We create, design and deliver educational experiences in Culinary Arts, Hospitality and Horticulture in order to develop knowledge from basic skills to artistic mastery for employment and enrichment.
The Privilege of Passion
In a state of the art facility on the Metropolitan Community College’s Fort Omaha Campus, budding chefs cut their teeth on more than the standard slab of meat. The course load at Metro’s Institute for Culinary Arts opens a world of creativity, chaos, and cuisine to those who are willing to dedicate themselves to the grueling hours and intense scrutiny of the craft.Chef Instructor Brian O’Malley has seen food fads come and go. He has also watched promising chefs burn out and walk away.
“You see these kids come in here with this passion, this desire to be part of the creation process. And then you see them slip away, get distracted, or just buckle. It’s not enough to just have passion. You have to know what feeds it. Are you doing it so you can put your name on a restaurant? Are you doing it for the money? You’re not going to make Emeril Lagasse money doing this. Just know that. You’re not. A few chefs got famous and suddenly people think we all roll up to our very own restaurant in our $250,000 cars and make a meal in a pristine kitchen, then have time to walk around slapping everyone on the back. That’s not what a chef’s life looks like. Even at really successful levels.”
O’Malley thoughtfully relayed to me the moment he was finally able to understand and articulate what drives him.“I was missing another Mother’s Day. I love my mom, but it had gotten to this point where I dreaded heading over there on the night of Mother’s Day because I knew what was coming. She was heartbroken that I was at work instead of spending the day with her. It’s not like I didn’t know the day was coming, why didn’t I take it off? And I didn’t want to have that conversation again. Years of this, and I didn’t even know what to say to her. I love her. Of course I want to be there, but I’m just not.”
“In this last effort to be part of her Mother’s Day, I invited her to where I was working for brunch. Obviously, I was cooking and couldn’t come sit with her, but I was able to come out for a little bit and give her a hug, say hi. She was quiet, but seemed to be enjoying herself, so I went back to my work. That night when I finally headed over, she smiled and told me – I get it.”
“After years of supporting a passion that she didn’t understand, she was able to look around and see that I was celebrating Mother’s Day. That I was giving this gift to these women, offering this meal and this event. Allowing them to spend this time with their families. She was really proud of me, even though it meant accepting that sometimes I wasn’t going to be there for holidays. It took her understanding for me to fully understand it myself. That’s what drove me to this.”
Maybe it’s just a passion for food. Maybe you didn’t get enough love as a child. Maybe you find the method of it all soothing, but until you name it, you’re chasing a dragon.And it’s when chefs fail to find and name their driving force that O’Malley sees them fall into bad habits, or fall away completely.”
“There is only so much that can be taught. Something has to come from inside. Something has to just be you deciding to get up every day and do this. To reach. We have these amazing chefs now in Omaha who are at the pinnacle of what you can do to be better.”
I press him for a bit, as a few pop instantly to mind. He names several, before landing on one of his most solid examples;
“Ben Maides. He’s at Au Courant right now and you can see him in all of those dishes. The amount of work he has put into getting where he is, that’s it. That’s not the end of learning food, but that’s the end of that dish. It is where it needs to be. His food is at a point right now where he would have to spend years studying the product and changing and trying just to become negligibly better than it is. This fraction of a degree more delicious that a perfect palate couldn’t detect, and he could kill himself doing it. And we have so many chefs in Omaha now working at that level. They have studied their craft, but it wasn’t the books that got them there. It was the passion.”
And O’Malley knows that he is privileged to be a witness to all of this passion. He remembers when the tide began to shift.”There was a time when getting a TGIFridays meant we were finally on the map. It sounds terrible, but that’s where it starts. Omaha was enough of a ‘place’ to merit this chain that was doing so well all over America.”
“So we started getting these chains in, and then it happened. Really, the first place that really put their cards on the table in this big way was Upstream. Here was this big parcel, this big space, and the urge was to put something like a TGIF in there. Something that was known, that would do well. Instead, they built it into Upstream, and it was something Omaha hadn’t seen before. It was such a gamble, and look at it. The way it succeeds, the way it thrives. They’re still doing most of that menu from scratch. And it’s good. Anyone can say ‘well, we made this ourselves’, but if nobody wants to eat it, who cares? They really do it and they take the time to do it right.”
“Obviously at this point, it’s streamlined, ya know. They know their process. They could do it with their eyes closed, but they’re still doing it every damn day. And they were the first, and it was the first taste of what a real appreciation for food could look like.Upstream was the start of Omaha realizing just how much more there was to culinary art, and wondering how much further the idea could be taken. This helped ignite a cultural shift, where diners were not only interested in seeing better menus, they were interested in seeing better ingredients, and getting to know the people making their food.This helped to remind people how much more food could really be.
Cooking shows have done a lot to convince us that an amazing food is within our power, but they do little to actually educate laymen on just how one might be able to achieve such a magnificent meal.
Haute Cuisine at Home
Food as an expression of love is more than a tradition, it’s an instinct. My 4 year old likes to prepare me a meal before he leaves for his dad’s for the weekend. He knows that I would rather be eating with him, and so he feels that the next best thing is a meal he made for me. That’s instinct. The fact that what he makes me is usually something like a banana peel with a cracked egg and a dash of turmeric is where Metro comes in. Passion without education will consume you. Knowledge without passion will burn you out.
Metro has expanded on its professional cooking agenda to offer non-credit Open Kitchen classes and workshops to anyone interested. Courses on technique, sauces, casseroles, baking, and more are offered to anyone who wants to learn more about putting on an incredible meal.A summer culinary camp is available for kids aged 8 to 18, with a different focus each week from nutrition to knife skills.When O’Malley was first offering the class, he was concerned with making it affordable for everyone. Family Fare stepped in and, seeing the good O’Malley and his team were able to do in the community, offered to sponsor the program, cutting the cost per member in half.
Learning how to prepare a delicious, healthy meal should be a tradition we hold on to. Metro and Family Fare are working together to help make this a reality for Omaha families.
Now We’re Cooking
Food has become a battleground in recent decades. Generations of passing recipes through families seated around the same table have given way to 2 parents each working 2 jobs, kids with more extracurricular and social obligations than they have time, and everyone’s face buried in an app as they grab their dinner and go. Mindless munching on nutritionally bankrupt foods have burdened us with obesity and guilt over the act of eating, which either forbids or fetishizes enjoying a meal.
A revolution in dining has taken place in the last several years, and families are becoming more aware of the options and abundance available to them. Local sourcing and mindful practices have renewed heirloom foods nearly gone extinct, and O’Malley and the team at Metro are seeing interest in the art of the meal beginning to really take root.“People are remembering this skill. So many people in the last generation were going to college and off into the world not really knowing how to make even the most basic meals. We’re seeing now, people want to be able to wield this again. They’re becoming more aware of what’s in their food, they’re enjoying it more and they’re wanting to be able to go home and make it themselves.”
“They’re engaging again, and what we’re seeing is that it’s not only making them better home cooks, it’s making them better diners. They’re understanding food, which isn’t as simple as “this tastes good” or “there’s something wrong with this”. There is so much more to enjoying your food than just “liking” it.And the hope isn’t some pipe dream of perfect diners eating perfect food in perfect restaurants. The end game is a return to appreciation, presence, and enjoyment.
Does it Consume You?
However strong the fire is burning inside you, Metropolitan Community College has a program to stoke your passion for cooking. Workshops make a great date night, interactive, fun, and delicious. Non-Credit classes are excellent for the casual chef, picking up skills and tips to run a home centered around the love-language of food. And if you have sampled some of the finest food in Omaha and thought “this is my future”, the fully accredited culinary arts degree program has all but one of the tools you need to count yourself among Omaha’s chef royalty. The passion, well. You’ll have to bring that one on your own.