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Omaha Culinary Tours: New company hopes to make Omaha’s burgeoning food culture a tourist attraction

February 5, 2014 Leave a comment

It wasn’t so long ago that when you thought about food and Omaha your palate memory went to steakhouses, Italian restaurants, a few other Old World ethnic eateries, and the usual assemblage of local diners, drive-ins, and dives.  Fine dining options were, well, rather limited.  With a few exceptions, it was a bland, one or two note  food landscape dominated by Euro-American influences.  Locally owned, chef-led restaurants were relatively few and far between.  Food trends took a long time to get here.  The use of locally produced fresh food products was rare.  Innovation and experimentation was not much on the menu.  There was a dearth of food from Africa, South America, Asia, India, et cetera.  Many ethnic foods simply couldn’t be found here.  But as the Omaha cultural scene has blossomed the last two decades, so has the local food culture and scene, so much so that you can now pretty much find anything here that you can find anywhere else in the States, with the possible exception of New York City or Los Angeles.  The cuisine has dramatically increased in terms of, variety, nationality, daring, and quality.  I don’t claim to know all the reasons for this phenomenon but a few may be:  The Insitute for Culinary Arts at Metropolitan Community College is a feeder of highly trained chefs; Omaha’s seen an influx of new immigrants from many different parts of the world and their national dishes have been introduced here; more and more Omahans travel for busines and pleasure and they bring back a demand for the eclectic flavors, ingredients, and dishes they sample; social media and the Food Network have similarly opened the horizons of diners and proprietors alike to vast possibiltiies in food; more chef-owned eating spots have opened under the direction of cutting-edge artists who craft meals to appeal to the growing foodie population and their ever broader, more sophisticated tastes.  These same trends apply to a growing number of gourmet and specialty food stores here.  A local startup, Omaha Culinary Tours, is taking full advantage of these trends by making the burgeoning food culture a tourist attraction.  Learn about this company in my Reader (www.thereader.com) story below.  Look for a coming cover piece that attempts to take stock of how Omaha’s gone from a food deadend to a food mecca.

 

 

 

 

Omaha Culinary Tours: New company hopes to make Omaha’s burgeoning food culture a tourist attraction

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

The recently launched Omaha Culinary Tours looks to capture foodies and urban explorers alike.

Owners Jim Trebbien, Jen Valandra and Suzanne Allen are banking this town’s rich culinary scene is destination worthy enough to support their business. For a fee OCT offers guided tours of locally owned restaurants and food stores and the historic districts they reside in.

Satisfied with test tours conducted in December, OCT is now taking reservations for walking tours that are also urban adventures. Its Midtown tour is the lone active trek right now but new ones are in the works for the Old Market, Dundee, Benson and downtown. A craft beer and pizza tour is likely to be a staple along with a ballpark fare tour come College World Series time.

A Valentine’s tour is also being planned.

Transportation-provided journeys will be offered, including steakhouse and comfort food tours.

Each walking tour covers about a mile while visiting six or seven venues in a span of 2 1/2 to 3 hours. At each stop guests sample food prepared fresh on-site just for the visit and meet the venue’s owner, chef or manager.

A well-informed guide leads the way, sharing back stories about the food places and the neighborhoods. OCT limits public tours to groups of 6 to 16. Private tours can accommodate more guests. Private tours can be designed to fit whatever theme clients desire.

 

 

 

 

The set Midtown tour features Chef2 (Trebbien is part owner), Brix, The Crescent Moon, The Grey Plum, Marrakech and Wohlner’s. In addition to tasting different cuisines it’s a sampling of three distinct districts – Blackstone, Gold Coast and Gifford Park.

On the December 28 Midtown tour superstar Grey Plume chef-owner Clayton Chapman personally greeted guests and intro’d the tastings menu served. He even stuck around to answer questions. It’s all part of what Allen calls an “interactive thing.” “

Valandra says, “Part of the experience is seeing the pride in the owners when they talk about their food and tell their stories. They’re sharing part of themselves.”

“It’s communion, it’s sharing food and conversation with other people and community. You learn about an area, you sample the food there, you meet some of the people there,” says Trebbien.

Allen says OCT’s getting strong buy-in from venue owners.

“They want to be a part of it, they see the value of it. They’re getting potential customers. They’re getting a chance to wow people that maybe wouldn’t have walked through the door before.”

“A “novice foodie” with “an appreciation for the culinary scene,” Allen holds a regular job doing sales and heads OCT’s marketing efforts. She got the idea for a food tour company on her travels across the U.S. She noted food tourism’s a popular activity for folks to explore the cultural landscape of cities they inhabit or visit.

“More of the masses are wanting food as as event. I’ve taken these tours around the country and I’ve loved the experience. I thought Omaha’s ready for this.”

 

 

 

 

Trebbien and Valandra felt the same way and began pursuing the same vision. He’s dean of culinary arts at Metropolitan Community College and an Omaha Hospitality Hall of Fame.inductee. She’s an MCC culinary arts graduate and works under Trebbien as culinary project coordinator. She previously ran the Medusa Project, a now defunct local presenting arts organization. The self-described “serial entrepreneur” has established several startups. The first time the pair heard of Allen is when she called for advice on her planned food tour startup. Rather than compete, the threesome decided to partner.

“It became obvious we needed each other,” says Valandra. “We work really well together and complement each other.”

“We have three different skill sets that intertwine,” says Trebbien.

“It was very clear we could get a lot more accomplished together than we could alone,” says Allen. “it’s taken off since we came together.”

Allen says they share a bullish passion for Omaha’s assets. They feel the depth of the emergent food scene and resurgent urban environment may be what finally puts Omaha on the map, It’s why they’ve moved fast since forming the company in August. Sporadic tastings and festivals may celebrate food here but they say there hasn’t been a dedicated food tour operation. Noting that successful food tourism businesses operate all over, even Des Moines and Kansas City, they feel the local market’s overdue to be tapped.

“Years ago in Omaha if you wanted to go out for fine dining you were pretty much confined to a steakhouse and now fine dining is the best cuisine from anywhere,” says Trebbien. “There’s a number of James Beard Award nominated chefs around town. The culinary scene has changed tremendously and it changes tremendously every year. Omaha’s being discovered for its amenities and food is part of that.”

 

 

 

 

Allen says OCT’s not just for visitors but for locals.

“Omahans have their favorites but taking a tour like this allows them to get out and experience six or seven new places in one afternoon or evening. They can find a new favorite or add a couple new places to their comfort zone.”

While not a progressive dinner, the food served on OCT tours should fill most guests, the owners say. Then there’s the added sustenance of discovering new places and learning some history along the way.

“It’s part of the culture,” says Allen.

For schedule and booking details, visit http://www.omahaculinarytours.com.

Culinary-Horticulture Marriage at Metropolitan Community College

October 22, 2013 1 comment

Food, wonderful food.  A food movement and subculture is well under way in America that finds urban dwellers growing their own organic produce, even tending chickens for fresh eggs and raising rabbits for fresh meat, in order to create healthy, sustainable, self-reliant food production and distribution models that bypass dependence on corporate, profit-driven systems with their higly processed, pre-packaged products and that provide relief for the food deserts found in many inner cities.  This trend towards fresh, locally produced ingredients is well-entrenched among the culinary set, where enligntened chefs and restaurants often grow much of their own produce or else get it from local farmers.  At Metroplitan Community College the Institute for Culinary Arts operates the Sage Student Bistro, a public eating venue whose gourmet meals are prepared by students under chef instructor supervision.  The Bistro works closely with the Horticulture program across the street to serve up menus thick with fresh ingredients grown in the campus gardens and greenhouses and aquaponic tanks.  My new cover story for Edible Omaha features this culinary-horticulure marriage.  You can find my related stories on this blog about the Omaha ventures No More Empty Pots and Minne Lusa House.

 

 

Photo: Good morning all you local food lovers...it is a spectacular morning to attend the last Omaha Farmers Market in the Old Market and if you haven't found a copy of the Harvest issue of Edible Omaha stop by the information booth and pick one up.  And get your final Farmers Market fix tomorrow at the Aksarben Village market and attend Food Day Omaha too!

 

 

Culinary-Horticulture Marriage at Metropolitan Community College

©by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in the  Harvest issue of Edible Omaha

 

Culinary arts and horticulture studies are close, interdisciplinary tracks and next door neighbors at Metropolitan Community College’s Fort Omaha campus.

With the whole farm to table and sustainable movements in full bloom, it’s no surprise collaboration happens there to give students and diners at MCC’s Sage Student Bistro fresh, organic food grown by the horticulture team.

It’s all about working with and enjoying quality ingredients as close to the source and ground as possible.

Metro’s quarter-acre production garden is just a few hundred feet from the Bistro, which also has a cutting herb garden on its patio dining area. Locally sourced food “doesn’t get any closer than this,” says chef instructor Oystein Solberg.

“It’s hyper local,” says horticulture instructor and garden manager Patrick Duffy.

“It’s an incredible difference being able to talk to guests about it and point to where a lot of the vegetables grow,” says Solberg. “During the summer when we’ve got the herb garden going our guests can sit out there and smell the basil and mint and oregano we’re using to cook with.

“There’s few restaurants that do what we do, that are a learning environment teaching both our guests and our students.”

Solberg says this is only the third or fourth harvest season for the garden and the Bistro is making more and more use of it.

“It’s marvelous. By growing we’ve been able to use more local than we’ve ever done. Keeping it growing and evolving is excellent.”

 

 

Oystrein Solberg

 

He says having the school’s horticulture program be a key producer for its culinary program is “a little bit outside the box,” adding, “There’s not that many schools that have it, but there’s a lot of restaurants starting to have it. Like they maybe have a little garden up on the roof. When you go to Calif., really all along the west coast, there’s a lot of restaurants that have attached gardens, so it’s getting more common

“Our goal is not really to try and be as everybody else, we want to try and push the boundaries and see how far we can go with it.”

Institute for Culinary Arts dean Jim Trebbien says, “We have had people come to study our model from across the country. It is quite unusual because most culinary programs do not operate a restaurant such as ours and have the expertise we do and most horticulture programs have not adopted new sustainability methods into their curriculum as quickly as we have.” He says this integrated, collaborative resulted from discussions with local leaders in food sustainability, including MCC’s own Brian O’Malley, Jen Valandra and Todd Morrissey and No More Empty Pots’ Nancy Williams and Susan Whitfield.

Solberg oversees the Bistro. Under his and fellow instructors’ supervision culinary students prepare gourmet meals for paying customers and are graded on their performance. Solberg works closely with Duffy to determine what can be effectively grown and delivered to meet the Bistro’s schedule and end up on its menus. The garden is also a teaching tool for both horticulture and culinary students. The Food Cultivation course uses the garden as an outdoor laboratory.

“Patrick tells me what they want to do with their classes and then I write a menu of what I want to do with my classes. We met back in Jan.-Feb. and tried to figure out what they were going to plant, what was going to be done when, then we tried to make the menus out of that. With the greenhouses they have over there we can start growing fairly early because they keep the temperature and the soil fairly high.

“Then if I’ve got some changes, if i have other stuff I want to play with, to kind of fit in spots here and there, or I randomly think of something I haven’t worked with in a while, I’ll pitch it by him to see if it’s something he can grow. We’ve got to work within the timeline. Starting in Jan. we’ve got to have ready greens by June. We have to see what we’re able to get with the weather and climate. It’s a lot of stuff that has to match up. It’s kind of a never-ending process.”

 

 

Sage Student Bistro

 

Duffy says, “I’m getting better at timing things out. We need to make sure our peaks coincide with the school quarter, so we don’t have too much excess. It’s challenging. Down the road we’d love to do a farmer’s market where that excess would feed into, but that’s a couple years away. But it’s certainly like the next level where we would bleed off that excess. Right now it gets composted.”

For this summer’s menu Solberg’s arranged for Duffy to grow a long list of ingredients to be used in various ways and dishes:

rhubarb

currants

arugula

kale

leeks

radishes

beets

romaine lettuce

zucchini

bok choy

fennel

swiss chard

basil

saffron

onions

spinach

peas

mint

nasturtium

carrots

red sorrel

wheatgrass

“It’s an early summer menu, so there’s no tomatoes, and there’s more likely zucchini blossoms than zucchinis,” says Duffy. “Then when the Bistro opens again in Sept. there’ll be big sexy stuff like tomatoes. We’ll grow a lot of tomatoes. We do a pretty intense production. We do vertical trellising. We’ll focus more on red tomatoes this year and less colored tomatoes. We’ll play around a lot. We’ve done some grafting on tomatoes. To up the vigor of our hybrids we take an heirloom and graft it onto a hybrid root.

“We’ve backed off on things like pumpkins because they take up so much space and we don’t have that much use for them. When you go from being a backyard gardener to a production grower you need to start doing more lettuces and cabbages and lots of them and all these background things that go into salads.”

Duffy says young culinary students can particularly benefit from learning about the production side.

“The truth is they don’t know what’s available, they don’t know there are white tomatoes, white watermelons. One thing I do is walk them through everything and say, ‘These are your options.’ I tell them you’re only as good as what’s coming off the truck if that’s what you’re going off. Wholesale distributors are only delivering certain things. Once you know your options then you and your imagination as a chef is the limiting factor.

“So I try to push them.”

 

 

 

 

The more students understand the food chain, Solberg says, the better. “It just makes them respect the food in a whole different way. It makes them see what labor and blood, sweat and tears go into growing those things. It makes them think twice before throwing it away or using it carelessly.” Solberg also impresses upon students the varieties available to them. He uses tomatoes as an example.

“Some are better for roasting, some are better for stewing. You can use different tomatoes for different end products. Like the Striped Cavern has thick hearty walls great for scooping out and filling and roasting. There are differences in flavor and texture. The Nebraska Wedding and Amish Paste are sweet and delicious.”

He always advises to go with what’s fresh and best.

“Like getting tomatoes in Dec..Yes, you can do it but you really shouldn’t. You shouldn’t be doing BLTs and caprese salads in Dec. It just ties into menu-writing and the way you think. It ties into everything we should be about. If you’re writing a Christmas menu you use more winter hearty greens because the product will be at its best instead of getting cardboard tomatoes from wherever. It’s just wrong.”

Solberg says he’s learning all the time himself about varieties. “It’s awesome.”

Duffy’s also open to Oystein’s opinions. He recalls first meeting the chef, a native of Norway, at the Metro garden and Oystein asking, “Where are the currant bushes going to go?” Duffy says, “I had not even thought about putting currant bushes in but being from Norway he immediately went to berries and I went and bought 10 currant bushes and we’ve grown that. They’re a permanent part of the garden. It’s a commitment you make.” Duffy also added raspberries.

Additionally, Duffy grows apples and pears on the trellises  “Those are just now starting to come into their own,” he says.

Horticulture supplies more than just things that grow in the ground. Its aquaponics tank raises tilapia and its barnyard provides fresh eggs, rabbit, squab and honey.

As a result Metro is offering a small animal husbandry class and a small farming degree. “We’ve had a lot of interest already,” says Duffy. “It’s going to start this fall.”

The more the relationship between horticulture and culinary grows, says Duffy, “I’m learning what to bring – greens, root vegetables. We grew potatoes one year but those take up a lot of space. I bring catalogs and we go through them together. I usually start with what I call the Christmas List and have them say everything they want. I don’t want them to edit themselves on their side and then I see what I can do on my side and then we try to meet in the middle. It’s a back and forth.”

Duffy adds, “When I deliver things I try not to edit myself. I was at first. Like I was cutting off the radish tops before I brought the radishes but he (Solberg) wanted the radish tops too, so I have to make sure I don’t edit myself and just give them as raw and complete a product as I can because then they have more uses.” And when he sees something like bok choy on a menu plan he inquires what variety’s desired.

He says he occasionally pitches things to the chefs. One year he tried selling them on dandelions. “It didn’t really fly. Too bitter. I might try it again sometime.”

His goal is for the garden to receive USDA organic certification. He envisions more gardens around campus one day. The barnyard could one day also raise pigs and goats.

Both men agree the collaborative is a success.

Duffy says the burgeoning relationship “better then we ever could have imagined.”

“It’s been a joint effort really,” says Solberg. “Like I’ve always enjoyed cooking out of the garden and they’ve always enjoyed growing stuff for us to use. It just happened pretty organically. It didn’t ever have to be forced.”

And if some things don’t turn out, Solberg adds, “I’m flexible, I just work with whatever Patrick gives me.”

The Bistro is open for lunch and dinner this fall. For menus, hours and reservations, call 402-457-2328.

All Trussed Up with Somewhere to Go, Metropolitan Community College’s Institute for Culinary Arts Takes Another Leap Forward with its New Building on the Fort Omaha Campus

May 12, 2011 7 comments

This article appeared a couple years ago on the occasion of the opening of the new Institute for Culinary Arts building at Metropolitan Community College‘s Fort Omaha campus.  The institute has long enjoyed a national reputation and now it has a facility commensurate with its good name.  It’s an impressive structure for what is probably the college’s signature program, and the new quarters, complete with every cooking tool imaginable, and associated landscaping form a grand new front door or entrance for this community college that’s come into its own in the last two decades.

 

 

 

 

All Trussed Up with Somewhere to Go, Metropolitan Community College‘s Institute for Culinary Arts Takes Another Leap Forward with its New Building on the Fort Omaha Campus 

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

The opening of Metropolitan Community College’s new $16 million Institute for Culinary Arts building last November gave the culinary program a spacious, state-of-the-art home and the school a new gateway to the Fort Omaha campus.

On March 22 the glass and brick structure designed by HDR Architecture of Omaha has its official dedication.

The public event starts at 4:30 with tours and a reception. The ceremonial opening is at 5:30.

The Institute is the attractive anchor for the college’s new main entrance at 32nd and Sorenson Parkway. Passersby can even glimpse food production and preparation training through the west bank of windows.

Executive director Jim Trebbien has led ICA during a period of substantial growth the past 22 years. He’s seen ICA earn national accreditations and increase enrollment from a few dozen students to more than 600. He’s seen it become Metro’s marquee academic program and  “come of age” along with the college.

 

 

Jim Trebbien

 

He said all four Metro presidents he’s reported to have “backed us and let us do what we do well because we know what we’re doing.”

The new digs, with seven kitchens compared to one in the old makeshift quarters and boasting all new equipment, surpasses even Trebbien’s wildest hopes.

“I never in my mind envisioned something like this,” he said. “Surreal is the word for it. To me, it’s another step. It fulfills the dreams of a lot of people in this city of having a place where the restaurant community comes together. Omaha needs this, too. Education is an important part of developing our work force here.”

Indeed, he said the facilities stack up with the best anywhere. A program long known for excellence, he said, finally has a home commensurate with its standing.

“We’re good at what we do,” he said. “We made it happen before. We’ve still got pretty much the same faculty, which are really the backbone of making a good school . The same high standards went on in the old kitchen, and without a promise of a new kitchen. But the old site was getting to the end. You can only push something so far, and where that breaking point is you never know for sure, but we could have been really close to it, And now here we are all of a sudden with a new face and more space.”

ICA can now accommodate 1,000 students. No more must students squeeze into tight confines or instructors stagger  classes and projects at odd hours seven days a week to handle demand. No more problems finding enough or the right equipment, much less room to store it in.

The main production kitchen would be the envy of any upscale eatery.

“It’s a dream kitchen,” said service chef coordinator and ICA grad Brian Young. “Everything anybody would ever need is here at our fingertips. It just makes the educational opportunities that much better. It gives students a chance to be on an actual line. I’ve watched the program grow and develop into a great, great curriculum. I’m actually jealous of the students going through now and the amazing facility they have to work in.”

Chef-instructor Oystein Solberg added, “It’s any chef’s wet dream.”

 

 

 

 

There’s more, though. The building and its richly outfitted features befit the name Institute and the seriousness it connotes. “That’s exactly what it is, too, it’s really serious,” said Trebbien. He said the new facilities make a statement that  “we’ve got a real culinary institute right here.” He said everyone who sees it, from prospective students to veteran Omaha restauranteurs, “are mesmerized.”

“Any student that now leaves Omaha to go to culinary school has to want to either spend a lot of money or get away out of town,” he said. “The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park does a fantastic job and you’re going to get everything you pay for, but here you’re going to get 95 percent of what you get out there and we’re going to do it for probably one-seventh of the money.”

He said more than low out-of-state tuition accounts for ICA having students from 27 states and nine countries.

“When people come here they see what we do, how we do it and our dedication, they see that we place our people well, they see the Omaha community and restaurant industry embrace us well.”

ICA doesn’t need to take a backseat to anyone. “I can given students all the opportunities now,” Trebbien said. It’s all made an impression on students and faculty. “It certainly gives you a feeling of grandeur,” said student Dawn Cisney. “It’s beautiful here. It’s unbelievable seeing how far we’ve come from the old building to now.” Chef-instructor Brian O’Malley calls it “a transformation. You can really finally start to see what’s possible. One of the biggest changes is a general increase of the level of respect that everyone is walking around with.” It’s pride, said Cisney.

The building also holds possibilities for more community engagement via a  conference center that can host banquets and a culinary theater/demonstration kitchen with production capability to broadcast training classes and cooking shows.

This spring ICA’s first produce garden will be planted outside the building, one of many Trebbien envisions. He wants ICA and the associated horticultural program to actively partner with the North Omaha community gardens movement. By late summer or early fall, he said, a culinary store will open in the renovated old mule barn adjacent to the Institute. The public will be able to purchase take-home entrees and other products prepared by students. Food-related items will be sold.

The Sage Student Bistro at the Institute offers a fine-dining experience to the public with meals prepared by students using local, artisan ingredients.

All of it is part of a sustainable food chain ICA wishes to model. The Institute already employs an integrated system that cycles food from its pantries and coolers for use throughout the building.

Said Trebbien, “We want to be the place that teaches people to plant, grow, harvest, sell, market and cook good, healthy food. That’s what we want to add back to the community, and this building is the start of that.”

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