When a Revolution Comes, There is Room for Everyone at the Table
This week, the Omaha World Herald ran a loving tribute to Jim Trebbien, the dean of the Institute for the Culinary Arts at Metropolitan Community College, who is retiring this year. In the article, Trebbien, who brought the program back from the brink of extinction to become one of the most dazzling jewels in Metro’s crown – with an equally dazzling, $16 million state-of-the-art facility to match – proudly cites the spots where some of his grads have landed, including The Grey Plume, Block 16 and V. Mertz.
“What was first: a good school to fill good restaurants, or good restaurants to (motivate) a good school?” he asks. “Honestly, I’m not sure.”
In addition to that particular chicken and egg, I would add one other ingredient that seems to contribute to the success of the outstanding restaurants in this city: their spirit of collaboration. The people who are feeding us seem to actually, genuinely, like and support each other.
Take Block 16, which invited chefs and staff from some of the best-known restaurants in town to participate in their YouTube series of restaurateurs reading their own Yelp reviews. Or Dante, which sources its salumi from The Grey Plume and calls it out (along with other local purveyors) on their menu. Dante has also done guest exchange dinners with Le Bouillon, where the chef from one restaurant hosts a meal in the other. Follow any of the major local restaurants on social media, and chances are, you will find out when one of the others has received an award or great press – because they graciously congratulate each other.
In an industry where businesses are not only competing for customers, but also high-quality staff and even product (most of the locally-owned fine dining establishments serve farm-to-table, so supplies can be limited), this bonhomie seems to go beyond the limits of professional courtesy and veer straight into self-sabotage. Whatever, it seems to be working. Not only have many of these businesses been thriving for several years, but new ones are cropping up all the time – and they, too, are being welcomed into the fold.
It’s a great model for other businesses that are revolutionizing their industry or launching new industries. When you’re doing something new or better than it’s been done before, one of the keys to your success is educating the public about what you do, why you do it and why it should matter to consumers, every time. To do this, it helps to have comrades.
These local, often chef-owned, restaurants are not really competing with each other for Omaha’s dollar. They are competing with chains for our appetites. So when we’re deciding between, say, J. Coco and Joe’s Crab Shack, there is probably not a restaurateur in town who won’t benefit, even if just tangentially, from our choosing the former.
They are the heirs of Jim Trebbien and his quest to put Omaha on the culinary map, and they are doing a bang-up job.