Omaha is lucky to have many talented chefs, and one in particular has as much passion to help raise up another generation of talented chefs as he has for serving great food.
This past November, Chef Glenn Wheeler celebrated 25 years of restaurant service in Omaha. He was born in Los Angeles, then moved to Chicago as a child. He started working in the kitchen at age 15, studied at Le Cordon Bleu, College of Culinary Arts in Chicago, and eventually found his way into the culinary world of Omaha. He is currently the Executive Chef at Spencer’s for Steaks and Chops, a position he began in 2010.
Wheeler’s Chicago roots have often influenced his menu at Spencer’s, such as Italian beef with flatbread. “I enjoy taking memories and flavors from Chicago and putting a spin on them for a fine dining atmosphere,” he said. Several of his dishes are influenced by his mother’s Mexican heritage and even his own time spent in South Carolina. He especially loves being able to work with Carolina Gold Rice, Crab Rice, and Sea Island Red Peas from Charleston as these ingredients are not often found in Omaha.
To compete with Wheeler’s passion for bringing in flavors of his own life, he also has a passion for supporting local farmers and midwestern flavors. He said, “It is fun getting to know the farmers and ranchers from our area. They come through the back door and deliver the meat and product themselves as a personal appeal, and I like that a lot.” He additionally takes time in the summer to grow his own peppers, tomatoes, and herbs for the restaurant.
Spencer’s winter menu features several new dishes including a Plum Creek Farms roasted chicken and a Snake River Farms Wagyu brisket. Preparation for the roasted chicken begins with brining the breast and turning the hind quarters into confit. The confit is then added to a risotto with local mushrooms and topped with the roasted chicken breast. The uniqueness of this Wagyu brisket dish is that the fattier part of the brisket is turned into a red onion and brisket marmalade that tops the flat portion of the brisket while being served with a side of spaghetti squash. Each dish is perfectly heartwarming for the cold weather days, especially with the heartiness of doubling the meat.
Outside of the culinary world, Wheeler’s mission is to mentor young chefs. On average, he accepts four students a year for apprenticeship. Many of them come from The Institute for the Culinary Arts at Metropolitan Community College, and recently he began accepting students from No More Empty Pots, which has a Culinary Workforce Training Program. Wheeler’s teaching focuses on taking each person into his kitchen to try to bring out their own passion and drive, while teaching them proper cooking skills. He explained, “I teach them what it is going to take in this industry. It’s not all about going to cooking school with new stoves and equipment. Instead, you come into a restaurant and a thermostat is broken. It’s not going to be the perfect test kitchen that you grew up in.”
There are quite a few things that excite Chef Wheeler about the restaurant industry. “The main thing for me in Omaha is seeing the rise of the younger chefs,” he said. “Some have worked with me in the past and others not, but I think I know all of them personally. It’s exciting to see what they are doing to step up the game here. They are making it exciting and a good dining city.” A few of the mentioned young chefs that he believes are making wonderful food included Jake Newton at V. Mertz, Tim Nicholson at Boiler Room, Ben Maides at Au Courant Regional Kitchen, and Kane Adkisson at Kano. Wheeler’s own children are also in the industry. His daughter is graduating from The Institute for the Culinary Arts this spring and his son currently works with him at Spencer’s.
Wheeler said that throughout his time in Omaha, people have always been supportive of him and his efforts to give to others. “I would love to see more people coming out and supporting any charitable events that I participate in as we do a lot of them. They are all very worthwhile charities.” The respect Omaha has for Chef Wheeler was not solely gained by serving great food, but additionally deepened by his understanding of community.