There is a certain type of magic found when someone’s life brings them full circle. Benjamin Maides was 16 years old when his mother drove him to a job interview at Espana Tapas restaurant in Benson. A week after his interview, he received a call that Espana’s dishwasher left, and he was offered the job. While washing dishes, Maides became interested in learning cooking techniques from the chefs in the kitchen.
“That’s where it all started,” he recalled. “Carlos Mendez was a server at the time. It went full circle when he bought the restaurant years later.” Both Maides and Mendez opened Au Courant Regional Kitchen in 2016, bringing Maides back to work as the head chef in the same kitchen where he started as a dishwasher.
In the years between Espana and Au Courant, Maides continued his education by earning a culinary degree and traveling the world. He felt a pivot in his career when he spent time working at Bouchon in California. “Bouchon gave me a good structure of how to work in a kitchen and how a restaurant was run. And obviously my time in Italy left an impact on my pasta program here.”
Maides found his inspiration for the concept of Au Courant when visiting restaurants in San Francisco and New York. “I did not want it to be unapproachable from a price point or service point. I wanted good food to not be a special occasion.”
The menu of Au Courant changes weekly to allow for the current availability of seasonal ingredients, and diners have the option of ordering the Chef’s Tasting Menu. “My approach to food is very ingredient driven. That’s where I derive my inspiration and what writes the menu every week. It is ever-revolving, current, new, and fresh.” Maides built a smoker for the restaurant for this purpose. Using the smoker enables him to subtly play with the flavors of his dishes.
In February, Maides was announced as a 2020 James Beard Award nominee. “I was super surprised to get the nomination,” he said. “I received a text from one of my fellow chefs. I think I had more phone calls and texts that day than any day I can remember. It is very encouraging that what we are doing is working and the long days are paying off.”
Although Omaha has had several chefs nominated for a James Beard award, no chef in Omaha has made it past the semi-finals. Maides believes that over the past few years Omaha has become more recognized for food, and people are becoming aware of what is happening in the Midwest. “We will see what happens and keep doing what we do regardless,” said Maides. “Our motivation is happy guest after happy guest.” While he is not afraid to admit that his restaurant has had its mistakes, he believes his staff has become a well-oiled machine. He also has come to understand that his restaurant is not for everybody as his focus will always be quality over quantity.
In the past year Maides began a new adventure in farming. “The farm has been a huge passion project. To do a little bit more of our own stuff turns out to be a lot of work, which makes me appreci-ate our farmers even more. My future goals are to do more intimate small scale farm dinners, and I always like to double down and reinvest in this restaurant. I ask myself, ‘How do we do this and what do we do to improve on the experience while trying not lose focus on the task at hand?’”
Au Courant Regional
6064 Maple St.