Self-taught and innovative

Rachel McGill, executive chef and co-owner of Dish Restaurant in Lincoln, NE, is not classically trained. Rather, she learned through time on the line, watching cooking competitions and online instructional videos, and devouring her self-professed literature of choice, cookbooks, from her impressive collection. 

Along with co-owner and wife, Marypat Heineman, McGill took an audacious leap in 2016 to purchase the 25-year-old eatery from mentor Travis Green. The ambitious couple spent the latter part of their early careers under Green, McGill as sous chef and Heineman managing front of house with a keen eye and a beguiling sense of hospitality.

The pair hasn’t regretted the decision (though they admit to working a ridiculous number of hours) and continue to unlock diners’ curiosity through innovative, often whimsical, dishes. According to McGill, “There’s nothing quite like it in Lincoln, and it’s a great stop for people traveling between Chicago and Denver.” 

Amid running a restaurant during an unprecedented pandemic, McGill was nominated for a James Beard Award for Best Midwest Chef and months later, learned she was selected as a semifinalist–a first for the town of Lincoln. “I am so proud and humbled to be in the midst of such a group, especially as a self-taught chef.”

The accolades are welcome, but McGill prefers to keep pushing, continuously challenging herself to find delicious, modern interpretations of classic dishes. She is inspired by seasonal produce and relishes getting her own hands dirty, whether its growing herbs and vegetables on the restaurant patio or in the home garden she shares with Heineman.

Back in the kitchen, the chef is constantly conjuring new and unique ways to eke flavor out of the treasures the terroir provides. This approach is how McGill plans the menus for Dish. “I get so excited for the seasonal change, to first get spring asparagus and peas, and then summer vegetables like corn and tomatoes.” She is adamant about using local ingredients, which sometimes means waiting patiently until a product appears at the market.

The bounty of nature mirrors McGill’s bountiful imagination, but she doesn’t take herself too seriously when developing new recipes. “Food does not have to be derivative. Different combinations, though unexpected, can work if they are delicious.” McGill strives to be more adept at the science side of the culinary industry and is currently learning all she can about preservation techniques, such as fermentation and curing.

This industry isn’t for the faint of heart, but McGill has internalized the lessons learned from mentors such as Green along the way. “Travis had a calming way about him, even when things got stormy. I try to model that behavior, adapt, and just go with what’s happening in the moment.”

Adaptability is paramount—intended dishes are occasionally limited by time, space, and staff, but ultimately these situations prove to be a boon for the team, who get a chance to shine when the time is right.  

Many staff members hail from the local culinary program at Southeast Community College, but everyone typically starts with a stagiaire shift to see how they’ll fit in to the culture. They are a small team working in a small space, so collaboration is encouraged. 

According to McGill, a truly great dish hits all the right notes, and she has carefully trained her palate to recognize when the balance is even slightly askew. “Because nothing is made to order, it’s all fresh, nothing goes out without everyone tasting, often more than once.”  

The co-owners feel strongly about workplace culture and strive to treat their staff fairly. Tipping, a somewhat polarizing concept around the world, is a practice they’d like to see come to an end. Two percent is added to every diner’s bill so the servers can be paid a larger wage, and tips are shared across the entire team according to clear guidelines. It’s a concept that’s been successful thus far. 

At the end of a long day, this disciplined chef manages to find a wee space for herself with a daily yoga practice, running, or just enjoying a hike or travel with Heineman. Fans of McGill’s food need not worry, though—not one to rest for long, the Beard semifinalist will be back in the kitchen continuing the work she loves.

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