From helping her mom prepare food for church banquets and ball field fundraisers, to her first job slinging Runza sandwiches, to creating delectable dishes for Block 16, to representing the United States in an international cooking competition, Chef Brooke Williams has proven herself an accomplished culinarian.
It seems preposterous now, but Williams doubted her skill in the beginning, putting off culinary school because she thought she “wasn’t very good at cooking.” Lucky for Omaha diners, she enrolled at Metropolitan Community College Institute for the Culinary Arts and learned not only classical cooking techniques but the confidence to trust her talents.
During her tenure at Block 16, Williams gained an ardent following, developing the well-loved Brooke’s Chickenwich, hosting creative themed popups (Midwest Mom’s Casseroles, The Office), and combining unlikely ingredient combos in ways that evoked enthusiastic expletives with every bite.
Today, the creative cook still revels in developing new recipes and coming up with outlandish, surprising combinations. “I like to focus on compact flavor, getting crunchy, salty, sweet, sour, savory, and umami into every layer of every bite.”
Few things make Williams happier than watching someone try a dish, utter words of joy, and mutter, “ooh I see what you did here” or “how did she do that?” then proceeding to eat the whole thing because it’s well worth it.
Still, Williams learned quickly that when developing a new dish, pickup consideration is paramount. For example, if cooks on the line are plating myriad dishes simultaneously, 20 touches (the number of times line cooks and expos add something to the plate) are not going to be feasible in a tiny kitchen or with inexperienced or new personnel. Her advice? “Really consider whether or not you can pull it off when you’re in the weeds without making your line cook want to cry.”
As a line cook, Williams learned a lot about being organized when working the so-called “fourth station” at Block 16. She shared, “You have to stay organized or you will suffocate, there’s no shame in asking for help, either.”
A voracious learner, Williams is never one to shy away from a new opportunity. She’s certainly caught the competition bug and does not discount the possibility of continuing should the chance pop up. Though she jokingly described the competition world as “a toxic relationship you just can’t quit,” she cherished the experience and readily admits gaining a vast amount of knowledge, even when things didn’t go as planned.
In her new role as head chef at Sunnyside and Site-1 Elkhorn, Williams relishes new challenges while drawing on past experiences. Her approach is simple: “I want to empower employees, especially when they come up with new ideas. Empowered employees are usually happy people.” She is keen to let staff roll with new ideas because “chances are the dish will be awesome.”
As head chef, she strives to foster a collaborative kitchen mentality, explaining, “If one messes up, it’s all of us, there’s no blame, we work as a team.” The open kitchen at Sunnyside/Site-1 is brand new, something several staff have never had the luxury to enjoy. These factors all help keep staff honest and accountable. “It’s our baby and we want to take care of it.”
Not every day is full of creativity—when ideas and dishes start to stagnate, Williams encourages employees to seek out new flavors and foods to tantalize their own taste buds. According to Williams, old is new again when it means putting out innovative or surprising dishes, “Pull from nostalgia, bastardize classical techniques, turn hollandaise into mayo. Take an old idea and put a new spin on it—break the rules but keep the technique.”
As for what’s next, Williams prefers not to plan too far ahead because interesting opportunities are often just around the corner. For now, she’s content to be part of opening two groovy new spots, exposing a different part of town to unique flavor combinations and textures, and thrives on the chaos on the line during a busy service. That’s what keeps her coming back to the kitchen day in and day out.