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Chefs Who Impress

Plenty of room for front and back of house alike at Too Many Cooks in the Kitchen, the annual fundraising event hosted by the Omaha Restaurant Association (ORA), an Omaha philanthropic networking association that serves the local hospitality community. Since 1944, the ORA has supported organizations that feed the community and has provided educational opportunities and scholarships in the field of hospitality from the high school to professional level.

Since its inception in the 1990s, the annual event has evolved from private home dinners to Chef’s Night Out, and this year over 20 volunteer chefs from a variety of establishments in the Omaha area wowed over 200 diners with creative multi-course plated dinners complete with pairings. Local purveyors and distributors donated beverages, produce, proteins, and space to complement the time, creativity, and talent given by industry professionals and students. 

Organizers of the 2024 event made a few changes to the chef/table pairing process. As they arrived at the Embassy Suites Downtown Old Market, ORA members and guests received name tags listing a table name and herb, then enjoyed a happy hour, bidding on silent auction packages or catching up with industry colleagues as tantalizing aromas wafted over the buzzing patrons. 

Meanwhile, energetic chefs with side towels neatly tucked into tied aprons were busy with meal preparation in makeshift kitchens comprised of narrow banquet tables laden with burners, steam pans, cutting boards, parchment, and utensils. Menus and schedules affixed to one corner with green kitchen tape laid out the order of the day, coolers and Cambro containers lined the back walls, and labeled deli containers of prep stood sentry near tubs of Maldon salt that lined a makeshift pass.  

As happy hour ended, the 22 marquee chefs emerged from the bustling ballroom and Matthew Brown, general manager and advanced sommelier of V. Mertz, enthusiastically welcomed guests to the soiree by saying, “If this is your first time, get ready to be hooked forever.” Brown introduced each chef and handed them an envelope that revealed their table match. 

Named chefs are volunteers, so they often arrive with a skeleton crew from their home establishments. Clad in chef coats, student volunteers act as assistants for the day, gaining valuable experience and exposure to new ingredients and preparations. Emma Helwig, Outreach Coordinator for Metropolitan Community College’s Institute for the Culinary Arts (MCC ICA), served as a student ambassador, coordinating student help for this year’s event, just a few short years after volunteering as a student.

Chefs who’ve moved on to executive roles relish the chance to flex their creative muscles and prove they’ve still got it on the line. Brian O’Malley, assistant dean at the MCC ICA, added, “I like how it gives the chefs a chance to color outside the lines and run out their creativity in a really wonderful way.” 

As diners settled at tables and acquainted themselves with the menu, chef, and front-of-house volunteers, wine was poured, amuse bouche spoons were dropped, and O’Malley, emcee for the evening, interrupted the din for the first of 13 live auctions of the evening. 

Fresh spring ingredients such as ramps, morel mushrooms, and early peas comingled with luxury items such as Japanese A5 wagyu and Kaluga Caviar across the multi-course menus. Throughout the evening, chefs and assistants carefully spooned, tweezed, and wiped plates until the last dessert was delivered.  

Allison Asche, a current MCC ICA student who’s worked the event for three years, shared her impressions, “I love meeting new people in the community. Serving was great because I got to interact with more people in the industry. I also got to see and sample so many different things—the chefs get really creative. I love to try the food and learn how to pair wines.” O’Malley added, “I love seeing the students’ growth through the night. They come in scared and leave confident and full of enthusiasm.” 

As the evening came to a close and the final dishes were whisked away, the room remained full of energy and chefs joined diners to joke and discuss the evening, satisfied in knowing it all went to help important causes. To learn more or inquire about joining the Omaha Restaurant Association, visit dineoutomaha.com or contact Jennie Warren, executive director, at jwarren@dineoutoften.com.

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