An Education in Dining

One of the most innovative restaurants in Omaha is tucked away in a quiet corner of the Metropolitan Community College (MCC) Fort Omaha Campus. The Sage Student Bistro, freshly renovated and helmed by a new chef instructor, has been delighting diners at this location since January 2010. Open Monday – Thursday when classes are in session, the menu changes quarterly and features thoughtful, gorgeous, student-driven prix fixe menus alongside a static menu of elevated dishes designed by chef instructors and executed by second-year culinary students.

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James Davis, recent addition to full-time faculty at MCC’s Institute for Culinary Arts (ICA), is an Omaha native with a penchant for design but a passion for food. While studying architecture and engineering at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, he also worked in the kitchen at Happy Hollow Country Club. When asked what spurred him on to culinary school, he said, “I couldn’t wait to get out of class and get to work.” As do many native Nebraskans, Davis chose to move away, attending Le Cordon Bleu in Scottsdale, Arizona. Family eventually drew him back, and he spent the next several years at various restaurants in Omaha while serving as adjunct instructor at MCC.

Working in the restaurant industry can be all-consuming, so Chef Davis and his wife have yet to enjoy a dining experience at The Sage Student Bistro. However, instructing students in the back of the house, encouraging them to see things from different perspectives, and witnessing them learn something new or find their own voice inspires him to keep going. “Sage is a unique experience for students in that they are racing against the clock to some extent,” he said. “In early lab classes, that urgency isn’t there.” Stakes are higher in the bistro, and diners are the fortunate recipients.

Each quarter, students begin researching and discussing ideas for their prix fixe menus. In collaboration with chef instructors, basic concepts such as Sunday Dinner or Springtime in Germany are broken down and then elevated in a cohesive progression of dishes. During the week that Edge photographers visited, the student chef’s prix fixe menu featured hand-crafted butternut squash ravioli laced with harissa in light lemon sauce and a beef wellington that was created by searing petite tenders with the barest hint of Dijon mustard, enveloping the meat in a mushroom duxelles and finally blanketing in the traditional puff pastry. The amuse course featured beets three ways: roasted, sweet pickled and smoked—all topped with bits of tart Granny Smith apple.

In addition to learning how to conceptualize, compose, cook and plate, students share their skill and inspiration with customers through occasional live demonstrations during service. Culinarians are educators, encouraging an epicurean approach in which diners slow down and experience a meal with all senses, luxuriating in textures, aromas, and, ultimately, tastes of ingredients prepared in surprising ways.

The dining room provides upscale ambiance, featuring an attractive fireplace with tables and banquettes that can be reconfigured to accommodate different-sized parties. Hospitality students perform front of house duties, including tableside wine service. A well-priced, simple wine list will not stretch the palate of an oenophile, but corkage is a reasonable ten dollars for those who wish to enhance their meal with a vintage of their own choosing. A creative bread and butter service kicks things off while you peruse the menu. Static dishes are elevated and delicious, but when given the opportunity, take the plunge and order the prix fixe. To end your night on a sweet note, Baking and Pastry students provide an array of desserts.

During the the warmer months, diners can enjoy garden views across the commons, as well as the scent of herbs in the planters lining the walkways. In the ICA kitchen, there is always a push to use local ingredients, and it doesn’t get more local than right next door. The close relationship between the Culinary and Horticulture programs spurs creativity on both sides.

“Local eating is no longer a trend, it’s a movement,” remarked Davis. “I can ask Tyler if we can grow a particular vegetable, and he and his team will give it a try.” Tyler Magnuson is the Operations Specialist and Culinary Liaison for the Horticulture program at MCC. At harvest, Magnuson brings fresh produce to the kitchen, and chefs find creative ways to use the ingredients, even in small ways such as garnishing plates.

“One of the great things about this industry is you can never know everything there is to know about. I read constantly,” shared Davis, noting he was finishing a memoir by famed chef Grant Achatz before passing it along to an ambitious student. To avoid stagnation, he encourages students to explore new ideas and paths. When asked about the future of Sage Student Bistro, Davis smiled and said, “Nothing wild. So much time and passion have contributed to what it is today, I just want to try to maintain what has been built and keep it going.”

The bistro caters to all palates and is a splendid way to expand your horizons for an incredibly reasonable price. Come back each quarter to witness a new crop of student chefs bringing fresh, imaginative ideas and a different service experience. You can provide valuable feedback while savoring a fabulous meal and you just might find yourself sampling first bites from a future James Beard Award-winning chef.

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