Farm to table isn’t a new concept, but not all restaurants interpret it the same way. For Chef Owner Ben Maides at Au Courant in Benson, the idea of farm to table should be just that: sourcing the best local products that are in season and creating a menu around it. In fact, he’s so passionate about it, he changes the menu weekly to ensure they use items that are available and at their peak. The result has been a six-course chef’s tasting menu that is 95 percent locally sourced and at an approachable Midwest price—only $55—that when paired with the sommelier’s wine suggestion (for an additional charge), makes for a night out perfect for any occasion.
“We don’t tell the farmers what product we want, we see what they bring us and then work our menu around it,” Maides said. “It forces us to be creative.” For example, as onions grow and become bigger throughout a season they start to bloom. When that happens, Maides said they will incorporate the actual blossoms into a dish. Once a week he meets with local farmers to see what’s available, and then crafts the menu afterwards. “We literally cook whatever is coming out of the ground at the time,” he said. “We try to find an interesting and modern take on food.”
The regular menu encompasses four categories: Amuse, Aperitif, Pasta, and Protein. All pasta is hand-made in house and artfully combined with those fresh, local ingredients. Protein is done the same way. For example, Maides likes using locally raised trout from Blue Valley Aquaculture in Sutton, NE, as well as custom raised chickens from Plum Creek Farms in Burchard, NE. A recent menu item included house made green chorizo sausage with local garlic scapes and oregano.
The six-course chef’s tasting menu features items from the larger menu, as well as off-menu items, and Maides said at least half of the customers on any given night will order the tasting menu. It’s a concept he wasn’t sure would go over well but said he’s been pleasantly surprised at how it’s been received. “As much as I didn’t want to cook the same dishes all the time, I was worried about introducing this forward-thinking concept,” he said. “But people in Omaha are so open to it, and it’s getting people to the Benson area.”
For those familiar with Benson, which continues to draw residents from all over town with its restaurants and entertainment venues, Au Courant is in the space that was formerly España. Maides’ first kitchen gig was at España 16 years ago as a dishwasher, where he met Carlos Mendez who was a server. Mendez eventually bought España, and Maides left Omaha to earn his culinary degree and train with chefs at restaurants around the world, including in Italy. After returning to Omaha, Mendez approached Maides a few years later about turning España into a new concept. This November, Au Courant will celebrate its second anniversary.
In the last two years, the biggest surprise has been the popularity of the tasting menu. “When we first started, we thought people would just come in and have some fresh pasta and a beer, but we’ve really evolved past that and people have embraced the constantly rotating menu,” Maides said. The only dish that tends to reoccur is Spaghettini Bolognese, due to Maides’ time spent in Italy, which is where he learned to perfect it. “It’s my favorite to make and to eat,” he said. In fact, he’s very proud of the restaurant’s pasta program after the time he spent in Italy. But he also admitted he gets just as excited about creating all the dishes on each week’s menu. “If a dish isn’t the highest quality, it doesn’t go on the menu. So I’m proud of everything we do.”