Issue 28

Anthony Kueper Dedicated to Creating Memories at Dolce

Anthony Kueper Dedicated to Creating Memories at Dolce

In four-and-a-half years, Anthony Kueper has gone from sous chef to executive chef to chef-owner at fine dining Dolce in northwest Omaha.

Dolce is another of the city’s new crafted American food spots, but unlike the young, fresh-from-culinary-school phenoms running some of those other kitchens. Kueper is a 43 year-old veteran of the food wars.

From savoring fresh mussels in France at age six to taking cooking classes at 12 to preparing meals at home for his younger siblings and for friends, his life as a gastronome started early.

Born into a military family, he moved with his father’s U.S. Air Force assignments and everywhere he went he indulged in the indigenous food culture: street frites in Holland, Tex-Mex in the American southwest and paellas in the Philippines.

His father twice got posted to Offutt Air Force Base in Bellevue and it was that second, more permanent posting that saw Kueper finish school here and get his first professional training.

“I worked at Julio’s and Jones Street Brewery. It was good food but it was basic stuff.”

Then there was fortuitous stint at The Bistro in the Old Market.

“Two chefs there influenced me a little bit and actually got me to go to culinary school – Gene Cammarota and Kenneth Hughes,” said Kueper.

Being exposed to their high end techniques, he said, “gave me the idea there was more to just cooking.”

Along the way he bumped into future notables, including Paul Kulik.

Kueper left Omaha for culinary school in Kansas City, Missouri in the early ’90s, but as with any chef it’s what came after that most shaped his aesthetic.

“I got a piece of paper from culinary school – the rest of it was learned in kitchens and from the people I rubbed elbows with and surrounded myself with. It’s who you choose to follow that’s important.”

He was in his early 20s when he landed a chef gig at the Ritz Carlton on the Plaza in K.C.

“My first chef position at the Ritz Carlton hit me hard. I almost didn’t recover. I was very talented at an early age. I had a lot of hype put behind me. I had a lot of powerful people around me.”

Under the Ritz Carlton brand he worked in Atlanta for the Olympics and in San Francisco opening a new venue. Then he felt it was time to do something else.

“When I left the Ritz Carlton and went to Colorado to try and do something on my own, it was a big challenge. It wasn’t a real niche for fine dining, so I ended up doing a lot of bar and grills – fun food – and tried to throw some of my technique into that. There’s only so much you can do.”

Colorado is where he grew personally and professionally and where he met his wife, Daniela. They have three children together.

“Yeah, I met a girl from Germany and she put hooks in my heart.”

After she returned to Germany, he sold most of his belongings and joined her there.

“I left my restaurant in Aspen and lived in Hamburg for two years.”

He joked that if it gets out he’s really a romantic at heart, he won’t be taken seriously as “a tyrant in the kitchen.” The couple returned to the States to start a family. Colorado became their home base.

He worked for some real characters there, including an eccentric Frenchman. Then there was ‘The Dude’ at a place called Toscanini. That led to Kueper joining VIN 48 in Avon. He was there from the end of 2008 to the beginning of 2012

“It was a good experience.”

Meanwhile, Daniela missed the flavors of home.

Fortunately, when they lived in Hamburg he schooled himself on the local cuisine.

“So she wouldn’t be homesick I learned how to cook German food. I learned how to make schnitzel at a two star Michelin restaurant.”

After all his travels, Kueper finally came back to Omaha. The decision to come here was all about family. One of his boys had respiratory issues in the high altitude of Colorado and Kueper wanted to be closer to his parents. But settling here was not the ultimate plan.

“I planned on spending a little time in Omaha before finding something in Chicago, Minneapolis or Kansas City. We weren’t going to put our roots down in Omaha.”

Besides, it was a rough go the first couple years back.

“It was difficult because I’m an older chef with a pedigreed resume. I’m not a 27-year-old kid that ran half the kitchens in town.”

Star chefs like Tim Nicholson at The Boiler Room weren’t even old enough to drink when he left here. Things had definitely changed.

To keep his fine dining skills honed he worked at V. Mertz for nine months, but making $11 an hour wasn’t cutting it to support a family. That gig though led to Dolce.

“The V. Mertz name alone kicked open doors for me with the resume I had.”

Dolce’s original owner, Gina Sterns, discovered him there and brought him on board in 2013. He admired how she took what began as a pastry shop to a fine dining establishment. Health issues forced her to take a step back. In 2014 Lincoln restauranteurs Jason Kuhr and Tyler Mohr purchased it.

“We helped elevate this space to what it is because, I mean, it’s in a strip mall. You don’t know what to expect from the outside. It does surprise a lot of people that they can find this little gem of a place there. We’ve done a lot to improve the ambience. Jason had the financial strength to do the things that would have taken me a lot longer to do in terms of remodeling, revisiting and reinvigorating the space. My food and what he did made what Dolce’s standing on now.”

Meanwhle, Kueper helped the Mohrs open Ollie and Hobbes in Omaha but found himself overextended.

“I wasn’t happy. I was working way too much, even Sundays, not seeing my family. I was pulling down a lot of money, but it wasn’t worth it.”

That’s when he decided to focus his energies on one venue and worked out the purchase of Dolce. He actually tried before, when Sterns still owned it, but he and a partner didn’t have the capital.

He had tried the chef-owner hat on in Colorado.

“It was an exciting thing to open a new restaurant, but it turned out to be a bad partnership, so I kind of wash it from my memory.”

This time around he’s flying solo and loving being his own boss. He’s taking the fresh-local upmarket comfort food thing to the next level.

“The whole local food movement – trying to get all your products from within a 120-mile radius – is the greenest way to go about it. I don’t want to be buying my pigs from New York. This is where food comes from. This is a huge farming community.

“Where it matters, we do buy organic – in our meat, in our dairy. About 50 percent of our produce is organic.”

If Kueper’s learned anything, he said, it’s “that people have to love what you do and how you do it,” adding, “That at the end of the day is what matters.”

“The people that come here like our food, they like what we’re doing with the food, they like our message.”

He’s all about providing an experience that touches deep reservoirs.

“Food is a memory. The bread pudding we do is based off my dad’s mother’s recipe. My dad says it’s the closest rendition he’s ever had, it’s just different. The thing that’s different is she saved up all the scrap bread from the bread she used to make. I’m using a different style bread. My dad generally tears through his food, but when he hits that bread pudding, he slows down, so he can savor everything.”

True to its comfort concept, Dolce keeps things simple.

“If you look at our menu, they’re simple things that people can identify with.”

But with that fine dining twist.

“We serve kale with our steak and I swear to God we go through more kale. And we’re not doing the kale chips or salads or anything like that, we actually use it as a good vegetable on our proteins and people are like, ‘You made me eat kale – and it was wonderful.’

“For our roast chicken we start with good local chickens that we brine in-house. A seven herb emulsion goes on it – it’s oregano, chives, parsley, thyme, rosemary, spinach and we add some roasted garlic. A lot of people can’t put their finger on it because it’s such a blend. We make a tomato marmalade by cooking tomatoes down with a little bit of sherry vinegar, sugar, salt and pepper. We serve the dish with simple gnocchi and broccolini.”

Kueper draws inspiration from the past.

“I’m really a traditionalist when it comes to the history of things. I cook with historical background. I try to do it the way it was done years ago before there were microwaves and preservatives. We dry-age some of our own meats here. I’d like to do more, but we don’t have the facility space.”

The day this reporter visited, a Mangalista hybrid hog got delivered. It’s an old breed valued for its high fat content that keeps the meat succulent when roasted.

Many myths attend fine dining that Kueper’s eager to overturn.

“People think it’s unhealthy – it’s not. We don’t use tons of butter. We use herbs salt, acidity, just the right amount of balance in things.”

Flavors are carefully curated.

“We don’t try to overpower flavors. There might be one thing that’s going to knock your socks off but then        everything else is going to be subdued.”

Today’s Omaha food scene is quite different than the one he left two decades ago.

“Omaha has come a long way. The cooks and the kitchens in Omaha are there. The diners still need to be educated. You constantly have people tell you, ‘You know what you should do?’ Like put a crab cake on a salad. It’s very classic, it’s very nice. I’m not saying that’s not a good idea, but it’s just not my expression. It’s not the type of food I look to put forward.

“I like to push people out of their comfort zone just a little. It’s all driven by technique. And if I can win you over on one of those things, I will build a customer for life. It’s kind of cool that way. I have people that don’t like duck who love the duck that we do. I’ve had people tell me they hate salmon but ours was the best salmon they ever had.”

His Margarita Mussels is another example.

“That’s one of my signature dishes. I think I’m bringing it back this fall. The tequila is added to a citrus broth. It hits all the right notes.”

He said its creation came about “from just being playful.”

Experimenting with ingredients is a lifelong process.

“You’re never done learning. I’ll work with an ingredient until I think I’ve figured it out. I will try stuff and really shoot from the hip.”

A couple years ago he taught himself to make ramen noodles from scratch. “They seem so simple and basic, but when done right,” he said, they’re oh so delicious.

More recently, he concocted a translucent omelet made from just egg yolks.

Baking is something he’s mastered in recent years.

“I wasn’t much of a baker, but now I’ve become quite an advanced baker. I’ve learned a lot teaching myself.

“It’s all time and temperature. It’s just basic chemistry and all the laws can be changed in different applications to make things happen. It’s just how you approach it and if you’re willing to take a chance. I have a lot of failures, but I have a lot of successes, too. I don’t serve my failures – I eat them.”

Two things Dolce’s known for – ‘Taste of the Moment’ and ‘Date Night’ – continue. Taste of the Moment specials change every day according to his mood and shopping finds. On a late August visit it was herb goat cheese ravioli with red pepper pasta.

“We roast off sweet red peppers, remove the skin, and blend them up with the eggs. It’s served with smoked chicken broth with Shiitake mushrooms, spinach and truffle oil.”

More than ever, he can follow inspirations as they occur.

“Now that I’m not working for somebody else, I can do it my way. I don’t have to ask somebody if it’s okay to do a ‘weird’ dish. I’m doing my artichoke creme brulee this fall. It’s something I learned how to make in Germany. It’s artichoke and parmesan in a creme brulee, so it’s savory. It’s served with asparagus wrapped in our house-made prosciutto.”

Freedom to do your own thing is nice, but not everyone’s going to like everything you do. His five-course tasting menu usually has one dish that challenges diners. When he first took over as chef at Dolce four years ago, a local reviewer openly questioned his execution on some dishes. He took exception with the digs though he acknowledges he wasn’t at his best then.

“That was a long time ago. At the time, I had a young crew. I was just getting established here under new ownership. I was trying to feel them out. I wasn’t cooking to my potential – not like what we’re doing now. It was good food, but I wasn’t putting it all out there. I was sparing some of myself inside.”

The vagaries and demands of his field can drain all but the heartiest souls.

“As a chef you can throw yourself out there and it’ll end up burning you up. It’s hard to keep stable mental health in this industry, it really is.”

With all his experience, he perhaps feels less compelled to prove himself and more inclined to bask in the glow of doing what he loves. It’s why on a recent vacation to his old stomping grounds in Colorado he made a point of catching up with buddies from VIN 48 so they could cook together again.

Before leaving for the trip, he said, “I haven’t seen them in five years. I’m doing it because I miss them. Two of the guys I trained are running the place.”

The trip served as a reminder to keep it simple, stupid.

“I’ve cooked some of the best meals with no running water. I was an avid backpacker and camper. I had tortillas, Fantastic Foods hummus (a dehydrated product) and fresh caught trout that I smoked over a live fire using a little orange juice and soy sauce.”

Food is what you make of it and Kueper’s all about giving diners a memorable experience in his warm-toned, intimately-scaled Dolce, where maybe you’ll meet your new best friends while dining.

“There are these two couples that come in to dine together at least once a month. They met each other here. Their love and passion was food and our restaurant brought them together, and I think that’s cool.”

How dolce (sweet) too.

Located at 12317 West Maple Road. Open for lunch Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m, and for dinner Monday through Saturday, 5 p.m. to close.

For menu and reservations, vista www.dolceomaha.org, or call 402-964-2122.

Leo Adam Biga

Leo Adam Biga

Leo Adam Biga is an Omaha-based author-journalist-blogger. His books include Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film, Crossing Bridges: A Priest’s Uplifting Life Among the Downtrodden and Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores. The University of Nebraska at Omaha graduate contributes articles to newspapers and magazines. His work has been recognized by his peers at the local, regional and national levels. Sample his eclectic writing at leoadambiga.com or www.facebook.com/LeoAdamBiga.


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