Issue 30

Grilling for a Cause

Grilling for a Cause

Seven Omaha-area chefs will be firing up their grills in competition for the best gourmet burger at the second annual Ted E. Bear Hollow Comfort Food Classic on Sunday, October 5 at the Happy Hollow Country Club. The fund-raising event is for Ted E. Bear Hollow, a nonprofit organization that provides day camps, support groups and other services for grieving children, teens and their families.

Last year’s Comfort Food Classic was a battle for the best macaroni and cheese, and Omaha Country Club Chef Paul Urban won bragging rights with his delightful dish. With the more than $31,000 the organization raised during the 2007 Comfort Food Classic, Ted E. Bear Hollow was able to move into a building and create a permanent home for the center. This year, Ted E. Bear Hollow hopes to expand on its services and the support that it provides to the Omaha community.

I recently caught up with Michael Rhoades, a second-year competitor in the Comfort Food Classic and Executive Sous Chef at the Omaha Country Club, and got his take on culinary competition and the ultimate gourmet burger.

FSM: Thanks for talking with me today, Michael. How many years have you been in the restaurant business?

M: I’ve been in the restaurant business most of my life. My dad had a restaurant in the early 70’s and that’s where I started. I bused tables.

FSM: What other restaurants have you worked at?

M: I started in 1995 at the French Café. I also was working at Jams at night. Then I was the Executive Chef at the Flat Iron Café for two years, and then Executive Chef at Champion’s Club. After that, I opened up another restaurant here in town called Donia’s, but it’s not there any more. Then I went to Buca De Beppo for two years and then to Doubletree Hotel where I was Executive Chef for five years. I’ve also taught for Metro Community College in culinary arts.

FSM: Wow, you’ve been just about everywhere here in Omaha.

M: (Laugh) Yeah, just about.

FSM: Why did you choose a career in the culinary industry? 

M: Well I know everybody says this, and it’s probably true, but people who are happy with their jobs say that it’s a career. They don’t choose their job, their job chooses them. Writers are happy when they write. Chefs are happy when they cook. People who are forced to cook hate it. It’s just the nature of the beast. I love what I do.

FSM: Ted E. Bear Hollow’s Comfort Food Classic brings out top Omaha area chefs to compete and raise funds for their day camps, support groups and other services for grieving children and their families. How does it feel to be one of the chefs chosen for this competition?

M: Well you know…whenever anyone puts you in the class of ‘the best of’ it makes you feel good. I have worked with some of the best chefs in Omaha, and we all help at other charity events in Omaha as well such as Opera Omaha’s Chef’s Night…it’s kind of humbling. I consider all of them my peers and my friends. It’s gratifying to know that we are all doing something to make a difference. It’s our way of giving back to the community.

FSM: Last year, you were one of five chefs who battled it out for the best macaroni and cheese. What was it like to compete against your peers?

M: I look at it a little bit different than most chefs I guess. To me, it’s like a social event. It’s a chance to rub some elbows with people who are doing some good in the community and with others in the industry. I go into it with a sense of humor and don’t take it too seriously. I’m glad my name is helping a good cause like Ted E. Bear Hollow, but if I don’t win, it won’t be the end of the world. We all made some pretty off-the-wall mac and cheese last year, and if people didn’t like my mac and cheese then they just don’t know what’s good (laugh). No, really, it was all pretty good that night.

FSM: This year’s Comfort Food Classic’s focus is the best gourmet burger. How do you intend to prepare for this competition? Do you have a strategy in mind?

M: Yes, I have a strategy, and I’m in the process of doing some menu testing for my gourmet burger. I’m not sure it’s going to be beef unless that’s a stipulation of the contest. If it’s just a gourmet burger, it may be something un-beefy. I probably shouldn’t say something like that in this town, huh?

FSM: Ha. Probably not. This is the season where everyone is out grilling burgers. I don’t want you to give away any of your secrets, but what are some of the things that make a gourmet burger different than a regular every day hot-off-the-grill burger?

M: Well, the burgers you patty up at home are probably going to be a little bit different than a gourmet burger. I would say a gourmet burger might have some high dollar ingredients put into it like truffles or bacon or lobster chunks. Something that is going to give it a little kick over the edge. If you are doing it over charcoal or wood, maybe you would use cherry wood or some apple wood. If you are cooking it on a flat top or in a pan, maybe cook it in a little duck fat or bacon fat to give it more succulence. The list could go on and on. You could serve it with heirloom yellow tomatoes marinated in basil vinaigrette. It could be with pickled onions instead of regular onions, or it could be with fried onions. Think about an onion and how many different ways you can cook it. And the bun…maybe you would serve it on a traditional sesame seed bun or a flaky croissant type layered bun. There’s 101 different ways you could tweak it.

FSM: It’s up to the people attending the event to vote for the best burger. Will you go into this event any differently than if there were a panel of culinary experts judging the competition?

M: I might tone it down a bit. If I knew the judges were going to be chefs or culinary professionals, I may try to jack it up a bit more. If it’s going to be the public, I may want to make it a bit more mainstream so that their taste buds don’t go into shock. Chefs are used to taste bud overload. Again, this is audience choice. I am just as happy to be there talking to the crowd as much as I possibly can. You could get a vote that way too…for just being a nice guy. Nobody wants to vote for a jerk.

FSM: Why should people attend the Comfort Food Classic?

M: It’s for a really good cause. That would be the main reason. If you support a certain restaurant or want to come out and support the culinary scene or a certain chef, you can certainly do that as well.

FSM: What do you hope to gain from being a competitor at the Comfort Food Classic?

M: I want to be the Comfort Food Classic Chef of the Year of course! Last year’s winner, Paul Urban, is on my staff. He was a student of mine and now he is here with me at the Omaha Country Club. That’s the way of our tight knit culinary network. We know and support one another. We will probably go into this competition together.

FSM: What do you hope people attending this event will gain?

M: What I think is cool about this event is that you take something like comfort food and you are able to view it from a different perspective. You’re looking at the food that we eat every day from another person’s eyes. You have the chance to experience the food from different culinary horizons and at the same time support a good cause.

FSM: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

M: I am going to keep the competition nice and friendly. It’s a good cause and it’s all for fun. We should just rally around it and have fun with it. I think it’s cool how The Food Network has brought our industry into the spotlight. I think it’s an underutilized form of charity benefit. There are a lot of people jumping onto the culinary bandwagon because of the influx of The Food Network and celebrity chefs…people are fascinated with it. People are fascinated with good food. Every good party ends up in the kitchen. If there’s passion on the plate than people know it. People can tell when you have put your heart into something. I think that the culinary arts are one of the most passionate arts out there because you get so much out of it. There’s nothing better than making people smile with your food…your creation. I’m honored to be chosen for that.

For more information on Ted E. Bear Hollow and the Comfort Food Classic or to purchase tickets, log on to or call (402) 502-2773.

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