Thunder-bird’s Eye ViewJul 17, 2015 11:27AM ● By Sarah Wengert
It’s lunchtime in the Omaha Press Club’s spectacular Spiro Agnew Oak Room and Steve Villamonte is humbly puzzled as to why anyone wants to interview him.
“Christine’s the backbone of the Press Club,” he says of Christine Jones, his wife and OPC planning & event coordinator. “She does all the work. She’s a big part of our success here the past 15 years.”
“Well, we’re all important here,” says Jones, with a warm, conspiratorial wink before exiting.
She comes up often in conversation with Villamonte, consistently attached to the adjective “beautiful”—just as in the May 2015 OPC newsletter, where he writes that “the best part [of working] at the Press Club is that I get to see my beautiful Christine every day.”
Villamonte’s succeeded in seamlessly combining his three chief interests—family, food, and work—through roles including husband, father, coach, mentor, certified executive chef, Omaha Press Club Executive Director, and entrepreneur behind Villamonte’s Cuisine and his trademarked Thunderbird Salad Dressing.
But the family-food-work connection is nothing new to Villamonte. At age 53, he’s been in the kitchen 48 years.
“One of my first memories was making Thunderbird salads for my dad,” says Villamonte, recollecting his “job” dressing the iconic salad at Omaha’s Happy Hollow Club. He recalls the plastic deli gloves dwarfing his scant 5-year-old hands, the stepstool he stood on, the kitchen’s layout.
Villamonte’s father, Peruvian-born chef Luis Villamonte, established the Thunderbird as house salad at various country clubs in which he worked throughout the Midwest. While it still remains as such at many, the famous Thunderbird dressing, which the Villamontes now sell commercially and retail, truly reaches its peak as served on the First National Bank building's 22nd floor, with mixed greens, bacon, bleu cheese, shredded mozzarella, chives, tomatoes, and homemade croutons.
“I still have the old Thunderbird recipe card he gave me,” says Villamonte. “Going to culinary school was one thing, but you couldn’t learn more than I did working with my father.”
Now the teacher his late father was, Villamonte enjoys working with his team, including OPC Executive Chef Barry Brewer, who handles day-to-day kitchen operations while Villamonte continues to steer creative direction, mentor staff, write banquet menus and menu items, and collaborate with clients who’ve commissioned his expertise in achieving the right note for special dinners and events. Villamonte relishes mentoring other chefs, teaching them tricks of the trade, but also to have “a lot of pride and dignity” in their craft.
“I realized I can work through other people and get things done with a lot of culinary flair,” he says.
Villamonte urges chefs to seek ample education.
“It’s one thing to be a good chef, but you must also be a good manager,” he says. “My first manager reminded me [often] that there’s an abundance of skilled chefs, but you also have to be able to work with people. I’ve never forgotten that. So, the more education you get in both business and culinary skills, the better. You also need hard knocks; that’s the best teacher sometimes.”
Villamonte says he enjoys being in the kitchen with his culinary crew.
“You know, Paul McCartney always stays relevant. Here he is, in his mid-70s, with a number one song. I think that’s amazing. And my business is the same; you have to constantly look at what’s out, what’s new, what haven’t I tried yet, what do I want to try … ”
Villamonte’s keen on exploring the culinary world’s cutting edge. He researches extensively for menus and likes to put an updated spin on classics, teaching his staff to fabricate meat and create grand food arts like chaud froid.
“You tweak it so that things still fit to today, to today’s standards, today’s nouveau,” he says. “I want to be classic but current—you know, I want to be like Paul McCartney.”
Starting in January 2014 Villamonte faced the “toughest fight I’ve ever had”—a prolonged health scare resulting in an Autoimmune Liver Disease diagnosis, which his doctor believes was caused by statins. By April 2015, the Villamontes were in “celebration mode” with news that the ALD, although incurable, was not progressing.
“We’re a really close-knit family,” says Villamonte, who has two grown sons and two kids under 10, about whom he boasts freely.
His oldest, “Junior,” is a “very skilled, very talented” third-generation chef. “People person” Joe is a police officer. Nine-year-old Gabe is a master athlete, ambidextrous pitcher, and “the nicest kid ever—he’s Christine all over again.” Six-year-old Justine is “a pistol” who enjoys dance and tee-ball. Both youngsters love school.
“That’s my passion: my family,” says Villamonte.
A visit to the OPC kitchen reveals a smiling Brewer and his team prepping fruit and other provisions against the backdrop of the club’s famously striking windows on a cloudless May afternoon. It’s an exceptional view, unlike other kitchens.
“To me, it’s the best kitchen in town,” says Villamonte.