Fine Dining Around the World Always Comes Back to Omaha: A Renowned Chef’s Inter-Continental Culinary Journey
May 28, 2020 04:02PM
By Chris Bowling
Photography by Joshua Foo
Hums and honks filled the morning air as traffic inched through the heart of the largest city in
Inside, Austin Johnson waited patiently. He’d traveled 3,000 miles and trained for years. Soon he’d see if the greatest chef in this city would give him a job.
Eventually that man appeared. In a Swiss accent, the chef with short brown hair told him he had a test, handing him a piece of bass.
The 23-year-old came recommended to Daniel Humm, head chef of Eleven Park Madison and recipient of that year’s James Beard Award for Best Chef New York. But what Humm wanted to see was if he could cook.
“I’m like, ‘Holy fuck,’” Johnson remembered more than a decade later. “I’m in a three-star Michelin kitchen, big lights, white tablecloth on the pass and Daniel Humm is basically handing me a piece of fish for my future.”
Johnson didn’t balk. He seared the Loup de Mer and plated it with poached parsnips and pears in front of Humm and the whole kitchen. He earned his spot.
That experience, although elevated, was typical for Johnson’s life. For years he’d climbed his way through the culinary world, working in kitchens across the country. A few years later he’d do the same in Europe before returning to New York to start his own restaurant.
But as the now-34-year old ponders what's ahead during site walks of his soon-to-be venture in Tribeca, part of him always looks back. Toward home, the place it all started: Omaha.
“It’s a city that I’m always proud to say I was born and raised in,” said Johnson, “and I’d love to come back and have a restaurant someday.”
Johnson grew up on 168th and Q streets in a family that valued work ethic. Either go to college or make your own way. Johnson didn’t see how he fit into that picture. By the time he entered Millard West High School during the turn of millennium, he felt aimless.
“I don’t want to say he was lost, I think he just wasn’t very motivated,” said Kate Beiting, who taught him as a high school freshman. “If you’re not interested in anything, why would you be?”
At 14, Johnson got a part-time job busing tables at the Back Nine Grill in West Omaha. As the TV broadcasted George Bush and Al Gore behind the bar, Johnson watched the kitchen. There, line cooks cussed at each across the flat top as they sautéed vegetables and garnished the rims of plates with parsley. He’d never seen energy, excitement, and purpose like that. He begged the chef to teach him.
The next few years Johnson consumed as much of the culinary world as Omaha had to offer, working at Biaggi’s, Buca di Beppo, the French Cafe, among others. During that time, he fed a growing appetite for how to run a kitchen and make a dish great.
At Millard West, he also spent most of his time cooking.
Beiting, then the high school’s culinary teacher, had him in class from his sophomore to senior years and took him and others to state and national culinary competitions.
“I really saw that glimmer in his eye when he said, ‘You know, what if we did this, what if we do that or have you ever done that?’” said Beiting, who retired in 2015. “It was magic.”
As Johnson learned the basics of cooking, he learned the reality of working in a kitchen, where uniformity trumps sticking out. And as a young, scrawny kid working alongside career line cooks, Johnson stuck out.
“These guys would burn me, these guys would try and break me down, they would put me in tears, they’d throw my fucking meat in the garbage,” he said. “Like who wants to cook with a 15-year-old kid? Not many people.”
Beiting as well as his chefs encouraged him along the way as his skills matured. Eventually, they also told him to leave Omaha if he wanted to keep growing.
At 20 he left for Indianapolis then Seattle, then New York, and took two trips on a commercial salmon fishing boat up Alaska's inner passage. It led him across the Atlantic to Noma in Copenhagen, then the best restaurant in the world, as well Oud Slous, a best-kept secret in a small Danish village, and the Frenchie in Paris and London.
Today in New York City he’s the executive chef of Goodman’s Bar, a refined spot in an upscale department store on the southern edge of Central Park. In his new restaurant in Tribeca, the same building where John Lennon and Yoko Ono once founded their own nation, even the vegetables are sourced from a 10-acre farm he owns in upstate New York.
The standards for quality couldn’t be higher.
“I’m going to be cooking harder the next five years than I ever have in my life,” he said.
It’s another step in his culinary progression, one where he always keeps an eye on Omaha.
In the summers of 2017 and 2019, he hosted pop-up dinners at Block 16. Last year he invited Beiting into the kitchen where she saw the realized talent of that 14-year-old kid in her homeroom who didn’t seem to have a purpose.
He hadn’t lost his affable Midwestern humility, either.
“I would say, ‘Chef, what do you want me to do?’” Beiting said. “How do you want this?”
“Do whatever you want,” she remembered him saying. “You’re the chef.”
He might hover over plates with tiny spoons, finishing dishes with artful drizzles, dashes, or dollops, but he’s still pretty "Omaha" at heart.
That’s why as he imagines the future, one idea materializes at the end of his bucket list.
It's a restaurant somewhere along a rough brick road in a market with open air patios and small shops. It’s a place where his family and friends can experience the fine dining he’s spent years mastering.
“I’d like to have a restaurant in San Francisco, I want to have a restaurant on a sailboat,” he said, “but at the end of the day it’d be cool to have a kick ass little restaurant in the Old Market somewhere and open the greatest little wine bar ever.”
Follow @austininnyc on Instagram to learn more about Johnson.
This article first appeared in the June 2020 issue of Omaha Magazine.