Teaching the Recipe for Success: Brian O’Malley preps the next generation of culinary greatsOct 02, 2020 10:29AM ● By Sean Robinson
Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Blended burgers of bison and wagyu beef from The Grey Plume. Coneflower Creamery’s contemporary twist on ice cream. Any number of the Old Market’s finest dishes. All cause the mouths of many to salivate and define what it means to eat well in the Big O.
If not for Brian O’Malley, none of these eats and sweet treats may have come to be. As a chef instructor and associate dean for Metropolitan Community College’s Institute for the Culinary Arts, O’Malley’s greatest work is whipped up in the classroom, not the kitchen.
“It’s the act of teaching that really brought together everything I love in the restaurant world,” O’Malley said. “Feeding people. Crazy-ass hustle. The craftsmanship of cookery. Working on a crew. When I found a way that I could build lessons for other people to get better at all these things I love, it was all over for me.”
In the 16 years he’s been with MCC’s institute, which is regularly named one of the top culinary schools in the nation, O’Malley estimates he’s taught around 500 students. As important as learning to baste and broil, he instills the values of hard work and a passion to serve others through cooking—two principles he learned years before he began training some of the best chefs to ever come out of Nebraska.
O’Malley credits his time in Boy Scouts as the start of his culinary career, remembering a childhood spent cooking over a campfire’s warm glow. It was hot dogs, not haute cuisine, and badges instead of Michelin stars that paved his path. He just didn’t know it yet.
“I never had a moment where I was like, ‘This is it. This is what I’m going to do with my life.’ I just really loved cooking for my other scouts. Maybe that was the start of it all,” he said.
To become the celebrated classroom chef he is today, O’Malley began climbing his way up the culinary ladder by working odd jobs in restaurants as a teenager—bussing tables here, tending bars there, waiting on guests just about everywhere. When he thought he had his fill of the restaurant world after high school, he pursued a degree in architecture.
Turns out the appetite was still there.
In 1996, after building his credibility in the restaurant industry for years, he was offered the position of head chef at Bojo Grill on 13th and Jackson streets. He still thought of it as an in-between gig before returning to school until his parents visited him at the restaurant. Witnessing him in action—helming a kitchen crew and leading the charge on an experimental menu of American cuisine—they gave one nod of approval and architecture went out the window.
“That was when I first felt comfortable that I could do this and make a life out of it,” he said.
O’Malley knew formal training was the next step, so he enrolled at the New England Culinary Institute, the same school that trained one of the Food Network’s most celebrated chefs and personalities, Alton Brown. After earning his degree in 2001 and staying on as an instructor, he moved back to Omaha to open Mark’s Bistro at 49th Street and Underwood Avenue two years later.
“I wasn’t making any money because Mark’s wasn’t open yet, so I started teaching at Metro as adjunct faculty,” O’Malley said. “I found more joy in teaching, and it just dovetailed the other way. I started devoting more time at Metro and became full time in fall 2004.”
After more than 15 years at the helm of the classroom instead of the kitchen, O’Malley has taught everything from Intro to Professional Cooking to World Cuisine to Restaurant Consulting. In that time, he’s witnessed teaching strategy evolve drastically even as the content remains fairly constant.
Learning how to jockey a knife or manage a pan above heat doesn’t change. O’Malley said it’s the art of giving feedback that has taken new form in recent years. Culinary education has adopted a coaching mindset as opposed to the sink-or-swim approach many experience when learning in restaurants. It’s not trial by fire anymore. It’s empowerment, encouragement, and engagement coming together to help students find better success.
“As a chef instructor, we have the responsibility to help someone get better, not just expect them to get better,” O’Malley said.
For many instructors, the most rewarding part of teaching is watching the good become great. O’Malley isn’t most. Instead, he enjoys watching students achieve greatness together. He says the craftsmanship, watching the casserole come out, is only half the reward—and one that’s much sweeter when achieved as a team.
“The most valuable thing I learned from him is collaboration,” said Chase Grove, a 2013 MCC-ICA graduate and current adjunct instructor and outreach coordinator for the program. “The act of bringing those around you into the fold results in accomplishment of the highest order with fulfillment baked in.”
For a program that’s heavily focused on lab work, MCC-ICA and O’Malley faced a new challenge with the COVID-19 pandemic. Almost immediately, they shifted to take-home kits after the city began shutting down in the spring. A student picks up all the supplies they need to complete a lab at home in their own kitchen as they virtually follow along with the instructor. For the fall, O’Malley sees it being a blend of in-person and virtual lessons.
As the associate dean, finding that balance falls on O’Malley’s shoulders. His day-to-day is now more administrative, regardless if he’s working in-person or via Zoom. He helps faculty build courses, students navigate accommodations, and develops the overall program. It’s all about creating an environment that cultivates the minds behind the next Coneflower Creamery or Grey Plume.
“The thing I love about culinary education is I think everybody can do this,” O’Malley said. “Believing in somebody long enough that they try a third or fourth time is a critical component of being a good teacher. I found that to be an easy part of my job—and my heart.”
Visit mccneb.edu for more information.
This article was printed in the October 2020 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.