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Omaha Magazine

Midwest's Best: Content Creator Brad Iwen Chronicles the Wild, Uninhibited Plates of the Heartland

May 23, 2023 03:34PM ● By Leo Adam Biga
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Photographer, filmmaker, content producer, and adventurer Brad Iwen covers food culture in his Midwest Food Stories docuseries. 

He first became enamored with “the magic of the darkroom” at Omaha Public Schools' career center. 

“It really changed my life,” Iwen said. “I knew I needed to figure out some way to become a photographer for a career.”

He landed his first commercial assignment at age 18 shooting a Merrill Osmond fan club gathering in Branson, Missouri. Then, he headed for Colorado.

“I got a job running film for a company that took pictures of people rafting down the Arkansas River.  I would drive a four-wheeler to a trailhead, then run down a canyon trail to the river, where a photographer shot rafters. I decided I wanted to be the photographer,” he recalled. “The next summer I got that job but got really bored…so I trained to be a white water rafting guide. I did that for almost 10 years.”

In his free time, however, Iwen continued to hone his lens-craft. 

“I developed commercial clients working at a photo lab in Bozeman, Montana. I met National Geographic photographers,” he said. “I processed their film and heard their stories—that pushed me to go further.” 

At the Brooks Institute of Photography In Santa Barbara, California, he learned motion storytelling. He later opened a midtown Omaha studio, traveling from his heartland headquarters to jobs spanning both coasts.

“I’m open to doing stories anywhere,” Iwen affirmed. 

All the while, the aspiring foodie nourished his appetite for good grub. 

“Traveling around the country, it always became my goal to find something interesting food-wise,” he said. “Everywhere I went, it became a game or challenge exploring different food.”
Always on the hunt for inspired people and dishes, he plugged into Omaha’s burgeoning food scene for inspiration.

“In 2016 I started inviting chefs to my studio. It was an open concept for them to create a seminal dish that inspired them to be a chef or that took them back to their childhood,” Iwen said. “We’d spend the day together, share a glass of wine or beer, eat an amazing meal, and I did my best to tell their story.”

Breaking bread with others is a “very important” social contract he pays homage to throughout his project.

“In doing these stories we have great fellowship over shared meals. That’s the root of Midwest Food Stories,” he said. “I was so happy with some of that early work, I made prints for a gallery show.” 

To accompany the show, he designed a catalogue displaying the featured chefs’ recipes. That led to expanding the project into the field, or “connecting a chef, a producer, the land, and ingredients.”

“That’s really what opened everything up for me,” Iwen noted.

Wanderlust and a passion for narrative sent him road-tripping for stories. 

“Something sparks my interest in either a location or a chef or a type of food. I get out on the road and ramble. It’s where I do my best thinking,” he said. “I gather a small crew. We spend a day or two days on a ranch or farm. Often, the producer makes us a huge breakfast with a lot of their products. Then it’s learning as much about the producer and their process as possible.” 
Leon and Tami Svoboda raise Mangalitsa pigs in northeast Nebraska. Iwen invited Omaha culinary instructor and chef Brian O’Malley to enjoy their spread.

“I try to bring a chef with me to the ranch-farm, and then bring the producer into the kitchen with the chef to see their product crafted into beautiful things,” Iwen said. “The Svobodas saw how much love, care, and dedication Chef O’Malley and his students at the Institute for Culinary Arts put into their product.” 

“Brad gets to the heart of the authentic very quickly. He has an incredible energy that he harnesses to tell intimate stories in grand ways,” O’Malley said.

Iwen coaxed Omaha food writer Summer Miller and chef Bryce Coulton to make an appearance at Dave Hutchinson’s Custer County, Nebraska, bison ranch. Miller returned with some prime meat to perfect his take on bison stew.

“Getting out into the middle of the Sandhills is a really inspiring thing. It is a wild place in many ways, and its culture has been there a long time,” said Iwen, who’s gone Sandhill cranes watching with his father on the Platte River since he was a boy.

Iwen chronicled chef Michael Glissman as he prepared three from-scratch family meals in Dodge, Nebraska, where he opened the village’s Eat Restaurant.

When Iwen learned Omaha chef Nick Strawhecker loved hunting waterfowl, he caravanned with him to a hunting lodge near the banks of the  Niobrara River—specifically, where a farmer and a wildlife biologist conduct research at the nexus of several overlapping ecosystems. 

Such adventures underlie Iwen’s desire to bring together people with a shared passion for locally sourced, sustainable, and farm-fresh food.

“It’s all these stories that make this ecosystem. Being in these natural places, meeting the people, seeing the process, hearing stories, and just doing my best to do justice to them is really important,” Iwen said. “I meet really cool people doing cool things—there’s nothing better than that. Food is the core or glue that holds these stories together, but they are about so much more than food.”

Once, for a story he chronicled in Minnesota, Iwen connected a pig farmer, a chef, a commercial fisherman, and a fish smokehouse operator, resulting in a greater sense of community and delicious plates.

“Working on that project I fell in love with the area. I brought my family many times and they fell in love with it, too,” he reflected.

So in love, in fact, that the Iwens moved to Duluth, Minnesota, in 2021. 

“It’s been amazing to live up here and experience a totally different culture and landscape,” he said.

Still, despite the natural allure of his new home, Iwen isn’t immune to the pull of the open road. 

“I have notebooks filled with ideas for stories in every Midwestern state. Nebraska is still my home,” Iwen said. “I have family, great friendships, and contacts there. I have ideas for food stories I want to work on there. It’ll always be a part of what I do.”

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This article originally appeared in the June2023 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, 
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