Chad Lebo Keeps Food Traditions Alive at Cure Cooking
By Susan Minichiello Photography by Ariel Fried
Complete a Google search for “heritage breed bacon club” and the first result is Cure Cooking, an Omaha business with the tagline “Keep food traditions alive.”
Cure Cooking offers a variety of heritage breed bacon, pancetta, lard, ham, sausage, smoked ribs, bacon butter and dill pickles. In addition, Cure offers traditional cooking classes, from cheesemaking to fermentation to curing and smoking.
Owner Chad Lebo makes the bacon with all-natural heritage breed pork from TD Niche Pork in Elk Creek, Nebraska. On any given week, the bacon selection ranges with offerings such as garlic and tarragon English bacon, curry bacon, sweet black pepper bacon and more.
The main difference between Chad’s bacon and grocery store bacon begins with the pork and its flavor. Heritage breed pigs are fed a natural diet without use of antibiotics.
“The comparison is tomatoes,” Chad says. “You eat a tomato from the store, it’s commercial, and it was grown to survive shipping, to grow fast, to not bruise. Not for flavor. You eat an heirloom tomato, and it has flavor and it’s incredible. That’s what heritage breed pork is, or heritage breed chicken, for that matter.”
Once Chad has good pork, he keeps the flavor intact by dry curing instead of brining. He dry cures his bacon for five to seven days. Dry curing gives the bacon a better texture and removes moisture from the pork. He noted commercial bacon has extra water weight from brining and injecting tenderizers. He estimates his bacon has 25% less water than store-bought commercial bacon.
“This is what bacon used to be,” Chad says, acknowledging that there are only a handful of places in Nebraska that have dry-cured, heritage breed pork products, including a variety of Omaha restaurants. He advises cooking heritage breed bacon like regular bacon, just lower and slower.
At the Gifford Park Neighborhood Market on Friday nights (at the intersection of 33rd and California streets), Chad can be found at an outdoor stand with his bacon, dill pickles and pulled pork. He started Cure Cooking shortly after moving to Omaha in 2013. About half of his business is teaching classes and half is selling food. In the fall of 2014, he started the Omaha Bacon Club. Members join for three, six or 12 months at a time and pick up one, two or three pounds of bacon the fourth week of the month at either the Gifford Park market on Fridays or in Fort Calhoun, Nebraska, where his commercial kitchen is located. With his bacon club making it to the top of a Google search page, he also ships bacon to about 15 states.
Omaha Bacon Club member Aaron Haug lives across the street from the Gifford Park market with his girlfriend. Aaron has been a member for about a year and plans to sign up again. “It’s the best meat I’ve had in Omaha, hands down,” he says.
At his farmers market stall, Chad clearly enjoys himself while talking to customers about ingredients in his sausages or handing out vacuum-sealed packages to Omaha Bacon Club members. It’s reminiscent of his first job selling vegetables at a farmers market stand in central Pennsylvania, where he grew up among Amish and Mennonite communities, shaping his love of German-style food, which includes ham, cured meat and pickled vegetables.
Before moving to Omaha, Chad and his wife, Dr. Cynthia Frasier, lived in New Jersey for 10 years, where he taught elementary school, until they moved to Madagascar in 2008. Cynthia, a botanist who specializes in toxic plants, accepted a plant-studying job there after completing her PhD. They went to Madagascar for one year, liked it and ended up staying for almost six years.
They lived in and around the capitol, Antananarivo. He observed Madagascans, including his third-grade students, fixated on rice, eating it three times a day and even drinking rice tea. He missed the German-style cured meat from home and began making it on his own. “To go from eating it to appreciating it to making it was moving to a place where we couldn’t get it,” Chad says.
Food culture in Madagascar is different from the United States. Farmers markets aren’t trendy; it’s just part of everyday life. Agriculture is an important part of people’s lives. Now that Chad is back in the U.S., he says what he misses the most about Madagascar is going to the market every day. After work, he would hop on his motorcycle with his dog and stop at eight to 10 different market stands and barter or haggle for beans, vegetables and meat. Following some back and forth, butchers would give him certain cuts, and Chad knew it was fresh. He’d hear the pigs on their way to the market in the mornings, and by the afternoon they’d be hanging up on butcher’s hooks. He valued the daily human interactions at the markets.
“You really can go into a grocery store, buy everything at self-checkout and leave and not say a word. That is not community,” Chad says. “So I miss that sense of community that developed around food, and how people don’t take food for granted there.”
Chad brought his Mennonite (his grandfather was a Mennonite) and Madagascar influences to Omaha with Cure Cooking. The cooking classes he offers are hands-on, similar to his teaching style at an elementary school science lab he ran. His approach is not to just hand his students a recipe but to explain the science and history behind it.
“I think Nebraska’s the perfect place for it because it’s so easy to tie in all the foods that we teach into homesteading,” Chad says. “These are all the foods that people used to do on their own at home. Everyone knew how to cure something. Everyone knew how to bake, how to make sausages.”
The food culture may be different in the U.S. than in Madagascar, but Chad has settled into Omaha pretty well. He noted the Omaha food community is strong and has a good connection with the farming community.
Even though his bacon is several notches higher in quality than commercial bacon, Chad avoids being snobbish and dislikes the word “artisanal.” He says food is not an art; food is a craft, like carpentry.
“As with carpentry you could build a deck or you could build fine furniture, food is a craft. You can make a burger or you can age a salami for six months. There’s fine food and there’s food, but it’s still a craft, it’s not an art,” Chad says.
Chad doesn’t spend money on fancy equipment, preferring to put funds into ingredients instead. He owns a 1989 Chevy S15 truck he bought for $500 and says he “basically quadruples the value of the truck” when he loads it with his bacon. His smoker is a large recycled filing cabinet. Whether it’s a $30,000 commercial smoker or a cheap old filing cabinet, Chad says his bacon would be the same quality.
He recalls chefs at nice restaurants in Madagascar serving French cuisine (it was once a French colony). In the front it would look fancy, but in the back the chefs would have a little charcoal grill made from local trees over recycled oil drums tacked and welded together on the ground. He would order a seared duck breast with classic French sauces, sometimes with a local twist, and it would taste phenomenal.
“Good food is nothing new, and kitchens for the most part have not been anything at all like what a modern kitchen is,” Chad says “Good food is made by people, not stainless steel.”
For more information on Cure Cooking and the Omaha Bacon Club, go to CureCooking.com or e-mail Chad Lebo at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Susan Minichiello is a freelance writer and editor living in Omaha with her partner and son. Originally from the Chicago area, her favorite food is homemade green tea ice cream. She can be reached at email@example.com.