Story and photos by Theresa Farrage
Even though Block 16 serves up its fair share of intriguing, rotating concoctions ranging from vegan meatloaf to chickenheart tacos and even a whole pig’s head, one ingredient that is always present and seems to satisfy every patron is passion.
Block 16’s legion of hip fans not only appreciate the farm-to-city dedication that owners and head chefs Jessica Joyce and Paul Urban bring to the table, but they also taste the love that goes into every dish.
Paul’s love for the culinary arts started at a young age. His earliest memories in the kitchen revolve around making plum dumplings with his grandma, pork roast and kraut with his mother and slow braised beef with his father. “Both of my parents and grandparents are amazing cooks. I have always enjoyed cooking; it has always been a part of my life,” Paul said.
Jessica’s love of the culinary arts started at age 12 when she was finally allowed to use the stove and oven at home. “My great aunts always made such a fuss in the kitchen, and my grandparents were great entertainers. I wanted to be like all of them,” she shared. She credits James Barber’s The Urban Peasant for planting the seed for her culinary passion, but her love of food styling prompted her to look into culinary schools.
Both Jessica and Paul, who have experience in fine dining establishments and casual restaurant kitchens, graduated from Omaha’s Institute for the Culinary Arts at Metropolitan Community College. Before settling down in Omaha, Paul traveled extensively throughout the country and abroad, while Jessica lived and worked in both Bermuda and Canada. They soaked up the local flavors and drew inspiration from other cultures. “You take something from everywhere you go and learn from all the people you meet,” said Jessica.
On a trip to Australia, Paul explored a local farmers market where he was able to taste the in-season produce. Both Paul and Jessica are big supporters of local farmers markets and homespun gardens. They have been to markets locally, nationally and globally, and they base their menu on what they have seen and tasted.
Since Block 16’s ever-revolving menu reflects what’s available at the market, diners’ taste buds savor the current season’s best produce and ingredients. Paul and Jessica have also formed relationships with numerous local farms, such as Rhizosphere Farm, Shadow Brook Farm, Plum Creek Farm and Branched Oak Farm.
“It should be important to any establishment to know where their food comes from,” Jessica said. “Knowing where the animal was raised and what it was raised on helps us to prepare our food, and it inspires us to work with quality flavor profiles. Plus, the relationships we have built with our farmers and growers help to enrich our lives in general.”
Their passion for local food is what keeps the menu fresh, exciting and unusual. It’s not every day that a restaurant serves snails with fried green tomatoes and bacon jam, aiming to get Omaha out of its meat-and-potato comfort zone.
“If people are hesitant to try something new, we have them try something that sounds good to them on our menu,” said Paul. “We form relationships and build trust each time, and then they trust us enough to try something that may seem intimidating or weird.”
For these restaurant owners, working with food doesn’t feel like work. Rather, it’s a rewarding experience to see people happily eating and enjoying the food that they prepare. “This is the only career I can truly do that’s completely endless with possibilities,” Paul said. “You’re never done growing. Jessica and I constantly bounce ideas off each other based on what’s available. This is what allows us to be creative and create dishes that people enjoy.”
Whether you’re an exotic eater or you prefer to stick with something more familiar, Block 16 offers a wide variety of options that are sure to please any palate.
Block 16 is located at 1611 Farnam Street in Omaha. For more information, visit Block16Omaha.com or follow Block 16 on Twitter @ Block16Omaha. Theresa Farrage is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Midwest Living and the Omaha World-Herald. Her passions, outside of fashion and philanthropy, include supporting local restaurants and food producers. She also loves expanding her palate by cooking and eating various ethnic cuisines.