Story by Jenny Nguyen-Wheatley
Photos by Jesse Deuring
The year was 1958. “Volare” dominated the Billboard Hot 100. NASA got its start, and the first Intel microchip was created. In Nebraska, the Blackstone Hotel made its own history. Primarily known for its invention of the famous Reuben sandwich, the Omaha landmark also bears a vibrant, storied past. Black and white photographs hanging in the renamed Kimpton Cottonwood Hotel pique interest, especially among hunters.
“The photos kind of remind me of The Shining, when they flash back to the old photo of the people in the hotel,” said Executive Chef Jason Sirois. “We learned early on that they used to do a wild game dinner here back when it was a Schimmel hotel, called the Blackstone. We wanted to recreate that and bring it back to life.”
Several photos were taken in 1958, evidence of one of the most premier social and culinary gatherings of the season. Beyond a sea of unknown, monochromatic faces, meal identifiers on the buffet line included antelope, venison, raccoon and bear. The party took place in the rooftop Schimmel Ballroom, and guests appeared to be bucks only — an elite group of well-to-do men who were dressed to the nines. The wild game dinner was a highly-anticipated annual event, one that existed during the lifetime of the hotel.
“The Midwest was in its heyday then,” wrote Elizabeth Weil for Saveur magazine. Weil’s grandfather, Charles Schimmel, founded the Blackstone in 1916, along with a string of other prodigious hotels in Omaha and Lincoln that brought people from all over the country to eastern Nebraska. “The railroad was grand. So were my family’s hotels. They had fancy dining rooms with white-gloved waiters rolling silver carts for haute French table service … [The men] were proud, prominent, going places …”
The Blackstone gained icon status through the Roaring Twenties, serving as a luxury stopover between San Francisco and Chicago along the Old Lincoln Highway. President John F. Kennedy and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy spent their fifth wedding anniversary at the Blackstone, and on Dec. 15, 1967, Richard Nixon announced his candidacy for the presidency from the rooftop ballroom. The hotel’s The Orleans Room restaurant won Holiday magazine’s “Award for Excellence” 16 consecutive years.
The hotel remained popular throughout its lifetime until 1976, and for unclear reasons, the building was converted for office use in the 1980s. In 2017, local investors renovated the space with the vision of bringing the Blackstone back to its former grandeur. In 2020, the Kimpton Cottonwood Hotel opened in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. The Blackstone name was dropped to avoid confusion with The Blackstone in Chicago.
Today, the historic hotel is an elegant blend of the past and present. It’s new art deco with a touch of nature — a contemporary reimagining of the opulence and glamour of the 1920s along with motifs of Nebraska’s state tree, the cottonwood, prominently featured. Visitors enter the lobby traversing Blackstone original stone tiling. Vintage details were restored wherever possible and updates were made to stay true to the former hotel’s heart and history. The property is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
When Chef Jason Sirois joined the Cottonwood’s culinary staff in November 2020, he quickly set his sights on reviving the Blackstone’s wild game dinners. Sirois saw the event as an exciting way to bring back a piece of hotel history and also encourage engagement among the greater Nebraska community. In fall 2022, the Hunter’s Harvest Dinner came to fruition.
On an October night, hungry guests sat elbow-to-elbow at a long community table, decked with picture-perfect autumn squash, flickering wax candles and glimpses of iridescent pheasant tail feathers and sun-bleached antlers. A stunning seven-course meal of bison, sturgeon, duck, venison and wild boar delighted taste buds, as well as more unusual indigenous ingredients, such as eastern redcedar (juniper), huckleberry, chanterelle mushrooms, sunchoke, yucca and “husker banana,” also known as pawpaw. And across the centerpieces were not just influential men staring back at one another, as it was during the Blackstone days.
“I think it’s fun to see a table like that, with people like Betsie [Freeman of the Omaha World-Herald], who hadn’t tasted many of those items, or people like yourself or the hunters you were sitting across from enjoying foods they’ve hunted and cooked for themselves, and maybe comparing that to the dishes that they’ve created,” Sirois said.
The menu also paid homage to Nebraska’s Native American origins: a delectable bite of bison tartare served atop Indian fry bread; bison short rib and striploin paired with the three sisters of corn, beans and squash; and a Latin-inspired wild boar chop garnished with slivers of fried sunchoke — the starchy, edible root of a common wild species of sunflower (Helianthus tuberosus) historically harvested by indigenous peoples of North America for food.
“There’s a lot of Native American influence here in the prairie, and I think it’s important that we include that in what we do,” Sirois said. “There’s also an awesome Latin-America community here and Italian, too. We have our own little Midwestern melting pot, so it’s fun for us to use local ingredients and prepare them in not only different techniques but also cultures.”
Other dishes at the Hunter’s Harvest Dinner were refreshing takes on Old World classics — a deconstructed duck cassoulet with foie gras and venison Wellington with huckleberry. For dessert, an eye-catching sweet potato cake exposed this humble New World tuber to classic pastry techniques. The fish course offered the most memorable bite: pumpkin seed-crusted lake sturgeon with a clever eastern redcedar-infused aioli.
“There are juniper trees on this property,” Sirois said. “We cut the branches, heated oil to 375 degrees and fried a ton of juniper branches. And that’s the oil we used to make the aioli, and it worked. It really came through. I thought it was one of the best things we put on a plate that night.”
Sirois and his team of seven managing chefs, plus cooks and dishwashers, made this wild game dinner happen on top of regular service at the hotel. Each chef researched and tackled a different dish, which was paired with wine by a consulting sommelier from Synergy Fine Wines in Omaha. The menu’s focus was to highlight Midwest hunting, fishing, foraging and small-scale farming heritages.
Sirois’s appreciation for wild and local ingredients runs deep. He lived in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, throughout his teens and 20s and dedicated many hours to fly-fishing Alpine lakes and hunting elk in the Buffalo Pass wilderness. As such, the harvest dinner was an amazing opportunity to work with and form relationships with local producers. Sirois’s culinary team sourced ingredients from farmers and ranchers all over the Midwest, as many as possible from Nebraska.
“Everyone thinks Nebraska is just a bunch of corn and soybean and commodity farmers, but that’s not true at all. There are so many fun, small operations around the area that are doing great things,” he said.
One example, Central Nebraska Buffalo, produces great bison meat. Bison was hunted at one time, Sirois said, and as an ecologically and historically significant species of the Great Plains, it deserves a place on American menus. Inspired by the harvest dinner, the chef plans on incorporating more bison into the regular menu at the Cottonwood’s Committee Chophouse.
Another impetus for these dinners is to bring the Cottonwood back into regional conversations as a premier dining spot, as it was during the Blackstone Hotel’s heyday.
“I want people in like Chicago or Kansas City to hear about some of the stuff that’s going on here and make the trip. I really want to be able to showcase our local ingredients, so that they leave Nebraska with a sense of ‘Oh, wow. It’s not a culinary wasteland out here. They’re doing some amazing food.’ I want people to leave these dinners feeling satisfied, feeling that they’ve expanded their horizons and broadened their palates,” Sirois said.
These dinners are also a lot of fun for the staff. They’re opportunities for the culinary team to flex their creativity and collaborate beyond the day-to-day, often monotonous, tasks of hotel dining. They hope to put on these harvest dinners twice a year in the spring and fall. Sirois anxiously looks ahead to the future.
“In the spring, we have all these beautiful, small local farms and people growing amazing produce. So, to showcase some of those items, we’ll make dinner a little lighter as the weather is warming up. We’re looking at the end of April,” he said. Morels likely will make an appearance and possibly rabbit, lamb and walleye. Eventually, Sirois hopes the success of these dinners will encourage other chefs and wine purveyors to collaborate.
Keep an eye out for the next harvest dinner at the Kimpton Cottonwood Hotel on their website, thecottonwoodhotel.com. The food will beat raccoon off a buffet line in 1958 by a long shot. Suit and tie not required. ■