Culinary Odyssey: Small-town Iowa student takes otherworldly culinary talent to Abu Dhabi
An initial decision based on saving 20 minutes of drive time six years ago eventually led Brooke Williams on a more than 7,500-mile culinary odyssey culminating in Abu Dhabi in June. The southwest Iowa native had never been on a plane before representing Metropolitan Community College — and the entire continents of North and South America — at the Global Young Chefs Challenge. The international culinary competition was one of the main events of the 39th Worldchefs Congress & Expo in the United Arab Emirates.
While competing at the event, she received a job offer that she accepted upon returning to become head chef for Site-1 Brewing, a restaurant/brewery that will be expanding to Elkhorn with a new location later this summer. It will share space with Sunnyside, a breakfast spot. Site-1 will feature Williams’ full menu.
“It’s everything I’ve ever wanted, just short of owning my own place,” Williams said.
Williams, 25, earned her Associate of Applied Science in Culinary Arts and Management from MCC in 2019. She continues her enrollment as a team member of Culinary Team Nebraska, the culinary competition team from the MCC Institute for the Culinary Arts. Competing against seven other chefs ages 25 or younger, she prepared a three-course meal from scratch at the event — a halibut appetizer with microgreens, veal filet and neck and a pastry dessert using Valrhona chocolate and two fruit purees. She estimates the dish would cost around $300 at a local restaurant.
“She had a three-hour window to put out that food. For anyone who is less trained that would be a daunting task,” said Chase Grove, coach of Culinary Team Nebraska. “Something that makes [Brooke] excellent is she has put out delicious food at a high execution and skill level without looking like she’s running around mad trying to get everything done. She’s very smooth and elegant in how she cooks.”
While she didn’t medal at the event, Williams said it was a wonderful experience.
“It was so beautiful, and everyone was so kind. The educational experiences and time with the other chefs, food and restaurants were amazing. And the architecture in Dubai is so beautiful and functional,” Williams said.
She joined the team in 2017 without expectation, but being a part of the team helped her also see an individual path forward.
“I would have never imagined this kind of opportunity would have been presented to me. I grew up in a small town in Iowa,” Williams said. “I thought I would be on the team for two years, but it kind of makes you want more for yourself the further you go with it. Two years turned into five years, and I’ve retired three times.”
A pipeline of global-level culinary talent showcased locally
Culinary Team Nebraska has competed at a national level through the American Culinary Federation for nearly 20 years, but the College reached its highest level of competition when Williams qualified for the international event. She was accompanied by Grove; her teammate, Sierra Gonzalez; and James Davis, assistant coach of Culinary Team Nebraska. Grove and Davis are also MCC culinary instructors.
“The vast majority of Team Nebraska competitions have been in the role of underdog — the little guy who kept trying, with some renown and success winning national titles here and there along the way,” Grove said weeks before leaving for the trip. “As far as competing at the international level, we’ve only attended the conference once before, but that was attending, not competing. This is unprecedented to have a Team Nebraska individual competing at this level. Going to this conference will be an amazing experience with some ridiculously good chefs there.”
Grove said he believes Williams and Gonzalez are among a multitude of students in the culinary program who have the ability to compete at the highest level. Before accepting the head chef position with Site-1, Williams was the kitchen manager for one of Omaha’s favorite downtown restaurant destinations, Block 16. She has been adding to her menu of skills with each year of participation
Grove said her progression as a chef resembles a line graph, pushing past eventual learning-level plateaus through performance under the pressure of competition. The real-world experience gained from working the lunch rush in a thriving gastro pub within a strong Omaha dining ecosystem is also beneficial.
“Something that Brooke always had from very early in her education with us was the ability to make delicious food. Then she learned how to make technically correct delicious food, and then do it quickly and cleanly, while maintaining her composure,” said Grove, also a past competitor of Culinary Team Nebraska before becoming a mentor and assistant coach on the team. “In her most recent layer of development, she still has the ability to check all those boxes, but she also carries her team along with her. She’s built herself as a teacher and a mentor of others while pursuing this endeavor.”
Like most team sports, chemistry is an important component, and Williams and Gonzalez have it. Gonzalez, a 23-year-old from Postville, Iowa, earned an Associate in Applied Science in Hospitality and Restaurant Leadership from MCC and has been on Culinary Team Nebraska since 2018. She served as commis at the competition, a nuanced and critical role. Functioning as the chef’s assistant, she streamlined processes during the competition for Williams without providing direct support in cooking the meal.
She and Williams started working together last fall to develop every detail of their preparation, from finding time-saving efficiencies, like how items are packed and organized, to documenting and accounting for any competition need discovered during their practice routine.
“You really have to stay focused and there’s a lot of paperwork and timelines that help you get there — a lot of organizational skills. That’s where my friend and fellow teammate Sierra comes in and really helps with the business piece of the competition. She’s a really great commis,” Williams said.
Gonzalez said the focus of her job is to be a complementary force whose work provides a settling effect on the chef during intense competition.
“We’ve grown very close. We use a lot of nonverbal communication and understand each other really well,” said Gonzalez, who works as a catering associate for Catholic Health Initiatives and an MCC culinary lab assistant. “Brooke is the more creative one of the two of us, and I am focused on making the operations run smoothly as a support person.”
Grove and Williams both said the experience students are gaining from the competition format is being showcased throughout Omaha’s restaurant community. Each team member of Culinary Team Nebraska has a “scroll” number, including Brian O’Malley, MCC associate dean of culinary, hospitality and horticulture, and the previous coach before Grove assumed the role in 2019.
“If you go through who has been assigned those scroll numbers, it’s pretty prolific where those people are in the industry now. If you look at V. Mertz, there are four [former MCC culinary students] who work there. There are a few at Block 16. There are three at Boiler Room. They’re everywhere, and it’s really rewarding to see people who have committed to this team continuing to make Omaha more of the things that we love and elevating it,” Grove said.
Williams said the experience has helped her climb the ladder quickly in the restaurant industry.
“I was put into a leadership position because of my ability, timing and the quality of the food I put out. The organizational skills you learn with the team help you be a better natural leader in the kitchen,” she said. “It’s kind of crazy how awesome it is for being a small community college in the middle of America. You learn so much and get so much back from the instructors because they care that you know everything you need before they send you to these restaurants.”
She said she enjoys being part of the respected Omaha restaurant community and is grateful for the support she received in readying for the Global Young Chefs Challenge.
“I’m able to have chefs from other restaurants taste my food because they also care, and a lot of them also went to MCC. I saw a chef from the Boiler Room in passing and asked if he would taste my food, and he said, ‘I heard about that, and I would love to taste your food.’ I am supported by people I don’t even know personally,” Williams said. “It’s cool to be able to go to almost any restaurant in Omaha and tell them I was on the competition team and be able to get a job.”
Next on the menu
Williams said she will take a break from competition to focus on her new role with Site-1 Brewing and build her menu. She said the experiences gained from being on Culinary Team Nebraska while attending MCC will continue to shape her.
“MCC has been so great for me personally. I came here because it was a 20-minute drive closer, and the program is so much stronger than the other school I was considering. I guess, at the time, I felt that drive would make a big difference,” Williams said.
It actually made all the difference.
“It’s kind of surreal just having this type of opportunity because I never really planned on traveling outside of the country,” Williams said. “I thought I would travel inside the United States and live a kind of low-key life, but I guess there were other plans for me.”