SOZO serves delectable food just minutes from where it was sourced
Reports from friends who experience SOZO describe their lunch or their dinner or their appetizers in superlative terms: “the best steak I have ever eaten,” coming from a friend who is a Nebraska cattle feeder; “the scallops tasted like the sea;” “the TD Niche pork takes me into another level of flavor; ” and the raves go on. SOZO grabbed the interest of the Rural Foodies when we noticed on the dynamic SOZO website that the chef features locally grown and raised products.
Recommendations of our readers got us here, and now I am sliding into a plush booth at SOZO on a mid-Saturday afternoon to steal a moment with SOZO Chef Travis Evans. As we talk, the cooks and serving staff are staging the fine dining for Saturday night. The rap, rap of a chef’s knife, whir of a blender, clicks of oven doors, and the clink of glass and clank of cutlery tell of the teamwork involved with presenting the complex character of the SOZO dining experience.
The SOZO menu features a cuisine reflective of food sourced regionally. Our conversation quickly veers into an engrossing dialogue on food and the innovations that Chef Travis and his wife, Chef Sara, are developing as they tap into regionally sourced foods. Few chefs commit their budgets and precious time to sourcing local and regional food, and I ask the chef why he takes on this challenge. His response surprises me. “I learned about cooking from my mother’s mother, my grandmother who lived on a ranch in northern Colorado — Craig, Colorado.”
His grandparents raised cattle, chickens and sheep and grew their own vegetables. “Every summer when school was out, I got to go to the ranch where I helped herd cattle, brand calves and help my grandmother with gardening and cooking,” said Chef Travis. “My real passion for cooking started with helping her and learning from her. All the proteins and vegetables had a purpose on the ranch, and we were practicing farm to table and hoof to mouth before it was popularized by the famous chefs.”
These early experiences influence the SOZO menus and cooking techniques today. “The natural beauty of cooking something just pulled from the ground impressed me from an early age,” he said. “At the ranch we seldom went to the grocery store, maybe six times per summer. We milked a cow so we had our own milk, rendered pork fat, grew our own vegetables. I grew up learning about food from growing, butchering, preserving and eating.”
The path into the life of a chef led him first to study business. Following his graduation from Southeast Community College in Lincoln, Nebraska, with an associate degree in business management, he was offered a job with a marketing firm.
“I felt unsettled and disillusioned with business and marketing,” he said, “and I decided to go back to school and maybe become a teacher.” Travis was in the guidance counselor’s office when he looked up and saw a young man walking down the hall wearing a chef coat.
“I immediately recalled my enjoyment and interest in cooking,” he said. The vision stuck with him, and he soon was working in his first corporate kitchen, enrolled in Southeast Community College Culinary School and then employed at various fine restaurants in Omaha and Lincoln including the Venue in Lincoln.
Chef meets Chef — a match is made
Chef Travis met his future wife Sara, also a chef, while at an employee meeting at the Venue. He remembers saying to himself at first sight, “I am going to marry that girl.” But at the time she was dating someone. Travis moved up the ranks at Venue quickly and in 2007 transferred with Venue to Kearney, Nebraska. While in Kearney, he learned that Sara had broken up with the gentleman she was dating.
“Within a week we were dating and we married six months later,” Travis said. The two chefs collaborate on nearly all aspects of leading, managing and creating fine food at SOZO.
Paul Younes, a hotel and hospitality entrepreneur in central Nebraska, noticed Chef Travis’s dedication, drive, attitude and interest in food and the restaurant industry.
“In 2013 Mr. Younes offered us the opportunity to open a fine dining restaurant in the Kearney Holiday Inn that reflects our concepts of the prairie cuisine,” Chef Travis said. “I love small towns, and Kearney is a perfect community for us, especially because we are a five-minute drive into agriculture land which is consistent with our concept of dining.
The word balance often pops up in Chef Travis’s conversations about food and living. He said, “In developing new recipes, we balance these components: fat for flavor and mouth appeal, acids to brighten, herbal tones, and texture and temperature – crunch, chewy, hot, cold.”
The grape pizza is an example of balancing fat, acids, herbs and texture. The Rural Foodies recommend the surprising flavors and textures and mouth appeal of the grape pizza — light and fresh in the mouth, creamy, interesting herbal undertones, with a sweet pop of juice in every bite. Our vegetarian in the family thought it was designed especially for her.
Chefs Sara and Travis also balance the chef’s work at SOZO so that they each can parent their son and maintain quality and consistency at SOZO.
“Sara begins the early morning work at the restaurant, and her preparations set the stage for the entire day and the evening,” said Chef Travis. “She bakes the pastries and organizes the work stations.” The two chefs collaborate on menus, sourcing foods, training and hiring.
“Consistency is a key to a successful restaurant, and Sara is the key to consistency at SOZO,” Chef Travis said.
Curiosity leads to testing
The two chefs are always curious about foods grown in Nebraska. When Nebraska Star Beef approached them about testing their products, they quickly agreed. Chef Travis cooked their beef a few times and decided that Nebraska Star Beef provided the quality and the cow/calf feeding and processing experience they were looking for at SOZO.
“I like knowing from the calf to the processor that the Nebraska Star Beef Company controls the carcass the whole way through,” Chef Travis said.
Below is a partial listing of the sources for food grown, raised and processed in Nebraska and served at SOZO. Find more at SOZO’s website.
- Farm Fresh, Free Range Chickens – Plum Creek Farms, Burchard, NE http://plumcreekfarmsinc.com/
- Pork from heritage pigs at TD Niche, Elk Creek, NE TD Niche on Facebook
- Wagu/Kobi style beef – Morgan Ranch, Burwell, NE morganranchinc.com
- Beef – Nebraska Star Beef, Holdrege, NE NebraskaStarBeef.com
- Red and Green Bibb Lettuce – Oak Ridge Farms, Ord, NE Oak Ridge Farms on Facebook
- Mushrooms – Nebraska Mushrooms, Grand Island, NE nebraskamushroom.com
That attention to detail carries over into SOZO’s upscale bar where every wine has a purpose and many of the selections are nonconventional. “We select wines on their price point and ask if it complements the dish,” Chef Travis said. SOZO also offers a wide variety of beers, bourbons and fine Scotch, along with Nebraska vodkas and whiskeys. Fresh ingredients are used in all their cocktails and SOZO serves tonics from Lincoln mixologist Jill Coxan.
Hiring and training quality staff is very important but also a challenge. Being in central Nebraska makes it hard to find trained chefs and wait staff so SOZO is diligent in training servers and cooks. “Currently our cook staff works well together and is handling the skill sets we need,” Chef Travis said. But he added it is hard to compete with the many job openings in Kearney for hourly workers. And setting the price point for each menu requires a careful balance. “We buy quality food and wages can take 30 to 40 percent of the cost per plate” he said.
But even with the challenges, there are many opportunities ahead for Chefs Travis and Sara. By partnering with Younes, they plan to open a burger and shake shop nearby in the hotel complex. Nebraska Star Beef and Angus beef will take center stage there.
“Again we are sticking to our values by making our own catsup and mustard,” Chef Travis said. “We will make our own bread and butter pickles and bread products for both restaurants. We recently hired a baker from Denver to bake the buns.”
They would also like to open an upscale Italian restaurant in the near future. And plans are coming together to offer patrons a wine and dinner each month where the chefs will offer five courses with five different wines or beers. An expert will talk about selecting and tasting the wines and the chef will talk about cooking techniques used to prepare the dishes on the menu.
The two-chef family will be serving travelers and local citizens delectable regional foods in flavorful ways many years into the future. See the delectable photos of our dinner plates and know that at SOZO, Chefs Travis and Sara build layers of flavor into fresh, regional dishes.
Chef Travis left us with this cherry salsa recipe sure to delight.
Chipotle Cherry Salsa
“I like making this recipe in late spring and summer when cherries are in season, and I absolutely love this on pork, duck, and scallops,” Chef Travis said.
Fresh cherries, pitted and chopped – 700 grams
Red onion, minced – 80 grams
Fresh garlic, minced – 16 grams
Chipotle in adobo, pureed – 20 grams
Fresh lime juice – 30 grams
Fresh cilantro, minced – 10 grams
Balsamic vinegar – 10 grams
Salt and pepper to taste
Mix all ingredients in a bowl and let sit over night. Serve.
“I like to weigh all my recipes. It is better to weigh than measure — faster, less cleanup, and it will always be accurate,” Chef Travis said.