(Written by Savannah Pickard)
If you call Benson your home, then you've probably seen him living the words, "sushi is life," behind the rail at Yoshitomo, maybe playing a show in his band, Carson City Heat, or perhaps even enjoying a drink at one of the many rad bars in the Benson neighborhood.
Sources have confirmed that Dave "Yoshi" Utterback is much more than just a sushi man, but I needed to find out for myself; so I sat down with the enigma himself earlier this week to talk a little bit about his journey and life as a restaurant owner and chef.
Can you fill me in on the time you've spent as a chef working your way to where you are now?
"I started out in my early 20s working a bunch of random management and retail jobs trying to, you know, find my way (in Omaha). I had always been interested in sushi and a buddy of mine had just gotten a job at Blue and he said he could get me a job there, too, so I put in an application. When I showed up and handed in my application, I was very poor, but I wanted some sushi. So I ate there but I tipped very badly and the waitress threw away my application. The chef that was working saw it and said, 'Who was that guy who just filled out an application!?' and the waitress was like, 'Oh, you don't want to hire him! He tips badly, that guy can't work here!' And after scolding her for throwing away my application, he got it out of the trash and hired me. So I like to say that my career literally started in the garbage."
"I ended up working for Blue for quite a number of years, worked my way from the very bottom to chef, then lead chef, all the way to their corporate chef. I was head of sushi for about 7 years, and then you just hit a certain point and you decide on if you are going to continue building someone else's dream or if you are gonna go and put work into your own. After 12+ years it was time to start working on my own dream."
What about the initial conception and rough timeline of creating Yoshitomo? How long had this dream been in the works?
"I'd started thinking about owning my own restaurant early into my career as chef. You know, every chef, every cook talks about the restaurant they're going to have. So starting at day one, you think, 'My restaurant's gonna do this, this, and this,' but you say you're gonna do things and how you're going to do them without actively working on it. It's just talk. The real nuts and bolts of working on this restaurant started last year in January when I left Blue. I'd left the company and my choice was, again, either go work for somebody else for another 10+ years, or go beg, borrow, and steal (not literally) money to open my own restaurant. A lot of things like the way we approach food and a lot of the design elements of the restaurant I've been thinking about for a decade, but that goes back to chefs talking about their dreams. The real work for this restaurant started about a year and a half ago."
Are there any dining experiences or even other restaurants that inspired you in any way?
"Yeah, yeah, I've had a couple of those meals. I had the opportunity to eat with the now celebrity chef, Jiro, about 9-10 years ago, and I was just a crappy line cook at the time and I didn't know that sushi could be that way. I didn't know that there was a high-end version beyond just charging too much for food, I didn't know there was, you know, a craftsmanship side to sushi."
"Shortly after that, I ate at a really great restaurant in Austin, called Uchi, which does a lot of what we're trying to do here. The meal that I had was a balancing act between approachable food and dishes while also pushing everything forward; pushing diners towards eating better fish, taking a lot of options away from them and focusing on the experience of dining. A lot of what we do here is inspired by what they've done over there."
As far as location goes, was opening up shop here in Benson an intentional choice?
"Yeah, I've been in the community since back when we all used to hang out in Dundee, and then everyone started moving out to Benson 7-8 years ago. Pretty much everyone in this neighborhood I know, we've been drinking and having good times together for about 15 years. You aren't going to open up a restaurant like this in Suburbia, your choices are downtown or midtown, and this is my home. My house is a couple blocks from here, all my friends are here, if we need something, we can go across the street and borrow it. Sushiyas (Japanese name for sushi restaurants) in Japan are really part of the community, everyone who frequents them is from that neighborhood. There isn't another neighborhood in the city where the growth and community is organic. At any given time I know around 50% of guests in the restaurant, and between everyone who works here, I'd say we know 75% of the people who walk through the door, and that's super cool."
I'm assuming there are a lot of struggles you've had to face while opening Yoshitomo, could you share some of them?
"Getting and keeping the restaurant open comes with a lot of hoops to jump through, you never know what the city is gonna throw at you. The plumbing inspector wants something, the food inspector wants something completely different, and no one can give you a set answer on how much everything going to cost. Basically, you just have a small bucket of money and by the time you get the restaurant's doors open, you hope you didn't have to sell the bucket, too."
"Also, coming from a corporate background, everyone has their own specific job. Mine was worrying about food and running the sushi bar efficiently. Now, I'm the only guy who can do 'owner stuff'. There isn't another owner to help with everything else that isn't food, it's pretty much just me. When we were opening I was the one mowing the overgrown grass and shoveling sidewalks, I don't get to worry about just running the rail. People walking in the door don't think about who has to keep the lights on, who has to make sure all the equipment is working, who has to keep this place from just falling apart and letting nature take over. In the corporate world there are a team of people working on all that stuff, but here, it's just me. It's almost like having your fingers in a leaky dam, you only have two hands and can plug up these holes today and the rest are just going to have to wait one more day and hopefully the whole thing doesn't fall apart by the time you can deal with all the issues. One day I hope I won't be the one who has to shovel the walk and I can just pay someone else $10 to do it, but right now we just really need that $10."
Where do you see Yoshitomo in 5 years from now? Are there any longterm goals you have in mind?
"The goal was always to create a small little group of restaurants, we're not talking a large corporate group of restaurants, but the idea was to use Yoshitomo as a diving board for more restaurants like it. I'm not interested in sticking bunch of Yoshitomos all over the place, that's just kind of boring. It becomes no different than a McDonald's at that point. I see us moving into some different concepts keeping the same ideas, service, and vibes the same, but mixing it up and doing smaller, more chef-driven restaurants. The idea is to kind of take this model, tweak it, get it working right, figure out the systems for other restaurants, and do it more."
"This all comes stems from the lacking of chef-driven restaurants. If you step back and look at the city, the cost of opening up a restaurant by yourself without any sort of big money help or angel investor is so high that chef's can't do it. That's why so many restaurants are just chains. Even the newer restaurants opening up pretend to be local, but they're not. They're funded by out of state money and just have the front of being local. The idea that we can stay in town an take chefs with passions and turn those into dining experiences for people in town rather than everyone waiting for the next California Pizza Kitchen to open up or some other giant corporate garbage. Someone's gotta be that guy who helps."
And that pretty much concludes my wonderful interview with Dave Utterback. I hope you feel enriched and learned a lot about the man who finally brought sushi to Benson, and maybe you even learned a little bit about yourself on this journey. Remember: don't be sad that it's over, be happy it happened.
What is your favorite flavor of ice cream?
Can you make an anagram out of your name?
Smart Ley Hibd.
What’s your favorite album?
What’s the best part about bartending?
That’s a hard one- the fun? It’s fun.
What was your first bar experience like?
It was at the 49’r Lounge. All I was thinking was, “I am not cool enough to be in here”. That’s still what I think.
What is your favorite drink to drink? Favorite drink to make?
As hot of Jameson, for both.
What superpower would you choose to have?
The ability to fly, but only when I’m naked-yep!
Heaven or Hell?
Arizona, it’s just hell.
Do you have anything else you would like to share?
The crow flies at midnight, but only North. The person who needs to know this will understand what it means.
How long have you been making pizzas?
I’ve been making pizza for twenty five years, ever since Lo Sole Mio opened. I started making pizza there.
What is your favorite pizza?
Ooh I’m going to have to go with the Margherita.
What is you worst pizza memory?
Oh wow, definitely in a nightmare I had. Yep worst pizza memory-in a nightmare.
If one animal could rule the world, which should it be? And why?
Gorilla! ‘Cause I’m a gorilla. If the lion is the king of the jungle- then the gorilla must be the star of the jungle.
What is one great thing you can say about being 27 years old?
My hair was thicker- thick hair.
Chicken or egg?
If you had one day left to live what would you do?
I don’t know, that’s a deep question. I would go skydiving without a parachute, that’s what I would do. Call everyone and tell them I love them and go skydiving. You hit the ground, go right through to the center of the earth, and then to the other side.
If someone gave you a Hermit crab right now, what would you name it?
Herman! H-e-r-m-a-n, and I would call him Herman-o!
What’s your favorite album?
There’s so many good ones, that’s a hard one. I’m probably goin’ with Rob Zombie. I’m trying to think of an album. If I was gonna go skydive, I would probably put on a Rob Zombie album and skydive to it.
Do you have anything you want to share with Benson?
If they want something weird, come down for Benson First Friday, we are putting crickets on pizza! That’s good and weird, yeah?
Recycling, composting, and zero waste are quickly becoming more commonplace practices. Because many people are still unaware of the necessity of adopting these practices, it is important to take the time to learn and educate people in the community around yourself. Embracing these practices will not only benefit the Earth and environment around you, but it will also bring you closer to the people who surround you, the food that you handle and consume, and to your own awareness and body. I sat down with Morgan Wright, with Hillside Solutions, to speak of their composting and recycling programs. They have partnered with multiple businesses in Benson and are hoping to educate this community and neighborhood about the importance of waste reduction.
Q: What do you do with Hillside Solutions?
A: You can think of us like an eco-friendly trash company. As in, we’ll empty your dumpster and take it to the landfill, but we’d much rather figure out ways to recycle and compost your waste. We help businesses, schools, and apartments meet their sustainability goals, whether it’s just increasing recycling rates or figuring out how they can go zero-waste. From what I can tell, we’re the only business in town offering organizations this type of comprehensive service, and it looks like 2018 is going to be a break through year for us.
But all that to say, it’s my job to talk to people in the community everyday about how we can partner up to create more sustainability. I love it!
Q: Besides the obvious benefits of composting, what else have you gathered through your experience with composting and reducing waste that has been beneficial?
A: Our team is learning so much everyday about the effects of our waste system. A lot of people think, “What’s the issue with landfills?”
Landfills themselves could be a carbon capsule for energy in the future, which can be viewed as beneficial. But everyday after the trash goes in, they put down a layer of dirt to offset smells and trash flying around. While this seems like a good thing, what it actually does is block out oxygen from getting to our organic waste, so it takes forever for materials to break down. A head of lettuce thrown into a garbage bag that gets thrown into a landfill takes 25 years to break down. Think about that!
In the meantime, that lettuce head is putting off methane, which is 60 times worse than CO2. While many landfills collect methane and sell it to energy companies, the total amount of methane released in the lifespan of a landfill that isn’t catchable ends up creating more problems than solutions.
There’s a better way, and that’s composting our organic waste, which is where we come in.
Q: Is there anything you could direct other people towards to learn more about composting, recycling, or waste reduction?
A: I recently saw the “Wasted! The Story of Food Waste” documentary at a collaborative screening at Film Streams. I really encourage everyone to watch this to get an understanding of what our food waste does to the environment, and what alternatives we have to be apart of the solution.
People in our community right here are leading the charge, like our sustainability partners at Duchesne Academy. They have a 2030 zero-waste goal, and are the first high school in Omaha to participate in our composting program. The students, parents, and educators within the school system are very involved and they are some of my local heroes.
We’re also working with St. John’s Parish on the Creighton University campus as they work towards becoming the first zero-waste congregation in Omaha.
Q: Do you think you could see a zero-waste Benson in the future? Or anything close?
A: That’s what I’m working towards everyday. I love this neighborhood, and I think Benson is a diverse, accepting, and progressive community, so we certainly have the capacity to grow into a greener neighborhood.
Short term goals: We’re exploring the feasibility of community composting stations in the neighborhood, since we’ve seen such a high demand for people wanting to drop off their organic waste. I’ve been attending community meetings and meeting with neighborhood owners one-on-one to explore how we can increase recycling rates and begin composting their organic waste. The response has been really positive and I think we’re going to be able to make a lot of progress this year.
“Hi! My name is Morgan Wright and I love Benson. I'm a proud BFF member, Benson Neighborhood Association member, and currently have a massage therapy practice out of my Benson home. Most of all, I’ve loved my time working at various neighborhood establishments, and supporting the thriving music and art scene over the past decade. I'm honored to be a part of such a vibrant community, I love the people of Benson, and look forward to helping my community become more sustainable. Hillside Solutions provides an alternative to traditional waste companies. We are a local, family owned business that takes recycling, organic material, which is processed at our compost farm, and landfill refuse. We’d love to hear from you in how we can work together to improve our community.”
In Benson, there is opportunity around every corner. The community, the businesses, the artists, and the people all share one common element, they want to be the best they can be.
But sometimes, this much potential can become dizzying. The old saying rings true, "so much to do, so little time". And when the activities are this engaging and wonderful, you don’t want to miss a one.
I have included here a list of the Art Galleries in Benson (that I am aware of) so that everyone can go out and support the local artists that make Benson so weird/great. This is also not an extensive list, particularly because every business in Benson tends to have art hanging on their walls, so you can never go wrong!
Benson Art Galleries:
2725 N 62nd St
Omaha, NE 68104
6208 Maple St
Omaha, NE 68104
CHOICE Custom Framing & Gallery
5905 Maple St
Omaha, NE 68104
The Little Gallery Benson
5901 Maple Street
Omaha, NE 68104
Maple St. Construct
5912 Maple Street
Omaha, Nebraska 68104
If I have missed any and you would like the included, leave a comment and I'll update soon!
P.S. The BFF crew prints off maps for every First Friday event, so make sure to stop by the Petshop or other businesses and pick one up for a handy guide to the area!
- Justin Holman
Ah, Louis. What was once a neighborhood grocery store is now a (mediocre) gas station. When I was a kid, I remember biking to Louis market with a neighborhood friend and returning with an off-brand soda and a pack of candy cigarettes. Those tasted like garbage, but we looked cool. Louis was opened in 1957, and closed in 2012. There were aspects of the store that I assumed had never changed since its birth. The retro sign that stood tall in the parking lot, the wavy linoleum floor that gave off the sense of structural instability when walked upon, and the ancient claw machine that stood by the east doors, impossible to ever win. Call these features outdated and concerning, but to most people living in Benson, these quirks simply added to its charm and beauty. Some of the employees seemed to have been there since 1957… but were always begrudgingly ready to help, which was always sort-of appreciated. Listen, if you were going to Louis for a great customer service experience and top-of-the-line freezers, you shouldn’t have been shopping at Louis in the first place. But alas, never will I step foot in that beautiful old grocery store again. Long gone are the days of losing coins to that impossible claw machine, or chugging an off brand soda while gnawing on a jaw-breaking candy cigarette. Rest in peace Louis, you are forever missed.
-BFF intern Tom White
BENSON – When a group of Benson businesses and organizations heard there wasn’t going to be a zombie walk down Maple Street this year, they decided to take action. As a result, zombies and zombie lovers across the metro are in for some good news: the 2017 Omaha Zombie Walk is set for Friday, Nov. 3, in downtown Benson. This year’s event will coincide with the November edition of Benson First Friday.
“The annual Omaha Zombie Walk has become synonymous with Benson, so a group of us got together to make sure it continues,” said Alex Jochim, executive director of Benson First Friday.
There is no cost to participate in the walk, but donations will be accepted on behalf of Siena/Francis House. Representatives of the organization will be present at Burke’s Pub, 6117 Maple St., and several other spots during the walk to collect donations.
Participants will gather in the parking lot of the Citylight Arts Project (CAP) Building, 5603 Northwest Radial Highway, at 6:30pm. The walk route runs down Maple Street and ends at 1912, 6201 Maple St. As in years past, Maple Street will not be closed to traffic, so all walkers should use the sidewalks and heed all traffic signals. Drivers should be aware of increased pedestrians in the area.
Jochim said the 2017 theme is Zombie BFF, which means all zombies are welcome. Several makeup stations will be set up at Burke’s Pub from 4:30 to 6:30pm.
For those zombies who enjoy the spotlight, a photo booth will be set up at the CAP Building at 6:00pm, and Barchen, 6209 Maple St., will host a zombie fashion contest following the walk at 7:30pm. Both events are free and open to all zombies.
In addition, a group of Maple Street businesses will be offering specials for the dead that night. Visit www.facebook.com/zombiewalk-omaha for details.
Hey, Omaha - meet MacKenzie Weaver, the talent behind our September BFF poster.
MacKenzie is a full-time student at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, where she studies studio art and art history. She also works at The Sydney and Scooter's, so she's super busy, but she did make time to answer a few questions for us. Take a look below:
What was your inspiration for the poster art?
I was inspired by Manet's A Bar at the Folies-Bergére. In my work, I focus a lot on positive feminine energy. For this Benson First Friday poster, keeping in mind that Femme Fest was also this month, I wanted my lady to look strong and command attention. I thought it was important to make her delicate and authoritative at the same time. I really enjoy working in black and white because I feel like it immediately draws the eye in and allows the use of more detail that may get lost in the mix of a lot of color.
When did you know you wanted to be an artist?
I've been an artist my whole life. My parents always encouraged the arts when I was a child, and my passion never went away. I feel very fortunate that I was able to find something so powerful that I love and plan to keep pursuing the rest of my life.
Where can people see your work?
People can see my work via instagram (@oheydare). A website is in the works.
What's your favorite thing about Benson?
The focus Benson has on the local arts is awesome. It gives so many musicians and artists the opportunity to showcase themselves to the rest of the community. It is such a wonderful community filled with amazing people.
Like this month’s BFF poster? It’s the work of Jeff Armstrong, creative director at Sleight Advertising/SA Production Studio. By day, he’s a cinematographer/editor/animator, but he’s always loved photography and graphic design.
“I’m not much of an artist in the traditional sense, but the opportunity presented itself to take part helping the community,” Jeff said of his BFF work. “I love showing others what Benson is all about. I love that the whole neighborhood gets together to celebrate art and music. It's nice to wander around, duck your head in and meet people that you might not cross paths with on a regular basis. We are all guilty of getting stuck in a routine (St. Andrews for me), but it's nice to get out of your comfort zone and experience new things in Benson that you didn't know were there.”
We asked Jeff what inspired the July poster, and here’s what he told us:
“When I first started working on the poster, I knew I wanted to incorporate photography into the design. St. Andrews is one of my favorite places in Benson, so I wanted to take the photo from the point of view I’m familiar with. It's great sitting out on the benches in front and east of St. Andrews, talking with friends and meeting new people in the neighborhood.”
We also asked Jeff when he knew he wanted to be an artist:
“I grew up in an artistic family. My grandmother (Kay Armstrong), who volunteered at the Joslyn for 25+ years, got me interested in art at a very young age. From there, I continued learning under the direction of Monica Baxter at Skutt Catholic High School. She was a great teacher, and I learned a lot from her and my peers (who were a lot more skilled then me!)
You can see more of Jeff’s work at:
Our Newsroom editors are current interns of BFF - most are students at UNO.