The smell is the first sign of trouble.
“Where is that coming from?” asks Josh Nightengale, executive chef at Venue, to no one in particular.
He begins a search.
In a kitchen filled with smells, from steaks grilling to pizza baking, this one is different.
It’s electrical, like wires burning.
It’s 5:50 p.m. on a Friday, and the restaurant is just minutes away from the dinner rush.
“What is that smell?” Nightengale asks one of the floor managers, who is helping to look.
There is a pop, then a flash, then another pop and flash. It’s coming from the corner, where the water softener sits. Nightengale learns later it’s a malfunctioning “hot line” running to the walk-in freezer.
Tonight, the problem results in no lights in the freezer -- an inconvenience, but nothing to keep the kitchen from functioning at its standard high level.
“Our first major catastrophe,” Nightengale jokes as walks back to the main kitchen, where things are beginning to heat up as hot as the 520-degree wood fire oven that sous chef Jonah King is manning.
Venue, at 70th Street and Pioneers Boulevard, is one of Lincoln’s elite restaurants, where reservations aren’t required but encouraged, especially on Friday and Saturday nights when activity in the open kitchen is fast and furious.
Journal Star photographer Anna Reed and I spent three hours with the Venue crew to observe what it’s like on one of these busy nights.
It’s not Fox’s “Hell’s Kitchen,” with chef Gordon Ramsay screaming obscenities at ill-prepared line cooks.
This, instead, is a well-oiled machine, where the banter among the chefs is focused on the task at hand.
* “We’re not even 10 minutes on the lead (entree), guys, we’re doing good,” line supervisor Levi Dale says, referring to time needed to get out a meal.
* “Alabama, can you call back for one side of lemon broccoli?” Nightengale asks Mike Green, who once lived in Alabama and loves all things Crimson Tide.
* “Andy, you’ve got a jamba (jambalaya fettucini) and a side of mac and cheese,” Nightengale says to sauté chef Andrew Spilker.
* “Travis, you have a 6-ounce filet go medium and another 6-ounce filet go medium,” Nightengale says to Travis Chrisman, Venue’s banquet manager who’s overseeing the grill tonight. Chrisman repeats the order out loud as he bend overs and opens a refrigerated drawer next to the grill and pulls out the steaks.
* “Is there anybody that can run for me?” asks line chef Bobby Lutz, who needs glasses from the bar for an appetizer he’s preparing.
Though it’s all business, that’s not to say there isn’t some playfulness here, too.
The walk-in freezer features a poster of actor Christopher Walken. And three miniature action figures -- Captain America, The Thing and Wolverine -- sit next to the plates, supervising the action.
Venue owners Jeff Barclay and Scott Ritter hired Nightengale as their executive chef in November, bringing him over from the Country Club of Lincoln, where he served as executive sous chef under Lorin Dagle, who once co-owned Venue.
Nightengale, 32, attended the “school of hard knocks,” working in kitchens since the age of 15. He attributes his cooking passion to his grandmother and his blue-collar work ethic to time spent on a farm as a kid.
He’s married with two kids, ages 6 and 2, whom he rarely sees, because he works more than 80 hours a week.
“It’s so hard to explain to people why we do it,” he says as he cuts a large piece of salmon into steaks. "I guess it’s because (chefs) are people-pleasers.”
Venue surrounds Nightengale with a who’s who of Lincoln chefs. Chrisman came to Venue by way of Green Gateau and Boulevard 333. Spilker recently left jtk as its executive chef, and King was once the executive chef at Carmela’s Wine & Bistro.
“We’re kind of the Dream Team, Yankees or whatever,” King says.
On this night, eight people are in the kitchen, five in black coats and Nightengale, King and Chrisman in white coats. Those with hair wear hats.
Dale runs the “wheel” (the printer) and plates the food. A photographer and artist, he takes pride in presentation. He decorates corners of plates with geometric designs, using, among other things, a red pepper coulis, a black balsamic vinegar and a green chive oil.
King is at the oven, shoveling pizzas in and out as if he’s wielding a battle axe.
Lutz handles appetizers; Green is at the fryer; Jess Flores prepares salads; Chrisman grills steaks and salmon; and Spilker is the sauté chef. The warming oven below his burners are filled with multiple frying pans. He uses each pan only once before it goes to the dishwasher.
Behind the kitchen is a preparation area, where two more of Nightengale’s crew work. They are Emidia “Ema” Gonzales and Sonya Ortiz, who chop vegetables, warm dinner rolls, and transport clean dishes back into the main kitchen.
“The goal is to not step off the line for anything,” King says.
The unsung hero is Rafael Garcia, who washes dishes nonstop in a room just off the kitchen.
Nightengale fills in where needed. When Dale’s busy plating, Nightengale runs the wheel. After the 6 p.m. rush, he takes over the grill for Chrisman, who leaves the kitchen to begin prep work for an upcoming banquet.
Among the night’s specials is an Ora King Salmon -- a new kind of New Zealand-raised salmon that Oprah Winfrey’s touted and has just become available in the United States. Nightengale sells all 18 he has for the evening.
The salmon is drizzled with a red-pearled raspberry caviar created by King -- “Jonah is our mad scientist,” Nightengale says -- and served with pomme frites tossed in an orange tarragon compound butter, fresh arugula and asparagus.
As the three-hour window draws to a close, Nightengale apologizes for a slow night.
Slow? At one point, nearly 10 tickets line the counter, and the dining room, at least from the kitchen’s vantage point, appears full. But Spilker and Dale talk of nights when tickets spill off the rail, and the kitchen struggles to keep up.
This isn’t one of those nights.
“Our goal is 18 to 20 minutes on a ticket,” Nightengale says. “It may take longer, and if that’s the case, we will tell the guest. We’ll be honest with them. Communication is the key.”
In and out of the kitchen.