Zach Midgett: Calling for Order in the Kitchens
Updated: Nov 1, 2021
“Less is more.”
We know that the sounds, the smells, and the sights of cooking itself can bring out a voracious appetite. With the open kitchen design of Casa Bovina, its chefs pride themselves in putting on a stunning show of culinary expertise for the restaurant's guests as they enjoy their meal, creating an unforgettable dining experience. It is structured chaos, a flurry of bustling preparations for every dish to be as consistently beautiful and delectable as the last, yet there is no unnecessary sound or disruption. With Executive Chef Zach Midgett at its helm, the kitchen of Casa Bovina in motion is a well-oiled precision machine.
Zach holds a passion for systems and discipline. He finds it less than pleasant when orders are executed at less than optimum efficiency. One of the first tasks he set himself to at Casa Bovina was to cut the number of menu listings by half. "I've always been attracted to discipline and the brigade system," Zach mused. "I like to organize and show better ways to do things; to better respond to things." The kitchen brigade or "brigade de cuisine" system developed by French chef Georges-Auguste Escoffier in the 19th century ensures that every cook had a clear purpose so they would be able to achieve maximum efficiency.
The drastic shortening of the menu had made things much more manageable, turning great dishes divine as the chefs fine-hone their focus and energy. "I enjoy the atmosphere of a kitchen running smoothly and have great respect for all staff. It's a team thing that keeps me coming back every day."
“It feels like playing again.”
It comes to no surprise that Zach's love for the kitchen stems from the fast-paced atmosphere and the discipline needed to navigate and command the hazardous space. Zach grew up playing soccer, and he likened working in the kitchen to the team sport. "It has the same disciplinary atmosphere, and you're also putting up a performance for an audience." Zach’s passion for cooking can be found in the details. "I enjoy all sauce work and making pasta. Pasta is like adult playdough. You get to play with egg and flour and make it into whatever shape you want. It's therapeutic."
Growing up in suburban Philadelphia, Zach's culinary journey started when he was 16, as a dishwasher at The Washington House in Sellersville, Pennsylvania. "I never went to culinary school. I wasn't even attending much the last two years of high school. I would leave early and go to work," Zach recalled. Only the kitchen interested him. In no time, Zach worked his way up to the food preparation line and progressed through all stations in the kitchen. He moved on to restaurants such as La Peg and The Mainland Inn. His first introduction into restaurant management was at Wister BYOB, where he worked as Sous Chef. Not long after that, Zach moved to California to work as Sous Chef under Thomas Keller at The French Laundry.
To Zach, he had gained much during his three-year stint at The French Laundry despite how demanding it was. "There were no easy days. Sometimes I go to sleep thinking, 'Why am I doing this?' and then I'll wake up thinking, 'Wow, I really want to do this.'" Zach has come to live and breathe the work in a kitchen. If his house was burning down, he said his knives would be the first thing he brought with him.
Earlier this year, Zach received a surprise offer to begin a new chapter of his culinary career when the owner of Casa Bovina, Shane Peed, reached out to him. "It was a little scary at first. Shane contacted me and offered to fly me out to Lincoln to do a tasting." Zach confesses that it was a bizarre experience for him, but it is not every day such an opportunity comes by, and he knew he had to take the leap.
"Coming here; Nebraska reminds me of home, the friendly people, and the calm setting. I honestly like it."
"Midwest work ethic is a real thing."
It was a head-spinning leap from a flushed pinnacle of extravagant food in the Napa Valley to a fledging fine-dining restaurant operating under a beef company in the Cornhusker State. The staff size is one-twentieth of what Zach is used to, certain products and ingredients are elusive, and there is always new staff joining the ever-growing crew that has to be caught up to speed and standard. It was a breath of fresh air for Zach.
"The first thing I noticed when first coming to Casa Bovina was how hardworking and kind the staff is." Before joining the ranks, Zach commended that Casa Bovina's crew gave a better performance than staff in many fine-dining restaurants he had seen. "This restaurant has a lot of potential. Honestly, I wished I had some of these guys out on the West Coast. The team works really hard, ten times harder than any of the guys I worked with before, and you can feel that everyone is putting in the effort because they want to be."
At Casa Bovina, Zach found himself allowed time and space to curate his culinary experiences and the freedom to experiment with creative recipes, which is rare for someone with his background: growing up as a young culinary and subsequently working under a celebrity chef. "You don't really get credit for the things you do outside of this place. The level of creative freedom here is very rare."
The restaurant is proud to celebrate its crew – Certified Piedmontese stands behind the concept of "product speaks for itself" and applies the same principles to Casa Bovina. The heart of the restaurant is the kitchen, with its innovative and modern design and state-of-the-art equipment. It is a culinary playground that encourages its staff to unleash their zeal for the culinary arts.
Zach states that one of the best things was arriving at Casa Bovina and finding himself surrounded by different talents. "Everyone here has more than ten years’ experience in the restaurant industry, in our respective fields. It's a very fun project that ownership has put together: scouting us out and putting us on this team." Zach recalls the first time he worked with Chef Todd. It was an unexpected meeting of matches welcomed by both chefs. "I was a little concerned at first, but I'm glad we worked out. It's just crazy. The things he doesn't know, I do; the things I'm not comfortable with, he is. It's not something you find easily."
Needless to say, Casa Bovina is an amalgamation of competency and passion, with everyone bringing a unique skill to the table. "This is a great team," Zach agrees.
“The ingredients tell us what to do.”
Casa Bovina is a perfect melding of haute cuisine with an inheritance of the Nebraskan Nice spirit from the people and land it stands upon, creating a unique atmosphere that is refined and rustic. Both the kitchen and wait staff operate at the highest level to make all guests feel at home. "Some of our guests don't expect the inviting and comfortable vibe with this level of cuisine, and it's good to surprise them."
Since its grand opening in 2020, Casa Bovina has come to hold an integral place in the Lincoln food community as a fine dining establishment that sets the bar. It is in no small part due to the quality of ingredients used in the restaurant. For Zach, cooking is about going out to the estate garden on the Certified Piedmontese campus, ripping out a head of cabbage from the ground, and putting it on the menu. He believes in wandering out to the trees and finding the low-hanging fruit to turn into a dish worthy of recognition. Every day is a new challenge as Zach and Todd decide the tasting menu based on the fresh ingredients on hand. "We ask ourselves, 'would it taste good?' and go with it." The process is not set in stone, and some dishes come together with varied attempts, but the chefs never waver.
Zach says that he is "more of a vegetable person," but his favorite steak is the dry-aged whiskey ribeye, which is a popular menu choice at Casa Bovina. "I've cooked Certified Piedmontese beef before, even way back when I was working at my first restaurant, but I never knew that it was a heritage breed from Northwestern Italy." Zach talked about his experience with cooking high-grade beef. "It feels nice, working with Certified Piedmontese beef. For three years at the French Laundry, I've been cooking Japanese wagyu, which has an extremely high-fat content. But eating all this rich, luxurious beef gets to a point where it's just overdone. Now I'm doing the complete opposite with such a lean cut of beef, and it's nice that it still works so well."
“I feel like I’m a better organizer than I’m a chef.”
When asked about his specialty, Zach's answer would not be what you expected: organizing. "When I first arrived at Casa Bovina, I organized everything. Everyone now knows whose responsibility is whose." Zach finds pride and joy in the comprehensive systems and schedules he put into place and training up new staff to enact a smooth kitchen brigade system. "I'm a systems guy. When somebody doesn't have something or something isn't where it should be, we should know who is responsible."
The personification of a textbook perfectionist, Zach strives for his idea of perfection: making someone happy with his food at the end of the night. "Attempting perfection will inevitably end up in the guest's satisfaction."
That is not all Zach has to say on perfection. He maintains that as a chef, two qualities should always be present: integrity and respect. "Integrity is one the most important core values a chef should have. You see something wrong; you take the initiative and take it upon yourself to make a change." Going above and beyond expectations is something he sees embodied by Certified Piedmontese and the stringent assessments, including DNA testing, performed on every calf to ensure their genetic profile qualifies for the Certified Piedmontese program.
Regard your work well, and it will become your identity. Zach gave an example of why respect is deserved. "The beef we serve here were raised, fed, watered, and taken care of by ranchers, then driven all across the state to be fabricated before they hit the cutting board and then your plate. As a chef, you need to have respect for what you're working with, because so much work goes into just getting it in front of you."
"It's just great, what we have here. I would encourage everyone to step outside of their comfort zone to try something new. Casa Bovina is an experience, so get the full experience."
Quick Q&A with Chef Zach
What do you do outside of work?
I'm an introvert outside of Casa Bovina, so I don't go out much. The work at the restaurant keeps me busy enough.
Do you have a favorite childhood food?
It sounds very mundane, but it's my mom cooking lamb on the grill. Then there'll be mint jelly. The juice from the lamb would melt the jelly, and I'll get a mint lamb juice. It always brings me joy.
What ingredient is a staple of autumn?
Parsnips. I like parsnips, especially Chinese parsnips.
Any food you don't eat?
I can't enjoy Thai cuisine. I don't like curry or spice, and no nuts in pasta too.
What's your favorite food?
Figs. It doesn't get any better than fig season. You can't beat it.