The Grey Plume is closing its doors, ending its decade-long run as Omaha’s most nationally acclaimed restaurant. The permanent closure, rumored for months, also sounds the loudest alarm yet that the pandemic is battering our city’s restaurant industry — particularly brutalizing those restaurants, like the Grey Plume, that were financially endangered before COVID-19 hit.
“I feel fortunate and blessed to have had such a wonderful run,” said Chef Clayton Chapman during a recent interview. “It is the end of an era.”
Chapman’s restaurant did have one heck of a 10-year run. Chapman earned more James Beard Award nominations than any other chef in the city’s history while running The Grey Plume. His Midtown Crossing restaurant garnered national headlines, became a pit stop for out-of-town foodies and starred as an intimate spot where Omahans celebrated anniversaries, birthdays and carefree Saturday nights.
Chapman says he has no plans to open another restaurant “for the foreseeable future.” While confirming the permanent closure — Grey Plume has been temporarily closed since March — Chapman cited the pandemic, a desire to find a better work-life balance and an ongoing lawsuit between the restaurant and its landlord.
In that lawsuit, East Campus Realty, the subsidiary of Mutual of Omaha that owns and operates Midtown Crossing, alleges that Chapman owes back rent and defaulted on his lease by not being open regular hours.
That lawsuit is ongoing, but the decision to close the restaurant is settled, Chapman said.
“It’s not so black and white,” he said of the lawsuit. “We were excited to reopen, but we couldn’t make the hurdle.”
The Grey Plume opened in 2010 to fanfare and excitement. The restaurant shepherded a new moment in Omaha’s food scene, one focused on local ingredients, local farmers, sustainability, seasonality and a sort of upscale-meets-approachable look and feel.
Chapman joined a new generation of high-end Omaha chefs who moved away from stiff French cuisine, formal service and ingredients that often originated far outside the Midwest.
This new movement pushed the city’s restaurant scene forward, as chefs like Chapman showed Omaha diners that Nebraska raised pork and beef, vegetables from Iowa and fish raised using aquaculture could star on menus and plates.
His food, much of it served on slabs of wood or handmade, wavy ceramic platters, often let the quality and flavor of those ingredients shine through. He used simple techniques like pickling, smoking and pureeing to create fantastic juxtaposition between flavor and freshness. I’ll never forget his burger, each element — patty, bun, pickles — made completely from scratch, in house, down to the condiments. And no one who dined at his table will forget the ever-changing amuse bouche, always served in two artfully plated spoons, a bright spot of any meal that never disappointed in texture or taste.
Chapman said when he opened, he remembers feeling cautiously optimistic that diners would accept this simple but sustainable food.
He also remembers the early challenges in getting the local ingredients the restaurant became known for. Some winters, all he had to work with was beets, sweet potatoes and onions. Now, supply chains exist to connect Omaha chefs and consumers with local farmers on a year round basis.
For a decade, Chapman said the city’s diners let him put “whatever he wanted” on the restaurant’s menu.
“Diners trusted us,” he said.
Talk of the Grey Plume’s financial struggles has circulated in the restaurant industry for years.
Those struggles broke into public view late this year, after the pandemic forced The Grey Plume and every other Omaha restaurant to halt in-person dining in March.
In a Douglas County District Court lawsuit filed in November, East Campus Realty sued Chapman for back rent and the remainder of the future rent he owes as part of his lease obligation.
Court records also show that the restaurant’s lease was renegotiated six times, and that the landlord waived The Grey Plume’s rent for one month in 2012 and waived rent again for seven months in 2017 and 2018.
A final notice demanded that Grey Plume reopen for dinner service during the summer of 2020. In the court filing, East Campus Realty notes that Chapman told them he was “not in a financial position” to be able to reopen in July.
“We have valued our relationship with Clayton Chapman and are sorry to see The Grey Plume close their doors,” Molly Skold, Midtown Crossing’s vice president for marketing and communications, said in a statement. “We wish Clayton and his team all the best in future endeavors.”
During its ten years in Midtown Crossing, the restaurant racked up press and award nominations. It (and Chapman) earned more national accolades than most restaurants in the city’s history, and drew write ups in Bon Appetit, Saveur, The New York Times, Travel and Leisure, Cooking Light, Wired and many more.
Chapman earned five James Beard Award semifinalist nominations during the restaurant’s run: in 2011 and 2012 he was nominated in the Rising Star Chef of the Year category, and in 2013, 2014 and 2015 in the Best Chef: Midwest category. He remains the most nominated chef in Omaha history.
The Green Restaurant Association called The Grey Plume “the greenest restaurant in America” and eventually Chapman grew the business into a second space down the street, Provisions, where he taught cooking classes and held private dinners. Provisions closed in 2019.
What Chapman plans to do next has roots in what he started at Provisions.
He’s started a new company, Noble Hospitality, a consulting firm that will help restaurants revisit service, make menu changes or evaluate administrative issues.
He’s also relaunching cooking classes, but virtually this time, at Noble Cooking Classes. Students can sign up online, and the class will include home delivery of all the ingredients. He also plans to start uploading new content to his YouTube channel.
At one point, Chapman hoped to do all this while turning over the day-to-day operations of the restaurant to former Grey Plume chef David Brandenburgh, who Chapman brought home from Chicago.
But as 2020 progressed, he abandoned those plans because of the financial reality and because the pandemic caused him to rethink his future.
“…I was going to reopen and not be the star anymore,” he said. “I have worked holidays, nights and weekends since I was a teenager, and missed a lot in the past 20 years.”
Chapman said he didn’t want to look back and regret not being there for his children and family.
“The pandemic and Midtown Crossing added extra constraints and layers of complexity that made the decision to close a natural one.”