KEARNEY — The kitchen at Kearney’s soon-to-be newest restaurant, Joy’s Table, buzzed with activity Thursday afternoon.
Executive Chef Jon Crocker coated pasta in white and red sauces and swirled the noodles onto plates, while steaks were sizzling in the broiler. He topped the noodles with tender strips of fried chicken.
He also prepared brightly colored appetizers such as bruschetta and a tomato and mozzarella caprese salad.
As Crocker cooked test meals for the restaurant, which opens next Friday, Oct. 25, his cooks watched and asked questions. The kitchen staff members are training for the opening of the new American and Italian restaurant in the former Sozo American Cuisine space, 110 Second Avenue.
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Joy’s Table Director of Operations Liam Mendoza, Crocker, owners Dale and Shawna Klute and some former Sozo staff members have been remodeling the building since it was struck by the July 9 flood. Mendoza said six feet of water filled Sozo and the Holiday Inn, which is attached to the restaurant.
“And the water stayed for a couple days so we had to take everything down,” Mendoza said.
The new furnishings — dark wood floors and trim, amber lighting, intimate booths and family style benches — will bring a warmer atmosphere to the restaurant. Private rooms were built for parties, booths will be placed on a platform for people looking for an intimate date night and the bar was moved into a closed-off room to separate the atmospheres. Tables in the center of the room will be conducive for families.
Mendoza said, “The atmosphere is going to be for absolutely everyone. We’re looking for families to be here to spend wonderful evenings, couples to have more intimate dinners, private parties.”
Most of the kitchen appliances were destroyed, Mendoza said, which provided him the opportunity to buy new equipment such as the broiler that reaches 1,100 degrees and cooks steaks faster. Mendoza said the broiler gives the steaks a nice crust while holding in the juices. Restaurant guests will be able to watch Crocker and his cooks prepare the steaks under a bright orange flame as they sit in the dining room and look through wide, open windows into the kitchen.
Mendoza, who was the general manager of Sozo, said the new restaurant name, Joy’s Table, also represents the restaurant’s mission to create a welcoming environment and a place for families. Joy is the name of owner Dale Klute’s mother.
“We could have called it any fancy Italian name. We wanted to call it something that represents warmth,” he said.
The new menu, which includes, upscale American, authentic Italian and American-Italian, also was built to suit everyone. Steaks will stay at a higher price point, but pastas will start at $12 and Italian entrées will be about $16-$18. Italian dishes include pasta, pizza and salads.
“A lot of it (Italian food) is very authentic, some of it is not as authentic because a lot of people here are used to certain things that maybe aren’t as authentic as would be in Italy,” Mendoza said. “So I’m big believer in switching things around and having a mixture of things.”
Steaks will continue to be sourced from the Klutes’ Nebraska Star Beef steaks. Mendoza said he decided to add Italian menu items to please the people of Kearney.
“I’ve been listening to Kearney people a few years and everyone’s been saying, ‘We need Italian. We need Italian. We need Italian,’” he said. “So they say that because there’s a need for it, and when there’s a need I believe let’s give that to the people.”
Crocker left Angus Burgers and Shakes to become executive chef at Joy’s Table. He and Mendoza, who has traveled to Italy many times, created the new Italian and Italian-American menu items.
One of their culturally blended dishes is the Italian Chicken Fried Steak.
“Chicken fried steak doesn’t exist in Italy,” Mendoza said. “I think that’s a Midwestern thing.”
Crocker fries pounded skirt steak in a breading. He then adds Benton’s cured ham, which he calls “redneck prosciutto,” marinara sauce and mozzarella cheese. The dish is finished in the broiler until the flames create a crust on top.
All sauces are house-made, Crocker said.
Mendoza said the process of rebuilding the restaurant with Crocker, the Klutes and staff has been long but rewarding.
“It’s been a team effort and that’s what we’ve been working for. No individuals. All of us have put our own thing into it,” he said.