Chef Rod brings dignity to meals at Omaha’s Siena Francis House

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Published: Nov. 18, 2022 at 11:00 PM CST
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OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) - Rod Height figures cooking’s in his blood.

“I’ve been cooking all my life, I grew up in a cooking family. My father was probably my inspiration for cooking as a child.”

After serving 12 years in the Air Force, Rod worked successfully at several jobs in the civilian world, but something was still missing.

“I just needed to cook, I needed to actually learn how to do it,” he said. “So I took that leap, at the tender age of 37.”

That leap began at Metro Community College’s nationally renowned Culinary Arts Institute. After graduating he started small, learning all aspects of the trade. First in a small soul food kitchen in Bellevue, Quick Bites. He moved on, and up the restaurant world, all the way to executive sous chef at the Marriott. Again, it wasn’t quite rewarding at a higher level. So once the pandemic opened up the cooking world again, he answered the call to become Culinary Manager at Siena Francis House, quite a departure from the high-end kitchen he was working in.

At the helm of the Siena Francis House kitchen, Rod Height III has found a place to pay it forward one meal at a time.

“That’s the goal of this place, to try and elevate the life and the experience of someone else,” he said. “I am not just a chef here at Siena Francis House, my job is not cooking. My job is leading. My job is mentoring. My job is being a shoulder to cry on. My job is being a sounding board. My job is, most importantly, to take care of people.”

Those people he cares for include those living at the facility, some in recovery, others without homes. They also include the small staff that work for him, and the many students and volunteers who come to learn and help.

“So many volunteers give of their time to help us make these meals successful,” he said. “We feed anywhere from 200 to 400 or 500 per meal period.”

He said one of the great challenges and great joys is that there is no real menu. Each day he must take what donations are on the pantry shelves and create good tasting, nutritious meals.

“Every day of my work is like an episode of Chopped (on Food Network),” he said. On this day, he walked us through the meal being prepared.

“Tonight’s meal is going to be sesame chicken, we’ve taken some donations we’ve received of spaghetti squash noodles, we’re actually gonna use every college student’s favorites, ramen noodles that were also donated, as well as some chicken nuggets. Three things that seemed desperate and don’t go together and we’re gonna turn it into sesame chicken.”

For the record, the meal smelled and tasted as though it had been prepared at a fine restaurant, and that’s part of the goal. Just because people are struggling, why should they settle for unhealthy, bland food?

“That’s the fun of it, right? You don’t want it to be a soup kitchen, I don’t want to just slop food on the plate for the people,” he said. “I’d like to give them the dignity of enjoying a meal that actually tastes good and that satisfies them.”

While walking through the pantry where items are stored once donated, he pointed out the importance of the many companies, groups and individuals who provide food for the shelves. Right now, finding healthy fruits, vegetables and meats can be extremely difficult, and there is never enough. But he said they will continue to find ways to provide healthy meals in his kitchen.

“It’s not just about taking everything and throwing it together. It has to make sense not only from a taste perspective, but from a health perspective as well.”