When it comes to good restaurants, Tulsa food freaks get the best of all worlds.
This town -- the 45th largest in the country -- is big enough to keep and attract some seriously talented chefs. It's cosmopolitan enough to offer a variety of cuisine from a range of culinary traditions. And yet, it's small enough for a chef to get to know his customers, often by name, and vice versa.
Perhaps Tuck Curren, proprietor chef at Biga Vino e Cucina and The Local Table, said it best: "Growing up on both coasts where living is exorbitantly expensive and the traffic is terrible, I think Tulsa is great. You have everything here, but it feels comfortable and homey. You get to know everybody, and everybody knows you. I love that about it here -- I can't see myself doing this anywhere else."
A lot of other restaurant owners like it here, too. In fact, it's an oft-made claim that the city is overrun with restaurants. Chain after chain tries its luck here because, as a Cheesecake Factory official put it upon opening its T-Town location in Aug. 2007, "Tulsans love to dine out. It's a good food town."
The competition is stiff; but the heads of the local, independent restaurant scene are a close-knit group. After all, most of them have worked together at least once or twice, and several of them got their start at the same time, even maybe at the same place. Maybe it's those close quarters -- or maybe a little friendly competition -- but most everyone in the Tulsa restaurant biz seems to have an opinion on who is (and who may not be) the real deal.
An informal survey of Tulsa restaurants, catering and private chefs, along with a few restaurateurs (numbering more than two dozen -- a number that seems limited, but hey, the upscale indie restaurant scene is exclusive) revealed a consensus among the local fooderati as to who are the King Fish of the Kitchen.
Four restaurant chefs topped the stack: Tim Inman at Stonehorse Cafe; Michael Fusco at Michael Fusco's Riverside Grille; Justin Thompson at The Brasserie and Sonoma Bistro & Wine Bar; and Tuck Curren.
Tulsa has its share of acclaimed catering and private chefs as well; names like Tim Fitzgerald of Timothy Sean Fitzgerald Catering, Susan Simmons and Paige Martin of Pare Foods and Devin Levine of Southern Hills Country Club recurred in the survey. But, for the sake of writing about food available to the Regular Joes (the ones packing a little extra cash, anyway) trolling Tulsa for a good meal on a Saturday night, restaurant chefs get the spotlight this time.
So, what's the recipe for a top-shelf Tulsa chef? Start with zero formal culinary training. Mix in Mother's inspiration and her recipe for a Sunday roast -- heck, just throw in the entire family and order them to get to work. Fold in lightly with notoriety in the community, being on a first-name basis with seemingly everyone in town from CEOs of local corporations and the Mayor to the young family of five who lives around the block. Season generously with work ethic -- even wash dishes from time to time.
And, oh, one more thing: a dash of manly bits.
Only one female chef in all of Tulsa, Zahidah Hyman of KEO, earned top marks by her peers. But, she is definitely one hot mamma. She wasn't just mentioned; sources gushed over her. One even went so far as to call her a bad-ass.
"I don't know a lot of chefs here yet, but it's totally a guy's world in Tulsa," said Michelle Donaldson, the much-anticipated new executive chef at Lava Noshery on Brookside. She assumed the post after the 2008 departure of Chef Geoffrey van Glabbeek.
"It's really scary. I've talked to a lot of friends of mine who have gone to culinary school, and they've all said the same thing: 'I got to make salads and do pastry, but no one would ever put me on the line.' I hate that. We can function on the line just as well as a man can, sometimes even better so. I would love to see more women come out of the woodwork and get into the kitchen."
Remember that unassuming little seafood market in the strip center on the north side of 51st St. at Harvard Ave.--the one that moved to new digs year before last, across from the Interstate 44 expansion that ate its first location? That's Bodean Seafood Market, opened in 1968 by restaurateurs Bob and Mary Faulkner and Dean Carroll ("Bo" from Bob, "Dean" from, well, Dean. Get it?). The market remains Tulsa's premier source for fresh seafood, flown in twice daily from both coasts and the Gulf for both wholesale and retail sale. In 1981, the group opened Bodean Seafood Restaurant.
Though not really into food himself, Mr. Faulkner had a knack for talent scouting. One of his early new hires was a baby-faced Michael Fusco. Next to come aboard was a guy with a thick New York accent, Tuck Curren, who managed the front of the house. Later, a 17-year-old Tim Inman started in the kitchen.
The place was a primordial soup from which evolved today's ruling class of Tulsa chefs.
"We've had some great people come through here," said Taurus Faulkner, son of Bob and Mary and president at Bodean. "A reason we've been able to get and keep good people here is we let them run their kitchen.
"Me, I'm a fish guy. If I get great product and I let them create, they stay around for quite awhile. Each of those guys was with us for more than 10 years -- Michael was with us for two stints, Tim for two stints. Tuck was with us for 20 years."
A new generation of Bodean alumni is making its mark on the Tulsa food scene. Tim Baker, the mind behind Chef Justin Thompson's charges, The Brasserie and Sonoma Bistro & Wine Bar, quit a lucrative job in insurance sales to work as a Bodean waiter. Eli Huff, proprietor chef at F.B. Oscar's Gastropub, and Tim Richards, current executive chef at Bodean, are the most newly minted members of what looks, walks and quacks like local institution.
"Chefs like Tuck Curren and Michael Fusco tend to develop younger people, and they're mentors for younger chefs," Tim Baker said. "I think that really separates the wheat from the chaff. You can go to their restaurants and have a good meal -- or, sometimes, not such a good meal, depending -- but those guys teach and help people to grow. I think that's huge."
Pull out those Blackberrys and iPhones because, folks, it's time to take down a few names. Next time a meal fit for a king (or queen) is in order, choose from the restaurants by the best chefs, listed below. Oh, and bring a pillow. If you're anything like this reporter, a nap will be the only way to recover from the resplendent gorging ahead.
Restaurant: Stonehorse Cafe, 1748 Utica Square; 712-7470
Years in the Business: 20-plus
Every Saturday morning, about 15 minutes until 11, a crowd forms on the patio of Stonehorse Cafe.
By the way, the dining room fills to capacity within 10 minutes of the opening of the front doors. One wouldn't know that since the start of the year, Tim Inman has spent his weekdays in Chicago at The French Pastry School. The program is top-of-the-line; it's also Inman's first and only formal training. He haunts Stonehorse while home on the weekends.
"If you look at my hands, you know I haven't been cooking," he said, laughing. "But, this place hasn't skipped a beat."
Tim's wife and business partner, Lise Inman, along with the notoriously personable and knowledgeable Stonehorse staff, has kept the cafe running at full tilt during Inman's sabbatical.
Even in his absence, every dish at Stonehorse is prepared according to classic French technique. Corner-cutting is sacrilegious. To the plate come dishes for which preparation likely began before whoever ordered it got out of bed that morning. Anything and everything, from the sausage to the pate to the bread and pasta, is made from scratch.
For instance: "We do Italian sausage braised with artichokes on house-cut fettuccine in the spring and fall when artichokes are in season," Inman said. "The dish is spectacular, but it takes a person about three hours to peel a box of those artichokes. We have to cut, grind and produce Italian sausage, we have to stuff it, and we have to peel those artichokes. Then, it takes about an hour and a half to produce the final dish. But, it's well worth it. In the end, you can taste it."
When dining at Stonehorse, it's not uncommon to overhear a server and a customer joking at the next table like old friends. The cafe boasts an ardent clutch of regulars -- the kind that reappears in Stonehorse's unpretentious dining room most days of the week.
"It's fantastic that they come here after eight years and still find it to be fresh and interesting and are still able to find something new that they like -- something that's just a bit different from what other people have done."
Inman started cooking on the farm where he grew up, where "My mom worked a ton. To get out of chores early on the weekends, I would go to the house and cook lunch. I started out with Campbell's soup and toasted cheese sandwiches."
Inman started the work of making a name for himself in Tulsa food circles when he worked with Michael Fusco and Tuck Curren at Bodean Seafood Restaurant. Since then he has mentored more than his share of Tulsa up-and-comers, including Tim Richards of Bodean, Eli Huff of F.B. Oscar's Gastropub and Myles McClanahan of Oliver's Twist.
His advice to any new chef is to develop, "First and foremost, a mind for business and accounting. You can have the most fantastic food in the world and have a horrible business plan, and it will sink you for sure.
"You also need to be tenacious and totally dedicated to what you want your concept to be, and never waver from that core idea. There are people who absolutely hate this restaurant. I'm fine with that. We don't try to be all things to all people."
Despite the (very) few naysayers, Tim and Lise have "been able to carve out for ourselves a fantastic little life. I couldn't have dreamed for this much."
Restaurants: The Brasserie Restaurant & Bar, 3509 S. Peoria Ave., Ste. 161; 779-7070
Sonoma Bistro & Wine Bar, 3523 S. Peoria Ave.; 747-9463
Years in the Business: 13
One night when Justin Thompson was 14 years old, he told his dad he was going to cook dinner. He did, and it happened to be quite good. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Thompson, the 29-year-old unwitting prodigy chef of the Tulsa restaurant scene, has been working in restaurants in Tulsa since he was 16. He landed his first job in Tulsa's top tier of independent restaurants in 2002 when he was brought on as a sous chef at Polo Grill, owned by chefs Ouida and Robert Merrifield.
After six months at Polo Grill and at 23 years old, Thompson left to open Ciao, a Brookside Italian cafe. Fast-forward to today, when Thompson has opened four restaurants -- Ciao, Osage Restaurant & Catering at Gilcrease Museum, The Brasserie and Sonoma Bistro & Wine Bar -- in just six years.
Not too shabby for some kid under 30 with no degree from a fancy culinary school.
The simple philosophy behind such rapid-fire success? "I'm not here to do fantastic, amazing, different, spectacular things with food that people may or may not like," he said. "I'm here to make food people want to eat and share with their friends."
Thompson, a native Tulsan, grew up on his mother's meat and potatoes.
"Eating was always a social affair at our house. It was always at the dinner table. Food for me growing up wasn't anything spectacular. It was just what it was supposed to be, which was nourishing and joyful and spending time with family."
Today, it's still the social aspect of cooking and food that gets Thompson fired up in the kitchen.
"I like it when people come to eat dinner and they leave happy," he said. "It brings people together. It's fun to have good food, and it's fun to have people enjoy themselves. That's what the entertainment industry is all about."
Most of Thompson's training on the technical side of cooking came from the time he put in early in his career on the lines of corporate chain restaurants.
"The thing they don't teach you in culinary school is that when you get out in the real world, you have to produce. You have to be ready to feed 150 people within a matter of 2-3 hours. You have to figure out a way to get all that food plated and out the door and have it be right, good, delicious, hot or cold, whichever it's supposed to be."
Thompson's gig at Polo Grill was his first experience in "creating food -- not just executing, but also thinking about it, visualizing it and trying to conceptualize a menu and be creative."
Though it's been seven years since he left Polo Grill, Robert Merrifield remains the one Thompson calls for shop talk.
"He used to tell me, 'Who are we to tell our guests what to eat? If somebody orders chocolate sauce with their steak, we're going to give them chocolate sauce with their steak.'
"His No. 1 thing was to make the guest happy. That's my mentality. Some chefs think their food is art that should be experienced and appreciated. Frankly, I don't agree with that. I think it's a craft. You get paid to do a certain thing, and if people like it, then you get paid."
In the months between Tim Baker's pitch to Thompson to assume the job as executive chef at The Brasserie Restaurant & Bar and the restaurant's opening day in Nov. 2006, Thompson managed to make himself into a proficient cook of classic French cuisine. The notoriously nuanced culinary tradition usually costs aspiring chefs years of practice and apprenticeship. The proof of his cramming genius showed up in the pudding when local food critics and chefs issued their high praise in the months following the debut of The Brasserie.
Funny, since when Baker approached him on opening The Brasserie, "I didn't even know what that was."
"Because I'm younger and haven't had as much experience with other styles of cuisine, I need to rely on someone else who knows. Tim has done a lot of research, especially with this style of cuisine and the brasserie. He's eaten at a lot of restaurants and knows what he wants.
"I think that with any style of cooking, though, good technique is good technique. To make a good stock or a good soup, you have to do the same thing over and over again. It's nothing spectacular or different -- it's something people have been doing for thousands of years.
"Tulsa is a hard market to satisfy. Our customers here are versed in food and wine. They know what's good, and they know what they want. They're harsh critics, but that's okay; that just means we're going to be that much better."
Restaurants: Biga Vino e Cucina, 4329 S. Peoria Ave., Ste. 300; 743-2442
The Local Table, 4329 S. Peoria Ave., Ste. 340; 794-8013
Years in the Business: 30-plus
It's not unusual to walk into The Local Table and be seated by Tuck Curren himself, without even knowing it. In fact, it happened once some time ago to someone I know. He even refilled my water glass and brought me a loaf of fresh bread and butter.
When he's not asking reporters if they're ready to order, he is leaning against a table, chatting with regulars about food and life. In the Tulsa restaurant world, Tuck is the nice guy. But in this case, that old cliché about the nice guy finishing last couldn't be further from the truth.
Curren got his start in the restaurant business more than 30 years ago at Bodean Seafood, where he managed front-of-the-house at the restaurant and wrote the menus.
He didn't start cooking until 1980 or so. His journey to culinary prowess was sparked by the photography and articles of Bon Appetit magazine. Soon he and his wife, Kate, found themselves spending their Sundays cooking elaborate dinners from the pages of the newest issue.
"We did that for 20 years, making all that stuff every Sunday," he said.
Even still, when New York-born Curren starts to talk about good food, the conversation usually leads back to his mother and his New York upbringing.
"My mom was a great cook. We had the Italian-sausage-and-meatballs kind of Sunday dinners, but we also ate a lot of meat and potatoes. She always bought nice roasts, all-fresh vegetables. She was a basic, really good cook -- it was a good-food, good-ingredients kind of deal."
The food at the Tuck Curren restaurants follows suit. Even at Biga, an upscale authentic Italian restaurant, Curren offers food made with accessibility in mind. It is simple cuisine made from top-quality and often local ingredients.
"The fresher you can get, the better," he said. "The closer it is to home, the better it is. We're trying to get in with these local farmers. It's inspiring when you go to the farmers' market and you see all that cool stuff -- all the fun-to-cook things."
True to the code of the great local chefs, Curren makes a habit of mentoring those who long to feed others. The key to a good start, he says, is to work with someone great. Curren knows that one from experience. Still, that Curren, along with Tim Inman and Michael Fusco, all sprung from Bodean is something of a mystery to him.
"I don't really know why," Curren said, laughing. "Actually, the original owner [Bob Faulkner] wasn't really a foodie. He hired people who were."
About eight years ago, Curren decided to try his hand at opening a restaurant. He partnered with the Faulkners of Bodean -- a partnership with the family that continues today -- and Biga was born.
"I grew up with Italian food, and I just loved it," he said. "The first few years at Biga were hard because the customers didn't quite know what it was all about. Now, they trust me, and I can do almost anything.
"As the public learns to trust what you cook and people return, the more they'll experiment with things you try. You don't want to get ahead of the curve."
After the space on the other side of the 4329 S. Peoria Ave. strip center saw Curren's T-Squared and a Fudrucker's location fold, Curren is giving the space another go. He opened The Local Table, a twist on the American bistro that caters to the localvore and anyone looking for familiar food, in July 2007.
"Biga is busy, but for the market today and the economy, this kind of local, homey food is the way to go. There's been a great response to it, and I like where it's going."
For a talented chef who likes the idea of being a big fish in a small bowl -- and for restaurant patrons who like to get to know the person behind the food -- Tulsa's got it going on.
"The key to all of us [Tim Inman, Michael Fusco and Curren] -- and this is what makes a restaurant better -- we are there, making our own stuff. We have that passion. We're all working. We like to meet you and see what you're doing. If you like our food, we'd like to talk about it, let you know how we do it. I think we have great restaurants in Tulsa, and that's the reason."
Other Noteworthy Tulsa Chefs
Restaurant: Palace Cafe, 1301 E. 15th St.; (918) 582-4321
Years in the Business: 14
Education: Culinary Institute of America, Hyde Park
When, in 2002, Seattle-born James Shrader saw the vacant space on the corner of Cherry Street and Peoria Avenue, he knew.
Within just 90 days, Shrader and his wife and business partner, Brooke, had gutted the space and together built their first restaurant, Palace Cafe. In the cozy, snazzy dining room, James serves his trademark twist on American cuisine.
That Shrader was raised on the food of the Pacific Northwest is evident in the dishes served at Palace Cafe. The menu features a daily catch, and several offerings are served up with an Asian flair. Shrader also offers Tulsa's only bentos menu, inspired by the Japanese single-portion meal -- it's "just little bites of stuff," he said.
Shrader is known in the local restaurant community as Mr. Local. He's a fixture at Tulsa's farmers' markets, and he lines his dining room walls with local art, all for sale.
As James and Brooke start their seventh year in business on their corner of historic Cherry Street, James continues to be inspired by the fresh ingredients the seasons bring, as well as the creations of the big-name, nationally acclaimed chefs.
Not that he never gets his eat on in T-Town.
"I don't get to eat out that often," Shrader said, "but my favorite Tulsa restaurant is Thai Siam. And I get my pizza from The Pie Hole."
Restaurant: Kokoa, 3410 S. Peoria Ave., Ste. 200; 742-4069
Kokoa Kabana, 510 S. Boston Ave.; 592-5656
Ko2 , 1722 Utica Square; 742-7944
Years in the Business: 33
According to his mother, Steven Howard made the best mud pies on the block.
Howard's mud pies of yesterday have evolved to his gallery-worthy chocolates of today, ranging from specialty truffles to chocolate globes to his new line of chocolates that herald Howard's favorite animal, the polar bear. When members of the restaurant community have a sweet tooth, they find themselves at Howard's KoKoa Chocolatier.
KoKoa is into its fifth year in Tulsa. In that time, the main store on Brookside has expanded to include KoKoa Kabana, a cafe for the downtown lunch crowd, and Ko2, Howard's newly opened Utica Square pastry studio.
While the backbone of Howard's business will always be "beautiful things made of chocolate," he is also known around town for his talents with savory dishes. Stars of Howard's acclaimed lunch menu include a variety of panini showcasing his house-made mozzarella and anything with barbeque sauce, the secret ingredient in which is, of course, chocolate.
Howard has added private dining to his supper offerings, which still include his Tuesday night five-course dinner. The deal comes around twice per month at $45 per guest.
"I feel like the talent I've been given is a gift," Howard said. "I just strive to do what I feel like I'm supposed to do."
Restaurant: KEO, 3524 S. Peoria Ave.; 794-8200
Years in the Business: 2
Asian cuisine has taken Tulsa's upscale restaurant scene by storm in recent years, playing out in the menus of swanky joints like Palace Cafe and Bodean Seafood Restaurant.
Bill and Zahidah Hyman, owners of the modern Asian restaurant KEO on Brookside, said they couldn't have opened their doors at a better time.
"This was a big risk, but we took it. Now we're running this very successful restaurant. I'm very pleased the locals are supporting us," Zahidah said.
Cambodian-born Zahidah, executive chef at KEO, learned about cooking from her mother.
"We never really went out and dined. She cooked breakfast, lunch and dinner. I loved her food, and I never really wanted to go out to eat."
The restaurant is the result of Zahidah's dinner parties, where friends urged her to take her talent to market.
"It's a joke now because they say, 'It was all free at first, and now we have to pay for Zahida's food,'" she said. "We laugh about that all the time."
The menu at KEO offers a smattering of Asian dishes, ranging from Cambodian to Thai to Vietnamese. Recipes are steeped in tradition, having been passed down through the generations of Zahidah's family.
"The food is me, really. My grandfather is from New Delhi, my grandmother is Chinese, Vietnamese and Cambodian. Our menu is pieces of my eclectic little upbringing."
Restaurant: Bodean Seafood Restaurant, 3376 E. 51st St.; 749-1407
Years in the Business: 24
Education: Oklahoma State University Institute of Technology, Culinary Arts program
Tim Richards looks like the next great chef to be generated by the Bodean chef machine.
Originally from Colorado, Richards adopted Tulsa as his hometown in the mid-eighties. He got his start in fine dining when he was tapped by Tim Inman to be the executive chef at Michael Fusco's now-defunct Flavors Restaurant. He has been chef at Bodean Seafood Restaurant since 2001.
As the chef at a restaurant attached to Tulsa's premier seafood market, Richards said he often feels like a kid in a candy store.
"Fish is flown in two times during the course of a day, and we're also trying to work with local farmers and the markets to get the fresh produce. I just get to go in and cherry-pick what I want to use that day. My inspiration comes from these ingredients."
"In the Midwest, there is really not a culinary foundation to draw from in terms of American regional, as opposed to places like Maryland, New Orleans of Florida. We get to take from everything."
As far as the local food scene, "we've got it pretty good here. We're a chef-driven town. For being such a small demographic, you look around town and you have Fusco, Tim Inman at Stonehorse Cafe, Eli Huff at Oscar's Gastropub, Justin Thompson at The Brasserie -- there are really good chefs in this town, and really good restaurants, too."
Restaurant: Thyme: An American Bistro, 3023 S. Harvard Ave., Ste. C; 742-7013
Years in the Business: 12
Education: Culinary Institute of America, Hyde Park
Ask Tulsa localvores -- namely, Mayor Kathy Taylor and Marilyn Ihloff -- about their favorite lunch spot, and odds are they will rave about Chef Bill Harris's menu at Thyme: An American Bistro.
Harris's cooking is strictly seasonal and showcases locally produced ingredients. Harris also offers a selection of organic, gluten-free and vegan choices.
Ironically, Harris is most inspired by his travels.
"I just got back from San Francisco. Just seeing what people are doing there, being rooted in local production and using local and seasonal stuff -- that inspires me."
Much of the produce Harris uses in his cooking he grew himself on a plot of family land.
"A food rep was trying to sell me tomatoes last week, and I said, 'Why would I be using tomatoes? It's not tomato season.'"
Harris is a certifiable fan of local food, but his love for Tulsa doesn't stop there. His dining room features shows by local artists, hung monthly. He also offers cooking classes for local wannabe chefs; even children are welcome to enroll.
"Some chefs try to guard their recipes. I'm not afraid to share," he said.
Harris is glad to see that "Tulsa is finally moving away from the whole 'meat and potatoes' thing. We're celebrating the cuisines of different countries. Tulsa diners are broadening their vision of what food is; and in this town, there are tons of options for experiencing different cuisines."
here are tons of options for experiencing different cuisines."
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