POSTED ON FEBRUARY 17, 2010:
Interview with a Chef
From hostess beginnings, owner and chef Libby Auld has made tremendous strides
Owner and Chef Libby Auld and her husband, Jeramy, have turned Tulsa's downtown on its head with the successful Eloté Café and Catering, 514 S. Boston. Nearing the two-year mark of the restaurant, Chef Auld took time out to talk about how she got her start in the industry and the future plans of Eloté.
How would you describe your restaurant?
We serve fresh, innovative Mexican food using local products and sustainable practices in the heart of downtown Tulsa.
What was the most unusual item you have, and how did the Tulsa market react to it?
We add different chile powders to many of our desserts, and most people love the spicy sweet combo. We also have a Sweet Corn Tamale that is made with polenta rather than masa. It is a big seller.
What were your earliest motivations to cook?
My grandfather's best friend owned and operated his own bakery. I spent my summers in Santa Barbara with them growing up. I must have baked cookies three or four times a week to keep up with my Papa Howie's sweet tooth.
How did you get started in the food industry?
I started working at a Mexican food restaurant in downtown Tulsa when I was 16 years old. I worked my way from hostess, to busser, to waitress and then went to culinary school. I have been everything from a dish washer to a general manager. I've worked in the back and front of the house. I did an internship at Rick Bayless's well known Chicago restaurants Topolobampo and the Frontera Grill. I have worked at many of the fine dining restaurants in Tulsa until I decided I wanted to open a restaurant where my friends and family could afford to come see me.
Have you always known that you wanted to have a career as a chef?
Throughout my life I have thought about other careers, but I just LOVE food. After having children, I looked closely into teaching Spanish or teaching at a culinary school. I have never worked in another industry, which frustrates my managers since my office skills are lacking.
I saw a co-worker of mine recently from the first job I ever had. He says he remembers when I was 16 years old, telling him I would own a Mexican restaurant downtown someday.
How's the condition of the economy affected Tulsa's restaurant business? Has it affected your business at all?
I know it is affecting the restaurant business because that is the report I get from my other friends in the industry. Eloté opened right in the beginning of the recession, so I'm not really sure what business would have been like when people had more to spend.
I think the reason we are doing fine at Eloté is, in one part, because we are a start-up and still very conscious of our spending, and, in another part, because of the quality of our food for the price. We serve organic meats and really fresh food at a price not just for the elite. That has always been our mission. Health food at a price my friends and family can afford.
Where do you see the restaurant industry going in the next five years? What will be the new "thing?"
If only I had a crystal ball...
If you open another restaurant, do you think it'll be a franchise or similar to Elote?
It really depends on the day that you ask me. I think about a lot of other business adventures. I don't think I will open more Eloté's. I like that it is only downtown, and I feel like businesses like Eloté are what makes downtown unique. If we replicate them all over the city, it could stunt downtown's growth.
What is you favorite food to cook or work with?
Masa (dried, ground corn). You can make so much out of it, and I love having my kids with me in the kitchen at home. They LOVE making tortillas from scratch.
What is your favorite seasoning or spice?
I like chiles. I make oils, spice mixtures and even soak them in tequila for a spicy margarita. The bad part is that my kids can't handle the heat just yet. Sea salt is a must have also.
What type of training and teaching do you do when preparing your kitchen staff?
I try to be hands-on. Since I work as the GM of the restaurant, I wear many hats and that sometimes means I spend less time in the kitchen. Luckily, I have an amazing kitchen staff that takes direction well and asks a lot of questions.
What's the funniest thing that ever happened to you in a professional kitchen?
When I was 16 years old, I was told the Spanish word for glasses was "besos." Everyday, I would ask the dishwasher to clean the glasses by saying "besos por favor." It turns out that means "kisses, please." "Glasses" is actually "basos."
Do you try to buy organic and local?
I do buy local and organic and it can be hard, but it is worth it. Some things on Eloté's menu just don't grow in Oklahoma (avocado, lime, agave). Every bit counts.
Eloté spends 28 percent of its food dollars on local foods, and the number rises significantly during the Oklahoma farming season. Tulsa Metro residents spent $2.2 billion on food in 2004. If everyone could alter their spending habits and purchase local foods at the same percentage Elote does, we would retain over $600,000 in our local economy.
Eating local impacts flavor as well as the local economy. That money stays in our city rather than paying business executives in other states and sometimes other countries. Maybe we would not be laying off firefighters and police officers right now if we could just all do our part to keep our dollars in our local economy.
If you had to give one piece of advice or tip to a home cook, what would it be?
Have a small kitchen garden at home during the summer months. Everything tastes better when you nurture it from seed. Plus, your children are more likely to eat their vegetables if they grew them.
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