The future of the local restaurant industry is partly reliant on something over which it has limited control: you and I.
Putting it simply, we’ve got to become food snobs.
The law of economics tells us the only reliable way to expect the best is to demand the best. But for the food to be the best, we’ve got to know the difference between good and bad. We’ve got to understand that restaurants that use local ingredients not only help the local economy but are offering ingredients with a greater chance to bear the quality of deliciousness.
We’ve got to recognize and respect that paying a little more for house-made ingredients is an investment in the improvement of our local food scene and paying less for less quality is a step back.
When the majority of restaurants are using local ingredients, making foods from scratch and sharing techniques and flavor profiles inspired from world cultures well-represented by the local populace, then Oklahoma City’s restaurant community will be mentioned in the same breath as regional neighbors Dallas; Austin, Texas; New Orleans; Denver and Kansas City, Mo.
Building a movement
We stand on the cusp of this evolutionary leap because Oklahoma City’s restaurateurs have diligently joined the nationwide movement of celebrating local producers and farm-to-fork practices in spirit and to some degree with its money, but there is still room for progress. The Coach House, Ludivine, and Local in Norman are great supporters of our local producers, which has led to others following suit.
The growth that local hospitality professionals would like to see requires a relationship with its constituency, not unlike the relationship between chickens and eggs.
In the past 20 years, local restaurants have grown gradually into a vibrant selection of eateries, joined by a rapidly diversifying collection of choices.
Bringing the world here
In 1993, locals were lucky to find more than two restaurants serving Indian fare. Indian restaurants now are all over the city along with at least two Indian food markets.
Thanks to the arrival of Vietnamese refugees in the early 1970s, Oklahoma City now has an Asian District that is home to Asian restaurants that bear quality that is the standard in this country. And that improvement has led to improvement in local Asian fare — sushi choices have grown exponentially in 20 years, and longtime Chinese eateries that specialized in Americanized menus now offer authentic dishes as well as your favorites from the chow mein and sweet and sour families.
A pipeline with Peru that began via the Catholic Church many years ago has borne a rise in Peruvian immigrants, and now five restaurants serve authentic Peruvian foods.
Foods from the Mexican county of Calvillo in Aguascalientes are easier to find than Indian tacos.
The city even has two Ethiopian restaurants and a restaurant with foods from Nigeria.
Chefs, groups spear growth
Spearheaded by Chris Lower and Kurt Fleischfresser, the local independent restaurant boom of the 1990s was founded on Western Avenue, north of NW 36.
Others, including Peter Holloway and The Hal Smith Group, were huge contributors.
More recently Keith and Heather Paul’s A Good Egg Dining Group has been a main cog in the growth with concepts, including Tucker’s Onion Burgers, Red Prime Steak, Cheever’s Cafe, Iron Starr Urban Barbecue, Republic Gastropub and Kitchen No. 324.
Returning to Oklahoma
The future might lie in the hands of a couple of Oklahoma chefs who made a splash on national television in the past year. Tabb Singleton, of Idabel, won $10,000 on Food Network’s “Chopped” in 2012. He has been executive sous chef at Emeril Lagasse’s NOLA for several years, but has plans to leave and seek opportunities in Oklahoma City in 2013. Singleton said the money he won won’t be enough to make the dream come true, but it will certainly help. He also said it’s possible he could compete again on the show in the future.
If everything comes together for Singleton, he’d like to share what he calls contemporary redneck cuisine, which he says uses classic French techniques to celebrate and interpret the food that helped Oklahomans survive the Dust Bowl.
Chef Joshua Valentine, who was born and raised in Del City and is a graduate of The Coach House Apprenticeship Program, recently completed a run on Bravo’s “Top Chef,” finishing one step from the finale. Valentine worked in Dallas a few years ago before returning to become chef de cuisine at The Coach House, then opening his own Divine Swine Pork Bistro, which he closed in order to compete on “Top Chef.” Valentine recently announced he’s returning to Oklahoma City to man the stove at an undisclosed restaurant.
Speaking of restaurants on the horizon, the Founders Tower soon will have a new tenant at the top, where Nikz last spun guests through dinner.
And then there’s Oklahoma City native Danny Bowien, who recently was named to “Food and Wine” magazine’s Best New Chefs list for 2013. He is the owner of Mission Chinese in New York City, which is among Gotham’s hottest and most buzz-friendly concepts.
But Bowien said in an interview with the website Fast Company that he plans to open his fourth concept in Oklahoma City: “A lot of the food at Mission Chinese is influenced by me growing up there — really awesome smoked meats and barbecue, things like that. We’ll see what happens, though, that’s a little ways off.”
Let’s keep our fingers crossed for that.
Many influences for Packard’s
Meanwhile, the folks behind the local Interurban restaurants have just opened Packard’s New American Kitchen, which features house-made breads and a menu that shows influence from many cultures.
And finally, our local chefs and restaurateurs need recognition from national publications, which is slowly beginning to happen. Chef Jonathon Stranger of Ludivine recently took part in San Francisco chef Chris Cosentino’s Head-to-Tail Dinner at Incanta.
Outstanding in the Field, an international dining tour, will return to the state with help from Stranger and partner Russ Johnson.
Fleischfresser will build on the 100-course dinner he served in Culinaire for a Cause last year with a 110-course event in July.
The Big Truck Tacos family will add Back Door Barbecue to the fold, joining Mutt’s Amazing Hot Dogs.
All these goings-on are bound to conjure up competitive spirit, which will lead to more ambitious concepts and more culinary adventures for local diners to take.
And ultimately, that’s what gains you national attention.