Chef Rick Bayless' recent visit generated a lot of revenue for the tornado recovery and shined a spotlight on local chefs whose culinary feats in the wake of the tragedy are sure to be talked about for years.
His visit also helped me reunite him with the chef whose contributions to Oklahoma hospitality history played a vital role in determining the career choice of Bayless, the author of eight books and host of PBS' “Mexico: One Plate at a Time.”
During an interview in February, Bayless, 59, told me about a trip to The Cellar at Hightower when he was about 12. He recalled going to Oklahoma City's first true fine-dining restaurant by himself one day, taking the elevator down to the restaurant, stepping up to the host station and confidently requesting a table for one. He told me every detail of that meal that occurred some time around 1965.
The Sunday before the owner of Frontera Grill, Topolobampo and Xoco in Chicago launched a triple pop-up restaurant event in Oklahoma City to raise money for OK Chefs Relief, I arranged a surprise meeting for him with chef John Bennett, who ran The Cellar for Frank Hightower.
Bayless, his wife, Deann, and chef Jim Ortiz flew in from Aspen, Colo., and were set to tour Francis Tuttle's School of Culinary Arts and The Tasting Room to check on the prep for the next day's event. So, I picked up Bennett and drove him to Francis Tuttle's new District 21 restaurant to set up our surprise. We got a message from Bayless' driver that he'd had to stop at Johnnie's Charcoal Broiler; no surprise since Bayless rarely starts a visit to his hometown without a visit to Johnnie's. This gave us time to get Bennett set up comfortably at the kitchen bar at District 21 and to store a bowl of mousse he had prepared into a walk-in to stay chilled.
When he arrived at District 21, Bayless was genuinely thrilled to see and visit with Bennett, who has had a rocky recovery since hip-replacement surgery in April. Bennett prepared an immaculate mousse topped with a fresh rose blossom and shaved chocolate in a silver bowl, just as Bayless had eaten when he was 12.
I could give you a play-by-play of the account, but why should I steal the thunder of our highly skilled multimedia team?
What I can tell you is that Bayless told Bennett his visit to The Cellar played a pivotal role in making his career choice. I can also say that, as I drove Oklahoma's chef emeritus back home, his first words were, “Well, that was exhilarating.”
The intimate and touching exchange served as a reminder of how, when we excel at the thing we're born to do, the result reaches far beyond our consciousness and even further beyond our years.
More food tidbits
As I mentioned, Bayless and Bennett met at District 21, the new restaurant at the Francis Tuttle School of Culinary Art. That venue is now open to the public. Run by chef Carlos Martinez, the restaurant will be a training ground for culinary students. The modern decor and classic style of service make for a lovely dining experience. It is at Francis Tuttle's Rockwell campus, 12777 N Rockwell Ave. Dinner is served 6 to 8:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday. Call 717-7700 for reservations. ...
The much-anticipated restaurant soon to open atop Founders Tower has a name: and it is George — The George Prime Steakhouse, to be more accurate. Owner Kevin George has an obvious stake in the name, but George also is the name of chef Josh Valentine's father, who died from cancer in 2010 and still is an inspiration to the “Top Chef” contestant. George will have a capacity of about 200. The team hopes to reintroduce diners to one of the coolest views in the city by fall's end. ...
S&B Burger Joint opens its fifth location July 8 with a benefit for the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma. Drop by the new location at 14020 N May Ave., in a space previously occupied by a Denny's, with $5 for the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma, and lunch or dinner is on the house. Regular service begins July 10. This gives S&B a presence from Quail Springs Mall to Norman. ...
While S&B Burger Joint's attack on the local hamburger market increases, the city lost one of its most precious resources, Saigon Baguette, which closed June 24.
Also known as Bale Banh Mi, it was owned and operated by Nhung Ngoc Nguyen, who also goes by Mona. She opened in the wedge-shaped building best known as the Townley's milk bottle roost back in 1999. Charging $1.85 for a French baguette stuffed with meat of your choice, pickled daikon and carrots, cilantro and jalapeno, it was the best value in town every day it was open. Saigon Baguette's sausage-stuffed egg rolls were so good my normally vegetarian wife was happy to flip-flop her culinary principles for one. Sometimes two.
Nguyen's role in the rise of the Asian District is immeasurable. Hers was one of the first restaurants to draw folks of all colors, sizes and shapes from all over the city. Well done, Mona! ...
Chef Cally Johnson never does anything small. From cheffing up tacos and hot dogs to social media, Cally goes big or goes home.
The current focus of her attention is Cafe 501 in Classen Curve. Johnson worked for owner Peter Holloway and his wife, Sherie, at Boulevard Steakhouse before leaving for Cheever's and then on to Taco Twindom with Kathryn Mathis at Big Truck Tacos.
Cally is still a partner in Big Truck and Mutt's Amazing Hot Dogs, but she wanted to return to her cooking roots and push herself and took a job helping out at Oak Tree Country Club.
“I learned a lot,” she said of the experience, which was done mostly to help out a friend. “I learned I never want to be a country club chef again!”
She said the challenges were enormous and helped center her attention on her cooking skills. So, she took a job with the Holloways to fulfill her desire to push herself as a chef. Since she's joined 501 at Classen Curve, the restaurant has ditched its fast-casual service at lunch time and is now a full-service restaurant full-time. She's also made changes to the menu to fit that style.
On July 11, Cally will take her famous plancha out onto the patio for a live cooking event with special cocktails. She's got wine-and-cheese pairings scheduled with Whole Foods on July 14 and Aug. 11. Also, just in time for the dog days of summer, the Classen Curve location will host Yappy Days — pooch-friendly meal service on the patio from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. every Saturday and Sunday.
Cally and the Holloways are working on plans for a major concept downtown, but details can't be released as no deal is official. ...
Meanwhile, speaking of Classen Curve, there's a lot of construction going on where extra parking once was promised. But the work being done looks a lot more like new construction than simple paving and painting. One might even get the impression a restaurant was planned for the spot.
Could the longtime rumor of Ruth's Chris Steakhouse come to fruition? Stay tuned. ...
Matthew Kenney was in town last week for the reopening of his Classen Curve space as Tamazul Modern Mexican Kitchen and Mezcal Bar, an upscale Mexican food concept with chef Ryan Parrott in the kitchen.
Named for a piece of artwork by Oaxacan artist Francisco Toledo, the restaurant seeks to bridge the Tex-Mex traditions so popular across the country with ingredients and techniques traditional in Mexico.
The restaurant is open but not fully operational. For the next week or two, Tamazul will open for dinner only, and portions of the menu might not be available. Kenney's leadership team, including director of culinary operations Rob Crabtree, general manager Vivian Wood and chef Parrott, opted to soft open the restaurant gradually to prepare for full launch by mid-July.
I attended a preview dinner last week and left anxious to return. The restaurant has all the earmarks of greatness: interesting decor, a strong bar, familiar food prepared in a unique way and an energetic, enthusiastic wait staff.