Matthew Kenney’s third attempt at making something of his restaurant space in Classen Curve is off to a dubious start.
Two weeks ago I wrote a story about his new Mexican restaurant Tamazul, describing it as a restaurant built to evolve. Little did I know that evolution was on the fast-track, two days after the story was published executive chef Ryan Parrott was let go. On Monday, sous chef Chris McKenna was pink-slipped.
Not the start Kenney was hoping for, especially considering the spotty reputation he has developed along the way to opening numerous concepts from Santa Monica, California, to Portland, Maine, over the past decade-plus. Back in 2009, he partnered with Oklahoma City attorney Dara Prentice to open 105degrees Cafe and Academy, which were paragons of Kenney’s penchant for turning raw foods into composed cuisine. By the end of 2010, Prentice was gone and Kenney announced he would implement cooking at the concept. That never came to fruition, but a name change to Matthew Kenney came in 2011 and went earlier this year. The space closed for several months to allow for the installation of cooking equipment and a decor remodel.
Bringing in Parrott to guide Tamazul to its launch looked like the perfect match. Parrott successfully partnered with Robert Painter to breathe life into the gone-but-not-forgotten Iguana brand in 2008, and built an army of fans at that concept. He also partnered with pre-Ludivine Jonathon Stranger on the incredible Table One concept and then helped launch Local in Norman for sisters Heather Steele, Melissa Scaramucci and Abby Clark in 2012 before leaving there after about a year.
But for reasons that neither party is under any obligation to reveal, the match wasn’t right at Tamazul.
Chef Parrott said he was surprised by the decision, considering the restaurant has been open such a short time, feeling he hadn’t had time to show what he could do. Part of the problem, Parrott said, was he never got the chance to develop his own menu. Indeed, I talked to Tamazul’s director of operations Rob Crabtree Thursday, and he admitted the original menu was his. However, Crabtree said the reason for the change had less to do with what Parrott could or couldn’t do and more to do with new chef Pepe Rodriguez.
“My vision all along has been Mexico City,” Crabtree said. “Pepe has worked in Mexico City, he knows the food I’m looking for like the back of his hand. I just couldn’t pass up the opportunity to bring him in.”
As I wrote in the initial story, the first menu was built with evolution in mind. But Crabtree said he was concerned the initial menu was becoming too taco-centric, and when Rodriguez came available he couldn’t pass up the chance to land him. Crabtree brought Rodriguez in from Miami, where he worked in several concepts that fit Tamazul’s description. You’ll find him on Twitter @ChefPunk, which apparently is the name of a line of clothes Rodriguez will launch in the near future. As for his cooking chops, if what he showed at the recent Oswalt Culinary Cookoff at the Oklahoma Restaurant Association Trade Show and Convention is any indication, Oklahoma City is in for a treat. Pepe didn’t win his preliminary heat, but he did rack up more points for his achiote-hued rabbit loin than all three of the winners from previous heats. And the winner of his heat, Stephen Schmidt of La Baguette, went on to win the entire competition.
As anyone who has read my columns or blogs for very long knows, Central and South American cuisine is the stuff of my soul. Anyone who comes to this market with a chance to push forward the full complement of Mexican flavors has my attention and best wishes.
Chef Parrott has moved on to consult with WSKY Lounge, 228 NW 2 St., which is in the old Sage space. McKenna, promises he has plenty to show Oklahoma City diners in the near future.
As I’ve said many times before, diners must answer the call to help push our restaurants toward their full potential. Tamazul needs the help of the Oklahoma City dining public. It needs honest, constructive feedback. The style of food chef Rodriguez has been commissioned to create might carry familiar names but arrive to the table looking altogether different from what were used to seeing some 1,300 miles from Mexico City. While conservatism is synonymous with Oklahoma, let’s leave that trait to politics and allow local culture the freedom it needs to grow. The myriad of flavors from Mexico and South America can be as subtle and nuanced as any other global cuisine. It’s taken us close to 100 years to figure out Italy offers more than pasta, let’s not take that long to recognize the audacious majesty of mole or the subtle pleasure of a chile relleno that’s been roasted rather than deep-fried.
But by all means, if the service falls short or the flavors don’t sing, speak up — in person. Please resist the urge to wax disgruntled from behind the safe but progress-killing confines of anonymous keyboard exercises. You might even find yourself on the business-end of a free dram of mescal.