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
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