On Monday, one of the country's hottest young chefs was in town to help local chefs raise money with a pop-up restaurant.
The OK Chefs Relief Pop-Up Restaurant drew about 1,500 people and raised about $75,000 on Sunday and Monday. All proceeds went to the Oklahoma chapter of the American Red Cross.
The amount raised might've been half that if not for the arrival of chef Danny Bowien, who has made his reputation on a simple restaurant with two goals: serve impossibly delicious food and feed those who need it most.
“I'm super proud to be back in Oklahoma,” said Bowien, who grew up in the Moore area. “It's an amazing and beautiful place to be from. I'm proud to be from a strong community.”
Bowien's involvement in the OK Chefs Relief effort turned what people were already calling an epic event into legend. In coming to the aid of his hometown, Bowien not only helped raise a lot of money but galvanized the local food scene.
Bowien has indicated in numerous interviews that he'd like to open a restaurant in Oklahoma City, which he reiterated in an interview Monday at the Myriad Botanical Gardens event space.
“There definitely is a space for it,” he said. “Every year coming back to Oklahoma City, it gets better and better and better and, like, cooler. I really miss the food here. I always go off about how amazing the Vietnamese food is here, and that's another reason I fell in love with cooking, was the Vietnamese food here.”
The addition would be an obvious coup to the up-and-coming Oklahoma City dining scene, but in the immediate aftermath of a killer tornado what's important is the amount of money he helped raise and how the possibility even came together.
The hammer had fallen from the sky only hours before chef Jonathon Stranger started making calls around the city to see who might want to join him to do a pop-up restaurant on Sunday to raise money in support of those who'd just had their lives turned upside-down.
By 9 a.m. the next morning, a meeting convened at The Tasting Room including chefs Marc Dunham and Chris Becker of the Francis Tuttle School of Culinary Arts and Kurt Fleischfresser of Western Concepts. The message was simple: When great cities are stricken by tragedy, its great chefs step up to help.
“We're already in a great city, it's time for us to be great chefs,” Stranger said.
Within 24 hours, the wheels were not only in motion but burning rubber toward Sunday, gaining donations from local farmers, producers, food brokers, wine brokers, servers and philanthropists. Morning meetings continued each day of the week, the table growing to include basketball star and artist Desmond Mason.
Early on, it was suggested the event might require a second night. The logistics already were a nightmare, but if demand for a second night arose, then why not double-down? Then came word that a chef who graduated from Westmoore High School might be interested in helping out.
Help on the way
The chef was Danny Bowien, who earlier this year was named Rising Star Chef by the James Beard Foundation for his work at Mission Chinese, which has locations in San Francisco and New York City. That interest quickly became a commitment, and before anyone could really take a moment to digest what was happening, Bowien was on “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon” holding up a commemorative T-shirt designed by Mason before a national audience to promote the OK Chefs Relief Pop-Up Restaurant.
“Seriously, man, anything I could do,” Bowien said. “When some of the chefs got a hold of me, I was like, ‘I would drop anything to go back to Oklahoma.'”
Bowien, whose Mission Chinese Food was on Best New Restaurant lists by Bon Appetit and GQ in 2011 and was named People's Best New Chef of California by “Food and Wine,” arrived Sunday to visit family and friends in the affected area of Moore before finishing his night in the kitchen at Ludivine, where he prepped for Monday's event.
Born in Korea, Bowien, 31, was adopted as a 3-month-old by Jim and Jeannie Bowien, who raised him near SW 89 Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, where he grew up wanting to be an eye doctor.
“I worked at Massengill Eye Clinic for, like, four years before I learned what rock 'n' roll was and joined a band and moved to San Francisco.”
He said he learned to cook next to his mother.
“It was something we did together,” he said. “And I learned that food brings people together.”
Coming to the metro to raise money for those affected by storm was a no-brainer for Bowien. Not only is this his hometown, but Mission Chinese donates 75 cents from every entree to local food banks. Bowien and his partner Anthony Myint have raised more than $200,000 for the charities since opening in the summer of 2010.
Before taking his turn at the stove on Monday, Bowien had a chance to tour the affected area.
“It really had an impact on me,” he said. “I feel very, very honored to be able to help out.”
Oklahoma showed its pride in Bowien by showing up in droves to try the food that has made him a rock star chef. The suggested donation for dinner and a little beer and wine was $35, which was a discount for anyone who took a single bite of his brilliant, street-inspired creations like Kung Pao catfish, chicken-fried Hokkaido scallops or thrice-cooked pork. The Genovese pesto ramen was clearly inspired by Bowien's 2008 victory at the Genoa Pesto World Championship. No one who tried the tofu skin will ever be the same.
On Saturday, local chefs like recent “Top Chef” participant Josh Valentine and “Chopped” champ Tabb Singleton joined the line with Stranger, Fleischfresser, Dunham, and Becker. Singleton arrived on Sunday and brought with him $2,000 he and his family had raised with an impromptu barbecue in his hometown of Idabel. Saturn Grill owner/chef Joseph Royer pitched in to help streamline expedition of food. David Henry, chef de cuisine at The Coach House, put his stamp on the menu and offered his sweat on the line. Alain Buthion of La Baguette and Henry Boudreaux of The Museum Cafe also hopped on the line for extended duty in a kitchen, where the hood wasn't in working order and air conditioning was scant. The number of complaints from the sweat-swapping chefs came in at zero.
No one in the dining room would've ever known how challenging conditions were in the kitchen as food flew out of the double-doors like the place had been open for years. Other food industry pros showed up to help turn tables, serve drinks and do whatever was necessary to raise money. This was an amazing communal effort of the local hospitality industry, resulting in an event sure to take up permanent residence in the memories of all who attended.
Desmond Mason organized a group of artists for the event who performed a live art show outside the glass-encased restaurant. Joining Mason were Dylan Bradway, Jerrod Smith, Sean Vali, Jack Fowler and Phil Danner.
The art they created on Sunday was auctioned off that day with money going into the fund.
The artwork was inspired, but perhaps none were more stirring than an enormous heart constructed by Smith and Danner made of materials from a friend's home destroyed by the storm.
In the face of yet another tragedy, Oklahomans mobilized quickly, offering their time, money and skills. In the end, what else can we do when chaos comes to town but offer up what skills we have to force it back into its box. An event such as OK Chefs Relief won't replace the laughter of the children who lost their lives, and it won't alone rebuild the communities struck by catastrophe. But it will help in a scenario where the phrase “all the help we can get” is an understatement.
The event also was an indication that Oklahoma, as it has too many times before, will not only withstand this tragedy but grow from it. The recipe remains the same: everyone doing what they do best, together.