District 21 is Oklahoma City's classiest restaurant

The crown jewel of Francis Tuttle’s School of Culinary Arts is the fine-dining restaurant District 21, where Oklahoma City area residents come for top-notch dinners and chefs-to-be come to learn.
by Dave Cathey Modified: March 19, 2014 at 5:00 pm •  Published: March 18, 2014

When the School of Culinary Arts opened at the Rockwell campus of Francis Tuttle Technology Center, 12777 N Rockwell, it was a response to local demand for quality cooks. To ensure the pedigree of outgoing students, director Marc Dunham knew he would need the proper environs in which to educate them.

A labyrinth of labs, classrooms and kitchens at the School of Culinary Arts needed a single space where all the instruction and self-expression could conspire to dazzle local diners.

That single space is called District 21. Named for the tax district where it resides, District 21 is open Tuesday through Friday evenings and serves upscale fare at affordable prices.

Under Dunham and Chris Becker, director of culinary operations, District 21 has taken root in its first year and is ready to blossom into one of the city’s most important restaurants.

Unique mission

Many chefs are responsible for the education of our chefs of tomorrow, but one has more responsibility than the others in ensuring local diners get a high-quality meal when they enter the swank environs of District 21. That chef is Carlos Martinez, 31.

Martinez is easy to pick out. He’s the person with the biggest smile in the kitchen. That smile doesn’t subside much, because he landed a better job than he could’ve hoped for in relocating to Oklahoma.

Martinez was looking to move to Oklahoma at his wife’s request. She was born and raised here, and that doubtlessly came up when Martinez interviewed with Dunham and Becker, who transplanted to Oklahoma for the same reasons.

Similar bio aside, Martinez’s background and experience were a perfect fit for this eatery that puts flavor first but education a close second.

The menu is written in broad strokes. Each day, beef, pork, poultry and vegetables are served. Staff chefs are committed to teaching students one ingredient at a time.

Becker said the idea is a single-ingredient approach, which emphasizes how best to prepare anything from a leek to a lambchop. Once students master that approach, they are ready to learn how to mix and match ingredients.

But this old-world style of learning takes time and patience. Some skills take goading — and when it comes to learning how to make perfect, professional food consistently, no shortcuts are currently offered online.

That said, the kitchen at District 21 is stuffed with state-of-the-art equipment just like the kitchen labs in Francis Tuttle’s School of Culinary Arts.

During our photo shoot, a cured salmon filet took a swim through a TurboChef oven in minutes. TurboChefs combine heat technology with computer precision to produce pristinely cooked foods.

Dunham started compiling data in 2011 to pen a curriculum that fiercely adheres to classic techniques and protocol while embracing the reality of living in a digital world barreling full-speed into more technological advancement. The result is faculty and staff who are exuberant about cooking traditions and unafraid to Tweet about it.

A room that’s a view

The chic, sophisticated dining room belies the experience-in-progress of its operators. The jaw-dropping design is among the city’s loveliest settings for dining. Seating is arranged at jaunty angles, high and low at the bar, bar tables for two, tables along a banquet, standard four-tops and a copper-stamped chefs table near the kitchen. Louvered doors hide another dining room.

Martinez does employ full-time professionals at District 21 to ensure diners leave satiated and satisfied by their experience.

While District 21 offers all the trappings of a modern dining experience, it does not serve alcohol, which is in accordance with the law as high school students are among those educated at the school and working in the kitchen. The restaurant does offer local beverages, and Martinez has been known to offer house-made sodas.

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by Dave Cathey
Food Editor
The Oklahoman's food editor, Dave Cathey, keeps his eye on culinary arts and serves up news and reviews from Oklahoma’s booming food scene.
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IF YOU GO

District 21

Seatings are available at District 21 from 6 to 8:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays. The restaurant is closed when school is out, such as this week for spring break, holidays and a truncated summer break from May 21 to June 2. For reservations, call 717-7700. While the restaurant is closed this week, you can leave reservation information on the restaurant’s voicemail.

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