As country music singers are to Oklahoma, so are cooks and foodies. Here are five native Oklahomans who have gone on to national fame, while still acknowledging their Oklahoma ties. And while some do tackle traditional Southern favorites, others’ choice of culinary expertise just might surprise you.
Rick Bayless, award-winning chef
The king of Gourmet Mexican cooking is from Oklahoma City, and is the fourth generation in an Oklahoma family of restaurateurs and grocers.
An award-winning chef-restaurateur, cookbook author, and television personality, Bayless, shown in his Chicago restaurant Frontera Grill, has done more than any other culinary star to introduce Americans to authentic Mexican cuisine and to change the image of Mexican food in America.
But can he dance? Apparently so. Bayless, along with two other co-creators, recently debuted a stage play at Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre titled “Cascabel,” which takes its name from a small chili pepper. He told the Chicago Sun-Times that he flirted with theater in college but eventually turned to anthropology and Latin American Studies. The ballroom bug bit him in 2006.
“I began ballroom dancing seven years ago,” said Bayless. “I was invited to participate in a dance contest benefit for the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, so I started taking lessons at the Arthur Murray Dance Studio here. I won the contest, and I’ve danced in the event every year since then — mostly salsa, but also the cha-cha and rumba.”
Bayless studied Spanish and Latin American Studies as an undergraduate at the University of Oklahoma. He later lived in Mexico and wrote his now-classic “Authentic Mexican: Regional Cooking From The Heart of Mexico” in 1987. He then moved to Chicago and opened his famed Frontera Grill, which specializes in contemporary regional Mexican cooking. It remains one of Chicago’s hottest dining spots.
He opened Topolobampo in 1989, and both restaurants have received distinctions from such publications as Gourmet, Food & Wine and Bon Appétit, among many other publications. He has won many cooking awards, and Chef of the Year from the James Beard Awards (the culinary equivalent of the Oscars) and the International Association of Culinary Professionals, among other honors.
And then there are the cookbooks. In 1996, Rick Bayless’ “Mexican Kitchen: Capturing the Vibrant Flavors of a World-Class Cuisine” won the IACP National Julia Child “Cookbook of the Year Award.” The New York Times and Time magazine have praised him as a cookbook superstar and as a writer who makes “true Mexican food user-friendly for Americans.” Bayless’ cookbook, “Salsas That Cook,” written with his wife, Deann, and JeanMarie Brownson, was published in 1999. At the 2001 James Beard Awards, “Mexico — One Plate at a Time,” a companion to the first season of the Public Television series by the same name, was singled out as the “Best International Cookbook.”
In 1996, Rick began the prepared food line of salsas, chips, and grilling rubs. His PBS show, “Mexico — One Plate at a Time,” is currently in its fifth season.
Rickbayless.com and Wire Reports
Ann Marie ‘Ree’ Drummond, The Pioneer Woman
Ann Marie “Ree” Drummond lives and cooks on a working ranch in northern Oklahoma, but she doesn’t look like the stereotype. She calls herself a ranch wife and mother of four, and she looks like a movie star.
It helps when you’re the host of a Food Network cooking show and go on tours promoting your two cookbooks, memoir and children’s book. But most people know her as The Pioneer Woman, also the title of her world-famous blog. Her website tells how she went from a “corporate city girl” in Bartlesville, to Los Angeles and back home to Oklahoma. All because of a cowboy, whom she calls Marlboro Man.
She had a different life planned, but on a brief stop home en route to Chicago, she met Ladd Drummond, a member of one of northeastern Oklahoma’s most-established families. They are living out their happily ever after, and their Camelot is a 20,000-acre ranch near Pawhuska.
“I met and fell in love with a rugged cowboy,” she says on her website, “Now I live in the middle of nowhere on a working cattle ranch. My days are spent wrangling children, chipping dried manure from boots, washing jeans and making gravy. I have no idea how I got here ... but you know what? I love it.”
Drummond’s website, pioneerwoman.com, is viewed by tens of thousands of fans daily, mostly women. Her fans find her real and relatable. When the PW came to Oklahoma City for a book signing in 2009, women stood in line for hours just to get a picture with her. The Oklahoman
’s Dave Cathey talked to a lucky few: “They snapped off a few pictures with Drummond in the background before agreeing it was time to go. “She’s from the country, you know,” (one woman said). “She goes through the things we all go through.” Then she paused and said, without the slightest hint of envy, “She’s living the life I always thought I’d have.”
But even if you aren’t living the life of Oklahoma blogging royalty, you’re still invited to the party and are made to feel like a welcome guest. Drummond’s self-deprecating humor comes through in each blog posting, whether it’s about making Salisbury steak, watching Marlboro Man rope cattle or taking photos of her beloved basset hound, Charlie, (memorialized in a children’s book she wrote last year).
Because Drummond also is a photographer (she’s got hundreds of photos on the website), she photographs her recipes each step of the way and includes the final product. So, if you’re not sure how something should look mid-recipe, she shows you. That, with that her method of poking fun at herself, makes her fans feel at ease, whether they are gourmands or first-timers.
Her cookbooks focus on her blog. “The Pioneer Woman Cooks: Recipes from an Accidental Country Girl” and “The Pioneer Woman Cooks: Food from My Frontier,” feature recipes from the blog and Drummond’s photography. Her memoir, “The Pioneer Woman: Black Heels to Tractor Wheels — a Love Story” is about her romance with Ladd Drummond. The book as been optioned for a movie, with Reese Witherspoon reportedly attached to the project.
To her thousands of fans, Drummond is the real star.
Pioneerwoman.com and The Oklahoman Archives
Trisha Yearwood, cookbook author and cooking show host
Trisha Yearwood knows how to write a successful cookbook as perfectly as she sings a country ballad. So successful, she wrote a second one, and has a new series on the Food Network. The six-episode series, “Trisha’s Southern Kitchen” premiered in early April.
The series invites viewers into the kitchen with Yearwood for her favorite meals, nostalgic stories and visits from family and friends. Shot in Nashville, the six-episode series features Yearwood’s unique how-to tips and techniques for down-home dishes like Daddy’s Barbecued Chicken, Uncle Wilson’s Famous Baked Onions, Chick-less Pot Pie, and Sweet and Saltines.
The show is bittersweet, as Yearwood lost her mother and cookbook writing partner, Gwen, to cancer last year. The show honors the memory of her mother, and at the same time will recast Southern favorites with a fresh, simple view.
Yearwood wrote her first cookbook, “Georgia Cooking in an Oklahoma Kitchen: Recipes From My Family to Yours,” with her mother and her sister, Beth Yearwood Bernard. A Georgia native, Yearwood has made the Owasso area her home and is married to Oklahoma-born country superstar Garth Brooks.
In 2008 when she published her first cookbook, she told The Oklahoman
how important the book was to her and her family.
“These are recipes we have been making for our whole lives, and this is a lot of family recipes, a lot of family stories and history, so it was really sentimental for us, and we wanted it to be right,” Yearwood said.
In 2010, she wrote her second cookbook, “Home Cooking with Trisha Yearwood.”
Yearwood in her first book writes that strangers know her for her “singing thing,” but friends know her best for her cooking, and she loves time spent with friends talking about cooking, new recipes and new local restaurants.
The Yearwoods’ love of cooking for family and friends is reinforced in the book with lots of colorful photos of gatherings, as well as details about many of the recipes and how they’ve become family favorites through the years.
The Oklahoman archives
Molly Wizenberg, blogger and author
Molly Wizenberg left Oklahoma, went to college in California and headed to Seattle, where she stayed. Along the way she blogged. And blogged. And blogged. She started Orangette in 2004, named after the traditional French chocolate-dipped candied orange peels (she said they were sitting nearby when she tried to think of a name for the blog.)
Wizenberg tells her readers that she always wanted to do something that involved food and writing, and she credits her experience at the Oklahoma Summer Arts Institute at Quartz Mountain as a high school student. Her first experience was so illuminating, she went back and worked at OSAI, assisting poets George Bilgere and Ruth L. Schwartz.
Another thing she credits to her blog is meeting her husband, Brandon. (He began reading the blog when he lived on the East Coast and they began corresponding.) They have opened a restaurant called Delancey in Seattle, which features Brooklyn-style wood-fired pizza.
Since leaving Oklahoma, she has been in the creation business, from books to her eatery to podcasts. She has published one book, “A Homemade Life,” has a contract for a second book, tentatively titled “Delancey,” and co-hosts a podcast called “Spilled Milk.” (Meat-eaters, don’t miss the archived March 15 program, all about the perfect steak.)
’s Sherrel Jones reviewed her first book, “A Homemade Life,” when it came out in 2009: “This is a great read with bonus recipes that won’t disappoint. ... This gifted author shares her personal story that is as tender and dear as the recipes prepared throughout her growing-up years in Oklahoma City.”
Wizenberg has one more creation in the works: a baby — and this child likely will become a foodie, too. Wizenberg tells her readers: “I’m excited about introducing this person to chocolate malts, and pizza, and Bruce Springsteen.”
The Oklahoman Archives
Candace and Charles Nelson, of Sprinkles Cupcakes
In the past decade, dozens of cupcake shops have opened in metropolitan cities across the country, including New York and Los Angeles, after the direction of Manhattan’s Magnolia Bakery, often credited for starting the so-called “cupcake craze” in the 1990s.
But when it comes to taking cupcakes nationwide, credit an Oklahoma native, who helped lead the cupcake renaissance.
By capitalizing on a niche pastry, Charles Nelson, from Oklahoma City, and his wife, Candace Nelson, were former investment bankers who wanted to try something new. She went to pastry school and became an executive pastry chef. Together they established Los Angeles-based Sprinkles Cupcakes in 2005. Two and a half years later, they expanded their posh cupcake concept nationwide. (Candace Nelson is now a judge on the Food Network show “Cupcake Wars”).
But would America pay for upscale cupcakes?
On their opening day, Sprinkles sold out of its cupcakes in three hours and had angry customers literally banging on the windows when they ran out, Charles Nelson said. “We were like, ‘Oh my gosh, everything we hoped and dreamed for is happening, and we can’t handle it.’”
Charles Nelson eventually asked his brother, Robert Nelson, who still lived in Oklahoma City, to put aside the small, family-owned oil and gas company he was involved with and become his chief financial officer.
Innovation is key with this team. While there are hundreds of cupcake shops that dot the country, the Nelson brothers can say they made America fall in love with the upscale cupcake. And what’s next is nothing short of revolutionary: A cupcake dispensing ATM (no joke). The kiosk is attached to their bakeries; the company boasts 600 “freshly baked cupcakes” at the ATM at any one time.
So far, Sprinkles Cupcakes are in their flagship store in Beverly Hills, also Chicago, Dallas, Georgetown, Houston, New York, Scottsdale, Ariz., and several more California locations: La Jolla, Newport Beach and Palo Alto.
But not Oklahoma City.
“I think Oklahoma City is a great market,” Charles Nelson told The Oklahoman
in 2007. “It certainly has proved to all restaurateurs or business owners that come to town that people in Oklahoma are aware of the best brands in the country. It’s definitely on the radar screen and will happen — otherwise, I’d be killed by my friends and family.”
Well, Nelson brothers, OKC still is waiting.
The Oklahoman archives
and wire reports