Chef Kamala Gamble never expected to be tuning into The Sports Animal radio network, but then she never expected to have a local basketball team to follow.
“I always thought you had to have hair on your chest to be a real sports fan,” she said with a laugh as she poured tea into a glass filled with ice. “I’m already thinking about next season.”
Seeing how a basketball team unified the Oklahoma City community, it’s easy to see why Gamble has become among the Thunder’s biggest fans, sporting a “Fear the Beard” T-shirt the morning after the Thunder’s season came to an end.
Gamble, co-founder of the Slow Food OKC Convivium and Kam’s Kookery, aspires to bind the community the same way the Thunder did, but her stage isn’t a basketball court. It’s a place just outside her back door.
Pass through that glass door, and you know how Dorothy felt emerging from the sepia tones of Kansas into the Technicolor of Oz or how Ray Liotta felt breaking from the tall corn clad in old Chicago White Sox garb to ask “Is this heaven?”
You haven’t walked onto a 1930s soundstage highlighted by a yellow-brick road or a baseball field cut into a cornfield; you’ve entered Guilford Gardens.
Just as the Thunder makes jump shots to bring us to our feet, Gamble grows flavor-packed vegetables and herbs that will drop you to your knees.
Guilford Gardens, named for the street on which it resides, is three acres of residential property with about two acres reserved for vegetable, herb and flower production. Within Guilford Gardens you’ll meet a commune of egg-producing chickens, who share a deluxe coop with a smattering of adorable rabbits to do their part in producing organic compost.
But Gamble didn’t become a pioneer for the local food movement and founder of Oklahoma City’s most impressive community-supported agriculture service by luck or movie magic. Like everything she’s tackled in her life, Gamble used a level of energy usually reserved for superheroes, hellbent-for-leather study and an equal serving of elbow-grease to impart a little slice of heaven where once sat a simple piece of property near the Nichols Hills-Oklahoma City boundary.
Eating local couldn’t have become a nationwide movement without champions in each market.
In Oklahoma City, it’s easy to see chefs Jonathon Stranger, Russ Johnson and Ryan Parrott are champions of sourcing local ingredients at their restaurants Ludivine (Stranger and Johnson) and Local (Parrott). Dig a little deeper, and you’ll find chef Kurt Fleischfresser set the bar for using local ingredients whenever possible at The Coach House more than two decades ago and chef Marc Dunham is working hard to share the knowledge through his “Oklahoma Cooks” series and as the man behind the new School of Culinary Arts at Francis Tuttle CareerTech.
But no chef has gone to the extreme of Gamble, who started her adult life in the world of banking before following her passion for food into a career as a chef. And when it became apparent the ingredients she needed weren’t available, Gamble immersed herself in horticulture and decided to get her hands dirty.
While much of the local eating movement is based around the importance of earth-friendly, sustainable practices and protecting local economies, Gamble’s foray into horticulture began as a necessity on a quest for a single, simple and sometimes elusive property: flavor.
There is virtually no argument about the reduced flavor quality of foods from industrial farming. It’s the price paid when fruits and vegetables are harvested early and ripened in contrived settings.
That price was too high for Gamble.
And she knows about finance and flavor, having spent the first decade of her professional career in the banking industry before dropping it all to become a chef. Her quest for flavor took her to culinary school in Scottsdale, Ariz., and finally Chicago, where she indentured herself to the kitchen of Oklahoma City native Rick Bayless at his world-renowned Frontera Grill and Topolobampo.
All the while, her husband, Lance Cornman, was living in Oklahoma City, each waiting for opportunity to afford itself back home.
The opportunity came with Cabo del Sol, which replaced Barry Switzer’s Lighthouse in 2001. Alas, Oklahoma City wasn’t prepared for a Mexican restaurant with a menu inspired by interior Mexican techniques and flavors with fine dining prices in a restaurant the size and expense of the Lake Hefner-front space.
Growing her own
The Cabo experience over, Gamble sought a way to assuage her desire to source the range of ingredients she’d become accustomed to in Chicago. Sshe decided to grow her own stuff, and she had just the place to do it: her backyard.
Drawing energy from the apparently ceaseless reserve from which she found fuel to start a second career and run marathons in each of the 50 states, Gamble began taking courses in horticulture at Oklahoma State University — practically all the school had to offer.
“I’m almost a horticulturist,” she sheepishly said in a recent interview.
Now her Guilford Gardens covers more than three acres over three properties, which she and her husband have acquired over time.
Gamble befriended her neighbor to the north, a longtime vegetable gardener. As the man got older, Gamble helped him maintain his crops.
“He always had much better plants in his backyard than I did,” she said. “It’s because he followed organic gardening practices back there for 20 years.”
When her neighbor died, Gamble bought the property, razed the house and planted an expansive potato crop.
But his tomato garden continues to produce with greater vigor than any other under her care. The plants there today are nearly 6 feet tall, producing a variety of luscious, fleshy heirloom tomatoes.
She bought the home to her south years ago, kept the house as a rental and has filled that backyard with three hoop houses, two bee hives and what looked like about a dozen mushroom-growing substrates. She also grows garlic, leeks, squash, peppers, lettuce, arugula, rainbow chard, eggplant, cucumber, pea shoots and beets — and that’s just for the summer. The hoop houses allow her to seamlessly transition into fall and winter crops.
Her “garden” is community-supported agriculture. The public is welcome to join her CSA for a fee, which entitles you to the spoils of her bounty as they come available. The warm, wet spring we just finished has meant an early arrival of her matchless heirlooms with prime time for tomatoes throughout July.
The other way to connect to Gamble’s world is through the Slow Food OKC Convivium that she, Kerry Norman and Cristina McQuistion started nearly a decade ago.
Each October, Gamble oversees a feast for more than 400 folks completely derived from local ingredients. If the annual Slow Foods picnic isn’t in a class by itself, roll call is brief.
“The purpose is to bring the producers and those who buy from them together in an afternoon of fun,” Gamble said. “Plus, it just tastes better.”
Gamble said her summer CSA isn’t quite full, but only has a few slots left. However, she said she always accepts people to the waiting list. Slow Food OKC is always looking for more members to help build the locavore population.
Find information online at kamskookery.com and slowfoodokc.com.
If you’re unable to join Gamble’s CSA, she would like to encourage you to support local farmers markets. If five guys on a basketball court can bring a city and state together, imagine what hundreds of hardworking folks with good food can do to improve our quality of life.