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Garden of Eatin': Guilford Gardens in Oklahoma City is a slice of heaven in suburbia

Kamala Gamble inspires local foods movement in Oklahoma with more action than words.
by Dave Cathey Published: June 26, 2012
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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.

Local advocates

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.

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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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