Practically every young girl falls in love on or around her 16th birthday, but few of those affairs of the heart last a lifetime. Not so for Lori Tyler, though the object of her affection at that age wasn't the captain of the football team or a mysterious stranger from the wrong side of the tracks. No, Tyler fell in love with the food industry.
After studying psychology in college, working 16 years at other restaurants and spending seven years driving various nonprofit causes, Tyler has become what she's always dreamed of being: a restaurant owner.
Her dream came true April 22 when she opened Stella Modern Italian Cuisine. Stella is the new crown jewel of midtown, offering a sophisticated approach to rustic Italian food, chic interiors and attention to detail.
But Tyler is quick to point out the dream shared by her and her husband, Ty, could never have happened without help from the friends she made in her career working in other people's restaurants.
"This really has been a collective effort," Tyler said. "I've taken advice and been given help that has been invaluable in bringing this all together."
And it starts with the name, which came from an old friend who worked for her many years ago only to go on to his own success.
"The name came from Ryan Parrott," she said.
Parrott, the partner-chef of Iguana Mexican Grill, Season's Catering and Table One, said, "Lori told me she was opening an Italian restaurant and was looking for a name. I told her I'd always dreamed of opening an Italian place and calling it
"I asked him if I could use it," she said. "And he was gracious enough to say yes."
Tyler fell in love with the food business as a teenager working at Greenhouse Spa in Dallas, following up with a job at Bennigan's, which kept her funded through her degree work in psychology at the University of Dallas and set her up for the next big decision in life.
"My boyfriend lived in Oklahoma City, and I lived in Dallas," she said.
That boyfriend was Ty Tyler, long a local media mogul, and the two eventually married and settled in Oklahoma City. Lori went to work for the Val Gene restaurant group, helping open the original Pepperoni Grill in Penn Square Mall.
Pepperoni Grill brought the wood-oven concept to Oklahoma City for the first time, and Tyler has continued that tradition at Stella. As you walk in, the stainless brick oven greets you with a mellow, smoky hello. The aroma is a conduit to pleasant memories from bygone days by the fireplace.
But Tyler's business relationship with the wood oven was secondary to the one she had with her boss, Pete Holloway.
"Peter means the world to me," she said. "He's been a true mentor for me, and he's helped so much along the way in this process."
Holloway went on from Val Gene to open Boulevard Steakhouse and 501 Cafe in Edmond and to buy Classen Grill. Tyler worked in some capacity for all those concepts through the years. But after 16 years as general manager of Boulevard, she left the business altogether to concentrate on charity work.
But the restaurant bug wasn't completely gone, and she had never fully realized her dream.
"When I was a general manager, I treated the restaurants like they were mine," she said. "But they weren't mine in reality. We just felt like the time was right to finally make it happen."
With a name picked out and a location in mind, there was the matter of having a head chef.
"Kurt Fleischfresser was an enormous help," she said. "Not only in giving me a list of names of people to contact but in helping us design the kitchen."
One of the names the Coach House owner-chef and Western Concepts partner gave her was that of one of his former apprentices, Brian McGrew.
McGrew was living in the chef's playground that is Napa Valley and loving it when he and his wife decided it was time to start a family. "We wanted to be somewhere closer to family," he said. "So, I started sending feelers back to Oklahoma."
McGrew was invited to cater a dinner party for the Tylers and some hand-picked guests at their home in Heritage Hills. Tyler said, "About halfway through the meal, one of our guests said to me, 'You are going to hire him aren't you?'"
McGrew, a 1999 graduate of The Coach House apprenticeship program who was working at AKA in St. Helena, Calif., brings a simple stylistic approach to food and the kitchen at Stella.
"I ask a lot of the staff," McGrew said. "I want them to be patient with the food and to really look at it, make sure it passes the eye test before you get started. When we cook, I tell them not to look at the clock but look at the food."
McGrew believes in keeping things simple but demands fresh ingredients that are local and organic as often as possible. With help from fellow Coach House grad Kevin Ward, he's producing elegant fare that highlights the natural flavors of the ingredients.
And McGrew and Ward use the oven as often as possible.
"We do a Roman-style pizza," McGrew said. "It's a lot different from the pizza you'll get other places; the crust is really thin and crispy. But I use the oven for everything I can, like our salmon salad, which is really popular."
The simple menu also includes five salads and appetizers, a couple of soups, five sandwiches and four entrees on the lunch menu, and nine entrees on the dinner menu.
As eye-catching and artful as the food is at Stella, the atmosphere is its equal. Tyler reached back to her hometown of Dallas to task designer Alice Cottrell to come up with the look for Stella. The result is a casual, elegant setting bathed in natural light muted by curtains made of Italian fabric by day and made aglow by Venetian glass fixtures by night. Knoll and Eames chairs, Plyboo floors, artsy Italian wallpaper and cashmere curtains hide a giant flat-screen television in a room that can be converted into a party room. At the granite-top bar, you can choose from 73 bottles of wine and 23 by the glass.
Stella Modern Italian Cuisine
• Where: 1201 N Walker Ave.
• Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.
• Reservations: Call 235-2200 or go to www.
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