And so this is Christmas, and what have you done? Another year over, and a new one just begun. And so this is Christmas, I hope you have fun. The near and the dear one, the old and the young.
We usually reserve this space for a recipe for you to attempt or a restaurant to try, but since neither grocery stores nor very many restaurants are open, we'll use this time to reflect on a year in the local food scene that will never be matched, and frankly we hope circumstances never arise again for such selfless deeds as were performed to be necessary.
Here are some of the most memorable things, in no particular order, that arose in the 2013, in my humble view.
OK Chefs Relief
OK Chefs Relief was one of the most seminal events in the history of Oklahoma City dining. Unfortunately, it came from necessity.
Shortly after the fatal monstrous tornado burst through Moore, Ludivine chef and co-owner Jonathon Stranger started making calls, taking names of those interested in a benefit to raise money for the victims. Ultimately, Oklahoma City chefs and chefs with Oklahoma ties combined to create three events that raised about $125,000 in three days in May and June.
The first was on May 26. Chef Kurt Fleischfresser, of The Coach House and Western Concepts, tagged in with Stranger and chefs Marc Dunham and Chris Becker of the School of Culinary Arts at Francis Tuttle to organize the event, which was hosted at the then-vacant restaurant space in the Myriad Botanical Gardens.
Westmoore High School graduate and New York rising-star chef Danny Bowien flew in from the Big Apple to extend the event into May 27. Bowien wowed crowds with the breathtaking flavors he's developed at Mission Chinese in San Francisco and New York. Bowien helped donations by mentioning the cause on “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon” only days before the event.
Oklahoma City native, Northwest Classen alum and University of Oklahoma graduate Rick Bayless added the third and most spectacular piece of the puzzle with three pop-up restaurants June 24. The most successful U.S. purveyor and educator of interior Mexican cuisine offered a lunch pop-up adjacent to Leadership Square, featuring dishes from his fast-casual concept Xoco in Chicago and drawing lines wrapping around the building. Then he offered a Topolobampo experience that evening for 40 lucky few in The Tasting Room, and a pop-up in the Will Rogers Theatre that featured a menu inspired by Bayless's Frontera Grill in Chicago.
Other local chefs joining the fray included Russ Johnson, Ludivine; David Henry, chef de cuisine at the Coach House; Henry Boudreaux, the Museum Cafe; Joseph Royer, Saturn Grill; Tabb Singleton, Singleton's Southern Kitchen in Idabel; Alain Buthion, La Baguette; and dozens of others.
OK Chefs Relief was just the most organized effort aimed at helping tornado victims. Local chefs and food truck operators delivered food to affected areas until the work was done. Operation Barbecue Relief brought a convoy of pitmasters to convene at Hillsdale Free Will Baptist College and stayed a week, cooking food for those who volunteered their time to be a part of the recovery.
Chocolate mousse for Rick
Bayless usually comes to Oklahoma City once a year: the Friday after Thanksgiving. His arrival triggers an annual family get-together that begins at Johnnie's Charcoal Broiler on Britton Road and escalates into a Thanksgiving feast and general family time.
This year, he made it to town three times. Once for the aforementioned family time, again for OK Chefs Relief, but first as guest of honor at Saints Heart and Vascular Institute's annual Celebrity Chef Series. While in town, he spared 20 minutes with me at the OPUBCO studio.
Among the subjects discussed were his culinary influences. He grew up working at his family's barbecue restaurant, The Hickory House, but he also told a tale of a trip he took when very young to The Cellar at Hightower, the playground of a young chef named John Bennett. Bayless told in detail of taking a bus downtown to have lunch by himself at the age of 13. He remembered every course, but spoke most sentimentally about the Chocolate Mousse, served in a silver bowl.
As luck would have it, chef Bennett has only aged a little in the decades since, and his cooking acumen has sharpened. Knowing Bayless was coming to town for OK Chefs Relief, Bennett whipped up a mousse, served in a silver bowl, and topped it with chocolate shavings, fresh cream and a rose in full bloom. The presentation clearly moved Bayless, who thanked chef Bennett for “making such an impact on the direction of his career.”
Chef Bennett has accomplished more than most chefs will in their career, but I can tell you without doubt that few of those accomplishments will overshadow hearing those words come from a chef who has accomplished as much as any American chef who ever lived.
I was just lucky to be there to see it all unfold. Pretty cool.
One of the lead chefs in the OK Chefs Relief effort was Josh Valentine, whose great year really began in the spring of 2012 when he was chosen to compete on Bravo's “Top Chef.”
But he couldn't tell anyone about it.
The world found out in October 2012, but the really cool stuff happened in 2013 when Valentine made it to the cusp of the final showdown before being eliminated. While packing his knives to leave wasn't so cool, making it that far and showing the world that Oklahoma has world-class chefs was. Next up for Valentine is manning the stove at The George Prime Steakhouse, set to open this winter atop Founders Tower.
When chefs Johnson and Stranger opened Ludivine in 2010, the concept had a built-in protection from becoming stagnant by changing the menu weekly and focusing on local, seasonal ingredients.
This year, Oklahoma was part of the focus of a special Midwest edition of Saveur Magazine, and Ludivine was put under the spotlight for its spirit of culinary adventure. Ludivine was also at the center of the upsurge in interest of the H&8th Night Market and the return of chef Jim Denevan's Outstanding in the Field — a touring outdoor culinary experience that travels from California to Europe putting on feasts in rural settings with the help of local chefs and producers. Ludivine encouraged Denevan to bring Outstanding in the Field to Sandy Springs Farms in Hinton on a spectacular fall evening under the stars for 100 or so people with beer from COOP Ale Works. Also there to help were chefs Valentine, and Pepe Rodriguez, formerly of Tamazul.
The Vietnamese food in Oklahoma City is the envy of the country, and we have three Asian markets that are as well stocked as any Asian market from here to the Canadian and Mexican borders. The quality of Asian food outside the district has been on a bullet-train to improvement over the past five years, so it was only a matter of time before something completely new blossomed from the area between NW 23 and NW 30 on Classen Boulevard and Western Avenue.
That something is Guernsey Park.
Chef Vuong Ngyuen was born and raised in Oklahoma's City's Asian District to a family ensconced in the food industry. Add in 2 ½ -year journey through the Coach House Apprenticeship Program, and you understand why Nguyen is producing some of the most interesting dishes in the city. The dish that best illustrates Ngyuen's point of view is the Thit Kau Tau, a traditional Vietnamese dish. At Guernsey park, the dish consists of a rice cake topped with a square of pan-seared pork rillette topped with a lightly battered four-minute egg. A gentle prick from your fork unleashes rich, savory egg yoke over the pork and rice and reveals one of the best five dishes you will find in the state.
Back Door BBQ
While Oklahoma is home to some of the country's best pitmasters, the reputation of its barbecue restaurants has been spotty over the years. So when chef Kathryn Mathis and veteran operator Chris Lower — two of the folks behind Big Truck Tacos, and Mutt's Amazing Hot Dogs — decided to take on the concept, there was reason for optimism.
When the first considerable slice of fatty brisket was carved free from its mother ship, that optimism turned into jubilation. Back Door BBQ immediately rose to the top of the list of quality local barbecue purveyors.
Park House/Ice House
Speaking of the restaurant space at the Myriad Botanical Gardens, it's no longer vacant thanks to veteran restaurateurs Peter and Sherree Holloway, who solidified their reputation with the Edmond-based concepts Cafe 501, Boulevard Steakhouse and The Martini Bar.
First, the Holloways partnered with Justin Nicholas, owner and head fry-cook at Nic's Grill, to create Ice House. Operating out of the ticket booth for the seasonal Devon Ice Rink, Ice House opened in the fall for a short run before closing for the winter.
While open, Ice House redefined burger consumption for downtown. Using Nic's unique technique for a crusty burger with a juicy center, chef Jonathan Krell created what will be a phenomena when it reopens in March.
While Ice House was in hibernation, Krell and chef Jeffrey Holloway turned their attention to the space next door where OK Chefs Relief was hosted in the spring. The centerpiece of the Park House menu is a rotisserie where whole chickens and stalks of Brussels sprouts go to earn a degree in deliciousness. It opened just before Christmas, and the family-friendly menu in stunning environs is the Holloways' gift to the dining public.
The Hirst Hospitality Awards
Wayne Hirst might be the least familiar, most important name in the history of Oklahoma dining. Local hospitality industry vets will tell you Hirst was the man who introduced Oklahoma to international beers and developed a pipeline between California's wine country and red dirt country back in the early 1970s.
Fifteen years ago he helped developed an event to celebrate and reward those in the industry. The event now bears his name, The Hirst Hospitality Awards. This year's awards were a swan song of sorts. Hirst, who is in the midst of an ongoing battle with cancer, has decided to retire so can spend more time with family. He was honored by friends and colleagues in various tributes throughout the evening.
So it was fitting — on a night when the industry honored Hirst — that one of his best friends, David Egan of Cattlemen's Steakhouse, was awarded the Distinguished Industry Leadership Award.
The Hirst Awards are generally a night of unbridled good cheer, but this year's incarnation was warmer and more profound. It was a reminder of how one's accomplishments can be the foundation for another's. It was an event that made clear that — no matter the endeavor — we are more productive when we work together.
H&8th Night Market
Back in late 2011, J.D. Merryweather wondered aloud why food trucks couldn't gather along Hudson Avenue between NW 7 and NW 8 streets to support a gathering of local vendors and purveyors on the last Friday of each month with favorable weather. Laura Massenat, co-owner of Elemental Coffee, was part of that conversation, and together the pair rode herd on what this year developed into one of the largest public gathering of folks not involving professional basketball, college football or international pop stars.
What started out as a handful of food trucks, evolved into dozen and a half. Initial crowds numbered several hundred but topped out in 2013 at 8,500. By year's end, crowds gathered not just for the food or coffee at Elemental or the street food menu at Ludivine, but also the considerable retail vendors and an impressive lineup of musicians who play throughout the night.
The family-friendly, dog-friendly market concluded its run in October, but it will be back in March.
Plenty of other cool things occurred in the local food scene, including the opening of Empire Slice House, which expanded the Plaza District's cool-food factor began by The Mule in 2012.
The opening of the US Foods Chefs Store in south Oklahoma City; KD's Southern Cuisine in Bricktown; the growth of Kitchen No. 324 into a dinner spot; the S and B behind S&B Burger Joint opening HillBilly's Po'boys in the NW 9th Street spot Pachinko Parlor vacated; the addition of Packard's between Midtown and Automobile Alley; the quantum leap for Saturn Grill at the Midtown location; a bricks and mortar locale for Waffle Champion; and the launch of Fubelly.com — a locally conceived website that shares the stories of local restaurants through photos and video.
And, oh yeah, I wrote a book (“A Culinary History of Pittsburg County: Little Italy, Lamb Fries and Choctaw Beer,” History Press, $19.95).
Whew. Time to celebrate Christmas, my birthday and New Year's to gear up for what looks like an even grander 2014.