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Oklahoma City area dining scene was founded on giving

The Food Dude looks back at a dynamite 2013 in Oklahoma City's growing food scene.
by Dave Cathey Modified: December 24, 2013 at 2:19 pm •  Published: December 25, 2013
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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.

John Lennon

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.

Josh Valentine

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.

Ludivine

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.

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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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