Kitchen masters: Meet 10 of Tulsa's rockstar chefs
BY NICOLE MARSHALL MIDDLETON & JASON ASHLEY WRIGHT World Scene Writer
Thursday, January 24, 2013
1/24/13 at 10:07 AM
Knives gleaming, pans on fire.
The chef's table at a hot restaurant is a front-row seat to a culinary concert for the senses.
And chefs have been described as the new rock stars.
Timing. Improvisation. The passion to create and share their art. Throngs of hungry followers.
They have a lot in common. Fueled by shows like "Top Chef" and "Iron Chef," the collective celebrity status of chefs has skyrocketed.
For many Tulsans, the high point of an evening out is the restaurant. And Tulsa diners follow their favorite chefs through each new venture.
Here are 10 of Tulsa's rock star chefs - in no particular order - who have current eateries and are blazing new gastronomic trails. They have kitchens for stages and a growing playlist of specialties for us to consume.
Philip Phillips is owner and chef of the Lone Wolf food truck. CHRISTOPHER SMITH / Tulsa World
Stage: Lone Wolf Banh Mi food truck
Lone Wolf draws an audience.
Most frequently, the food truck can be found downtown, often parked across from the Soundpony next to Cain's Ballroom, a perfect venue for rock stars of the food truck scene.
Phillips is a master of social media, so it's best to follow Lone Wolf on Facebook to make sure you know where and when the food truck will be serving.
"Basically, we would be the flaming food truck psychedelic rockers," Philip Phillips joked about his food truck. "We like to take different art forms, different types of food, and bring them together."
Tulsa diners also might recognize him from stints at Keo, Lava Noshery and Tsunami.
Phillips and his wife, Danielle Admire Phillips, initially planned to sell gourmet burgers, but on a trip to California, they ate several Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches and recognized the growing trend.
So Phillips and Admire tossed the gourmet burger idea - and it was banh mi or bust.
What he's riffing on now: "What has really taken off huge for us is our kimchi fries," Phillips said, describing the dish as cheese fries starring kimchi - a sour, fermented Asian vegetable that's comparable to sauerkraut.
The Tavern executive chef Grant Vespasian gave up his chance to be a rocker to become a chef. CHRISTOPHER SMITH / Tulsa World
Stage: The Tavern, 201 N. Main St.
Chef Grant Vespasian was actually a rocker before jumping into the chef gig with both feet.
He even had the opportunity to audition for David Cook's touring band after Cook won "American Idol" in 2008. The two were once roommates in Tulsa. But his interest in cooking was growing.
He told the Tulsa World previously that he didn't make the audition after realizing "food was a bigger passion."
Lately, Vespasian has been having a blast with his chef table tasting menu.
"Guests can sit in the kitchen and watch the action while I cook whatever I feel like," the chef said.
It gives him a chance to push himself and try new things. "Everybody has fun."
What he's riffing on now: A new dish he's excited about: frisee salad with a deep-fried deviled egg.
Jakub Hartlieb, executive chef at the River Spirit Casino, serves up a short rib dish on prepared wood. CHRISTOPHER SMITH / Tulsa World
Stage: River Spirit Casino, 8330 S. Riverside Parkway.
Chef Jakub Hartlieb's taste in music is a lot like his viewpoint on food.
Mainstream just doesn't cut it.
"I listen to bands you probably have never heard of," the executive chef of food services of River Spirit Casino said when asked about his taste in music.
Inspired by some of the world's leading chefs in modernist cuisine, his gastronomic creations are similarly unique and avant-garde.
His talents have earned Hartlieb the respect of his peers in Tulsa, and he was one of the area chefs named to Best Chefs America, the first industry peer review of U.S. chefs that will be released March 1.
Hartlieb explained that this style is often shorthanded as molecular gastronomy, but his experimentation with textures and ingredients is more appropriately called modernist cuisine.
We watched as Hartlieb plated sous vide-cooked short ribs on a prepared piece of bark with the goal of creating an entirely edible forest microcosm, "something you might just find while walking in the woods."
The menus at the five venues that he oversees at the casino are geared for the clientele, but he makes these kinds of creations for special events and catering jobs.
"It is not just about putting a piece of meat or piece of fish on a plate. It is about art," Hartlieb said. "My challenge is not to just create a good meal - that is a big part - but my goal is to challenge my audience."
What he's riffing on now: Modernist cuisine and unique plating surfaces, such as prepared wood and bark.
Adam Myers of Burn Co. developed an affinity for Hasty-Bake grills while working for the company and learning the barbecue culture. CHRISTOPHER SMITH / Tulsa World
Stage: Burn Co. Barbecue, 3208 E. 11th St.
The main instruments that Adam Myers and his cousin, Robby Corcoran, use in their wildly popular barbecue joint are Hasty-Bake grills.
And when they cook, there's a whole lot of smoke. Myers affectionately describes Burn Co. as a dive. But just because it's a dive, it doesn't mean the place lacks character, Myers said - or quality eats.
"We like to keep it laid back. We always have some sort of music, but it's different all of the time ... Johnny Cash, old-school rock, country, sometimes rap, sometimes reggae. We try to appeal to different people," Myers said.
"It's kind of a dive, but we have fine-dining standards. We buy expensive versions of the food. Everything is high quality."
Myers developed his affinity for Hasty-Bake by working at the grill company, learning the "real barbecue culture." When Myers and Corcoran decided to start a restaurant, they agreed to make everything fresh, every day.
They cook everything they've got. Once it's gone, they close their doors.
What he riffing on now: Fatties ... smoked sausage, wrapped in ground sausage, wrapped in chopped hot links, wrapped in bacon.
Burn Co. is experimenting with different fatty recipes "to see what happens," including high-temperature cheese that won't melt through the layers of meat.
Chef Justin Thompson recently opened Prhyme Downtown Steakhouse and has had a hand in creating menus at some of Tulsa's top restaurants. JOHN CLANTON / Tulsa World
Stage: Juniper, 324 E. Third St., and Prhyme Downtown Steakhouse, 111 N. Main St.
Tulsa diners anticipate chef Justin Thompson's next restaurant venture like adoring groupies waiting for their favorite singer's CD release.
But his audience doesn't have to wait long. Thompson is one of the most prolific rock stars of Tulsa's restaurant scene.
He has had a hand in creating menus and designing kitchens at some of the city's top eateries, including Sonoma, The Brasserie, Ciao and Duke's Southern Kitchen. And he learned his skills as sous chef at one of Tulsa's most iconic restaurants, The Polo Grill.
Thompson recently opened Prhyme, an upscale steakhouse, and earned a 4-star review from the Tulsa World restaurant reviewer, Scott Cherry.
His other restaurant, Juniper, was featured this fall in Saveur magazine's top 100 edition. The honor came after Thompson prepared a meal for the magazine's editor-in-chief, James Oseland, when he came to Tulsa on a book tour in August.
Thompson has enjoyed success in the restaurant business in Tulsa, but he always takes time to give back, preparing meals at several charity events every year.
What he's riffing on now: Introducing Tulsans to a new level of upscale dining at Prhyme, serving prime, wet-aged and dry-aged beef, as well as caviar service.
Zahidah Hyman, executive chef of Keo, was born in Cambodia and moved to the U.S. as a child. JAMES GIBBARD / Tulsa World file
Stage: Keo, 3524 S. Peoria Ave. and 8921 S. Yale Ave.
Zahidah Hyman is that home cook who everyone told to start a restaurant.
So she did. But unlike most who were similarly cajoled into the restaurant business, Hyman and her husband, Bill, actually made a go of it.
They just opened their second location in south Tulsa a week ago, and the crowds keep coming.
"I think that area must just be underserved. We are busy all of the time," Hyman said.
Hyman was born in Cambodia and moved to the United States as a child. Her mother, who always cooked fresh Asian meals three times a day, is her culinary inspiration.
"I loved her food. I wanted to learn everything."
The couple used to own two Camille's Sidewalk Cafes. After reaching a dead end with that enterprise, they decided to open a restaurant that was a little more personal.
"I was nervous at first, doing my own food, not knowing if anyone was going to like it. ... It was a big step for us," she said.
They opened the first Keo location in Brookside about five or six years ago.
What she's riffing on now: "I always love doing Asian food, with a little twist, like Indian spices or different flavors. We are also bringing some traditional Cambodian food to our new menu."
Chef Miranda Kaiser's Laffa Medi-Eastern will include a falafel window open until 3 a.m. MATT BARNARD / Tulsa World
Stage: Cosmo, 3334 S. Peoria Ave., and Laffa Med-Eastern, 111 N. Main St.
Chef Miranda Kaiser is "blown away" by everything happening now in the Brady Arts District - and she's a part of it.
"I love the thought of introducing some of the world's most delicious and nutritious dishes to Tulsa," said Kaiser, the owner and chef of the upcoming Laffa Medi-Eastern.
Once it opens, people can see - or, better yet, taste - for themselves why she's "crazy addicted" to Middle Eastern cookbooks with memoirs, such as "Arabesque: A Taste of Morocco, Turkey and Lebanon" by Claudia Roden.
This England native who spent 14 years in Israel pleads insanity over Middle Eastern food and "the whole shared mezze way of eating."
"I miss Israel so much, and this is therapy for me," Kaiser said.
That therapy will come as soon as Laffa opens. The elegant restaurant will include something completely new for Tulsa - a falafel window open until 3 a.m.
"I anticipate meeting some pretty interesting people, which is one of my favorite pastimes," she said.
What she's riffing on now: She's "hopelessly in love" with chermoula and harissa sauces. "So versatile - great on eggs, steak, chicken, pasta, veggies and in sandwiches," she said. "Not good on ice cream."
Chef Matt Kelley introduced upscale picnic food to Tulsa at Lucky's on The Green. MICHAEL WYKE / Tulsa World
Stage: Lucky's, 1536 E. 15th St., and Lucky's on The Green, 111 E. Brady St.
The owners of Lucky's restaurant, Matt and Brooke Kelley, opened Lucky's on the Green - in the Brady Arts District's Guthrie Green park - during the fall.
The innovative eatery effectively brought upscale picnic food to the city.
They serve lunch and dinner with menu items such as baked pretzels with Guinness mustard; Brie, honey and almond crostini; rabbit and pork belly banh mi; and cold fried Texas quail with potato salad. Diners can also get beer or wine.
What he's riffing on now: Kelley likes playing with fire at Lucky's.
"I primarily cook almost all items at Lucky's over local pecan wood," he said. "Cooking with fire is exciting - it soothes the soul. It is a return to simplicity."
Anything can be cooked using a wood fire, Kelley said, even breads and fruits. Not to mention, it adds depth to the flavor. His favorite cookbook: "Seven Fires: Grilling the Argentine Way" by Francis Mallmann.
James Shrader, owner/chef at The Palace Cafe, wants to see an upscale burger bar in Tulsa. CORY YOUNG / Tulsa World
Stage: Palace Cafe and Catering, 1301 E. 15th St.
With all the Saveur cover-worthy items on his menu, it may surprise some to hear James' current specialties are hamburgers and hot dogs.
"I think I have perfected the spicy tenderloin dog wrapped in a pretzel bun," Shrader said. It's his take on pigs in a blanket - all beef, house-made and sustainably sourced.
Shrader earned his chops in fine-dining establishments, working at a Canadian steakhouse before culinary school. In Tulsa, he helped open Back Street Bistro in Jenks and did stints at Doubletree Hotel at Warren Place and Finales. He worked at Stonehorse before opening Palace Cafe in 2002.
He's perfected his turkey burger, dinner short rib burger and black bean burger. One day, he wants to see an upscale burger bar in Tulsa. Until then, he'll keep experimenting at his Palace.
What he's riffing on now: He's working on the "elusive" salmon burger.
"It's proving quite difficult to make a proper salmon patty without using too much binder," he said. "It's my goal to make it gluten-free with potato instead of bread to keep it together."
Trevor Tack, executive chef at R Bar and Grill, loves brunch and is trying out a new menu with “new stuff weekly.” JAMES GIBBARD / Tulsa World
Stage: R Bar, 3421 S. Peoria Ave.
Chef Trevor Tack serves upscale pub food that never disappoints. R Bar even made the top 10 list of new restaurants opening in 2012, according to the Tulsa World restaurant reviewer, Scott Cherry.
Tack did stints as executive chef at SoChey in downtown Tulsa and the popular Main Street Tavern in Broken Arrow.
And at R Bar, it's clear Tack loves brunch, and his comes with a theme.
"Drinking mimosas and eating eggs all whilst discussing first world problems - what's not to love?" he said.
People tend to find their favorite spot and generally don't stray very often, Tack has noticed.
"However, like your favorite song from your favorite band, the same old track can become tiresome after listening to it 100 times," he said.
What he's riffing on now: A new brunch menu every Sunday. Tack said he is "kicking out new stuff weekly to keep my listeners tuned in and coming back for more."
Justin Thompson, Philip Phillips and Grant Vespasian. CHRISTOPHER SMITH / Tulsa World