Andrew Donovan was at a crossroads in his professional life when he got a call from a longtime friend, chef-proprietor Matt Amberg at Oren restaurant in Tulsa.
“We’ve followed each other’s cooking exploits for about 20 years,” Donovan said recently. “We met in Savannah, Georgia, in the late ’90s or early 2000s, and then we both worked in Manhattan. We always stayed in touch.”
Donovan said Amberg had been contacted by Carla and Kelly Grogg, owners of Grogg’s Green Barn. They were looking for a chef to take over their restaurant, The Reserve, located inside the nursery.
“He said it was something I might want to check out, so I started emailing back and forth with Carla and Kelly,” Donovan said. “I finally made a visit. I never had been in this part of the country before. It’s beautiful.”
Donovan and his wife, Ashley Whitfield Donovan, once owned their own restaurant, Brine & Bottle, in Nags Head on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. He then took a job as regional corporate chef at Ouzo Bay Mediterranean Kouzina in south Florida.
“I always had a farm-to-table mentality,” Donovan said. “Everyone told us how it wouldn’t work at our restaurant in North Carolina, but we made it work. We met a farmer in Plymouth, North Carolina, who had an acre and a half, and he planted it exclusively for our use.
“I found with the corporate chef job that as I took on more responsibilities, I moved further away from the food. I had control of the menu, but I was detached from the actual cooking.”
Donovan said his oldest child also was getting close to school age, and he and Ashley didn’t want to stay in south Florida.
“We thought we would go back to North Carolina, but then Tulsa came into the picture,” he said.
“The size of the city and how nice the people are reminded us of the things we liked best about North Carolina. And this was a unique opportunity. I don’t know how many places like this exist in the country. It can’t be many, maybe 75 or less.”
Donovan told his story under the shade of a mulberry tree after he gave a tour of the Grogg’s Green Barn back garden, the source of ingredients for much of his cooking at The Reserve, which serves lunch Tuesday-Thursday and prix fixe dinners Friday-Saturday.
“I plan the menus around what grows in the garden,” Donovan said. “We have a great team that takes care of the gardens. We source things like milk, creams and cheeses within 50 miles of Tulsa. If we have to go farther, we try to stay in the state.”
Donovan gave a tour of the 15 raised beds, 24 fruit trees, 10 bee hives, an edible flower garden, the 24 hens in the hen house and a home that sits behind the nursery building.
“The home was Kelly Grogg’s grandfather’s house, so Kelly grew up running around the property,” Donovan said. “That 20-by-45 garden and the pear tree next to it have been here since maybe the 1950s. That garden and tree are the spirit of the property.
“The hens are for eggs only. We use the eggs for things like breads, pastries, ice cream and gelato. The bees, of course, are for the honey.”
He also showed off a vine next to the compost pile, which, at closer inspection, held softball-size pumpkins.
“I’m going to be able to do a lot of things with them,” he said.
To check out the lunch and dinner menus, and to register for one of the Friday-Saturday night dinners (which recently received a five-star rating from the Tulsa World), go to reservetulsa.com.
Ashley is a sommelier and does the wine service for the dinners. She also handles party planning, weddings, rehearsals and special occasions for The Reserve.
“We really enjoy working together,” Andrew Donovan said. “Our boys (ages 5 and 1) love it here, and so do we. It’s such a beautiful place.”
What the Ale: High Gravity Brewing Co.'s new barrel-aged membership program and Beer of the Week, 'Sinister Milk Stout'