A Chef Comes Full Circle
Chef Matthew Amberg, a Tulsa native, has come full circle by opening Oren, a sleek new spot for what he calls “progressive American” cuisine, in Brookside, a stone’s throw from where he grew up. Amberg’s first food job, which launched him on his career track, started just down the street at Curt & Marj’s, under the tutelage of the renowned Curt Herrmann and Marjorie Alexander.
“Marj gave me a real foundation from cookbooks,” Amberg said. “If we were going to make a béchamel, she would give me a cookbook and tell me to go sit and read about it for 15 minutes. That is the reason I have so many cookbooks in my kitchen.”
Amberg passes the same study habits on to his kitchen staff . “They want to learn, and it helps to have a common culinary vocabulary.” In the kitchen at Oren I couldn’t help but steal a glance at the cookbooks lining the shelves; when I eyed the volumes of Modernist Cuisine I knew the meal to come would be something out of the ordinary.
That was undeniably the case at Oren. But how did a Tulsa native, who shot for the stars (Michelin, that is) end up within earshot of home?
Amberg eventually moved on from Curt & Marj to work for Richard Clark at the French Hen, then to Savannah, Georgia, as the pastry chef for Sapphire Grill. He returned to Tulsa and cooked for James Shrader at Palace Café for two years before Shrader worked out a deal with him to visit New York City and train at various restaurants in exchange for a six-month work commitment.
New York took hold and after the six months were up Amberg headed back to the Big Apple, working out a stint at Michelin-starred Oceana as he was packing his bags. After that he headed to Picholine, a now-shuttered but former stalwart that garnered two Michelin stars in its prime.
Amberg’s next stop proved fortuitous: Traveling to Brooklyn and the Farm on Adderly would change his life, for that is where he met another cook, Yaara Oren, who would become his wife.
Amberg continued to move around, working stretches at Public and at Aureole under Charlie Palmer, as well as extended stages at other spots including A Voce. Yaara joined him in a move to North Carolina to help a friend open a restaurant, then the duo headed back to Brooklyn and the Farm, where Amberg took on a culinary development role for the restaurant and opened Nine Chains bakery. All the while the Ambergs had three goals in mind: to have more kids (their youngest had recently been born in New York), to buy a house and to start a restaurant. This led to a major decision: move to Tulsa or to Yaara’s native Israel.
“I spent a month in Israel,” said Matthew Amberg. “I was pretty sure I didn’t want to live there, so Tulsa it was.”
Upon arrival in Tulsa, the Ambergs spent six months trying to get the restaurant going. “We went down the road with several locations that in the end weren’t right for us,” he said. “Tim Inman made me an offer to work for him at Stonehorse Café. After 18 months I came across the location in Center 1 and had to go for it. Tim and I parted ways, but my restaurant is definitely better because I worked for him.” Serendipitously, Amberg’s new spot is in striking distance of the spot where Inman first opened Stonehorse, and in the exact space where Curt and Marj ran Montrachet for so many years.
Once the location was sealed, Oren, which is Yaara Amberg’s maiden name, started to take on a life of its own. “The name and space definitely influence what Oren has become,” Amberg said. “We went through many names and concepts before Oren became what it is today.”
Yaara is no longer on the line in the kitchen. She works full time as a tax accountant, but comes in on Mondays to run invoices and payroll and attend weekly management meetings. “We’ve done the working together thing, and it’s good to now have that separation,” he said. “As much time as I spend here—typically 75 hours a week— someone has to be there for the kids!”
When I first contacted Amberg in early February, he politely said he would get back to me, for he was having date-night with his wife for the first time since opening Oren back in August.
Those 75 hours a week are spent creating perhaps the most inventive food Tulsa has seen. Chef Amberg intends to refine it even further. “Our staff is great—they buy in to what we’re trying to do and are invested in the restaurant,” he said. “But hospitality is the number one thing for us, above doing cool food. Above all we want everyone to have a good time.”
A fruit- and vegetable-driven menu includes locally sourced products whenever possible. But don’t call Oren a farm-to-table spot. “Everything comes from some farm. We want to use American regional products but we take influence from all over—America is the ultimate melting pot.”
Quality trumps everything in the kitchen of Oren. Amberg refuses to sacrifice quality for location. The menu also includes a few more luxury items than originally intended. “We make refined, slightly elegant dishes out of carrots and broccoli,” Amberg said, adding that putting those dishes out there helped them gain trust from guests. “Our foundation is based on fruits and vegetables, but we are allowed to work a little farther out of the box, and I am always hounding my suppliers for more unique and hard-to-find ingredients.”
Roasted carrots served over Greek yogurt with mint, dukkah and orange oil has become a popular dish, proving that the lowly carrot can shine on its own. The ever-changing menu includes a thoughtful assortment of vegetable dishes, grains, salads and a finely curated selection of proteins: pork, beef, fish, steak and chicken, but only one of each. Don’t fall in love with any menu items, though, for next season (or next week, if ingredients are scarce) they will most likely be replaced with something new.
Earlier this winter Amberg had persimmons hanging in the service window, slowly transforming. Japanese hoshigaki are Hachiya persimmons that are peeled and dried whole over a period of several weeks through a combination of hanging and delicate hand-massaging, until the sugars contained in the fruit form a delicate surface with a dusting that looks like frost. Unlike most dried fruit, which tends to be brittle and leathery, hoshigaki are succulently tender and moist, with concentrated persimmon flavor. Amberg intends to use this method of preservation on pineapple and other fruits. “This is what we do: take techniques and try them with different things.”
Oren’s bar menu is no different. The fruit- and vegetable-forward drink selections mirror what the kitchen is putting out, as far as ingredients and seasonality. Bar Manager Read Richards, formerly of Valkyrie, talks with Amberg at length about how the bar can work with the kitchen. The bar list features inventive cocktails, biodynamic and naturally processed wines, and unique liqueurs.
“Being special and unique is important to us,” Amberg said. Since he doesn’t drink, Amberg enlisted Richards to take the ball and run with it. “It annoys me that at many restaurants I can order either a cocktail or a Pepsi,” Amberg said. “I told him we have to offer a soft-cocktail list as well as wine and other cocktails.” Richards’ celery soda is a non-alcoholic standout.
Since the Ambergs have achieved the first three of their goals—have more kids, buy a house and open a restaurant—I asked if there were any new goals to share. “I look at this as my first restaurant,” he said. “I’ve made it no secret to our staff that becoming the best restaurant in Tulsa is not the final goal. Michelin stars may not come to Tulsa but that doesn’t mean we can’t do Michelin-quality food.”