Q & A with Trey Winkle, Executive Chef at R-Bar
After standing for hours in a hot (and often cramped) kitchen, cooking dish after dish to perfection for hungry customers, what do chefs do when they have time off? Cook, of course!
But they don’t cook what you might think. Seared scallops with brown butter foam are not typically on the menu at most chefs’ home dinner tables. More often than not you are likely to find quick and easy—but always flavorful— comfort food.
That is definitely the case with Chef Trey Winkle of R-Bar. I chatted with him recently about his cooking philosophy, which applies both at home and in his restaurant kitchen.
Judy Allen: How did you get into the restaurant biz?
Trey Winkle: I have a great group of friends that I have been hanging out with for years. At one time, many of them were part of the Chalkboard family. My girlfriend (and now wife) worked there and my best friend Trevor Tack was sous-chef there under the late Chef Paul Caplinger. And two of my great friends, Josh and Shannon Ozaras, are now the owners. The first great meal I ever had was there. Lots of firsts, actually. First foie gras, first filet, first experience with truffle oil. It blew my mind and opened my eyes to the fact that food in Oklahoma could be more than chicken- fried steak. At the time, I was working in a machine shop making airplane parts. Trevor talked me into starting out in the kitchen. I was dubious of starting a new career, on the ground floor, at age 24, but once I got into it, it was all over for me.
JA: What brought you to R-Bar?
TW: I followed Trevor to SoChey and worked in the kitchen there, as well as at Stonehorse Café and Juniper. When Trevor got the job at Bodean Seafood (where he is currently the executive chef ) he lured me to R-Bar. We worked together there for a few weeks in order to make a smooth transition in the kitchen. I loved the food they were doing, but it was a change to go from fine dining to pub food. I got to use a lot of the ideas I had been saving up … it has been fun to change things up. And I loved the fact that R-Bar was so into craft beers.
JA: People rave about the themed brunches at R-Bar. What are the most popular things on the menu?
TW: Everyone seems to be happy at brunch. It is great money for the people who work there—it is like working a holiday, packed into a four-hour shift, every weekend. It is fun trying to come up with new spins on old brunch classics such as Eggs Benedict. Brunch is a great way to experiment, and it is one of the draws here—we keep people interested. The donut holes are hugely popular and of course chicken-fried steak and eggs is a big seller. We do different spins on pancakes, and any kitschy stuff like tacos or burritos sell well. And anything with Hollandaise on top is going to be awesome!
JA: What cooking trends are you most excited about these days?
TW: I really like “roots cooking”—being historic when cooking and being proud of where you are from or where you live. I am interested in figuring out what kind of food was served back before certain dishes became classics—you have to do the research to be authentic and real for your region. Think of the California Cuisine movement: Alice Waters and Chez Panisse embraced all that was local in their area and made the ingredients shine.
It has made chefs create their own movements in their specific regions. People are working hand in hand with farmers and it is inspiring. I actually worked with Joe Tierney at Progressive Produce for nine months on the farm. It is much different from being in the kitchen. I got to see how things were grown. I got to feel the wind along with the heat and sweat.
JA: If I were to open your home fridge, what would I find in there?
TW: Besides a lot of craft beer? We are pretty vegetarian at home—I would say around 70%—so both the crisper and the meat drawer are stuffed with vegetables. We have milk from LOMAH Dairy and eggs from Fisher’s Eggs in Bristow. My wife and I try to hit up the farmers market when we can—Wednesday is our shared day off, so we usually hit the Brookside farmers market to stock up.
JA: Since you are such a huge fan of the craft beer movement—you DID stand me up for a growler of Prairie Artisan Ale!—what is your favorite beer of the moment?
TW: I’m definitely a big fan of Prairie Artisan Ales. Being close with them—brewers Chase and Colin Healey—through the restaurant has been a lot of fun. They are doing a great job of working within the laws that we have in Oklahoma, and producing amazing beer. My favorites of the moment? That’s the toughest question ever! Right now it would be the Table Ale from Prairie Artisan Ales or Love Child no. 4 from Boulevard’s Smokestack series.
JA: What are some of your go-to meals?
TW: I have a 1½-year-old, and it was always easier to make meals before she came along. We would make things like hearty macaroni and cheese. Now I am always thinking about what we are feeding our child. She is a starch monster so we cook a lot of fried rice and pasta with lots of vegetables and eggs. We eat lots of breakfast food—eggs, potatoes and Natural Farms’ nitrite-free bacon. Fortunately, she is an excellent eater. I was an extremely picky eater growing up. We are doing our best to introduce things to her—new spices and ingredients—without throwing her off. Our top two meals would have to be fried rice (made with brown or basmati rice) or tacos. We love sweet potato tacos made with potatoes roasted with butter and cinnamon. In the winter we serve them with apple salsa and save the tomato salsa for summer when the tomatoes are in season. We make quesadillas with the same filling for our daughter … she goes crazy for them!
JA: When you get the chance, where do you like to eat in Tulsa?
TW: We definitely favor Asian and Mexican cuisines. I love Vietnamese food for the techniques and ingredients. I relate to it because of its tie-in with French cuisine. I enjoy Pho da Cao and the banh mi sandwiches from Pho-V. We also love El Gallo Loco—it is an exceptional Mexican restaurant! We ate at El Rio Verde a lot during my wife’s pregnancy.
JA: What changes do you have in store for R-Bar?
TW: I am always trying to get closer to my end goal, but it takes a lot of help. I am trying to build relationships with farmers while trying to keep up with production in the kitchen. We are trying to find purveyors that can keep up with our demand. I have spoken with over 90 producers, trying to cultivate relationships. It has been hard for many of them because of the drought, but we have laid the groundwork for future relationships. It is also hard to balance down time with crazy service. Our service is not always consistent. We plan around sporting events (such as Thunder games and the World Cup soccer matches)—people feed off of that energy and want to come in. I always have the ambition … always. The farm-to-table movement is not a niche market anymore. More people are thinking this way so we will eventually have more product. And there is nothing better than eating straight off the vine!