From Stove to Seed to Table

By Judy Allen / Photography By Brooke Allen | June 16, 2017
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A Local Chef’s Culinary Journey

Kelly and Carla Grogg opened Grogg’s Green Barn, an organic nursery and garden center, in 2011. The Groggs snatched up the center’s property along 61st street because Kelly’s grandmother owns the lot right behind it. They kept up the empty lot for several years before deciding to open Grogg’s. Grandmother’s house still stands at the back of the property, just past the chicken coop behind the garden center, and the Groggs lived in the house during construction.

Fast forward nearly seven years, and you may have heard that Grogg’s is not only thriving as a business, but has turned into the hottest dining ticket in town.

To date, most local publications and food bloggers have touched on the dinners coming out of the locally hewn professional kitchen in the former hydroponic showroom of Grogg’s garden center. Tagged as The Reserve at Grogg’s Green Barn and helmed by Executive Chef Matt Owen, this Instagram-worthy dining space has become THE place for dinner on Friday and Saturday evenings.

We’ve heard about the tours given before dinner, showcasing the produce grown on the spot. We’ve seen the Instagram pics of guests sipping local sour ales and peeking into chicken coops. Our Facebook feeds are lined with shots of the rustic décor, handcrafted countertops and tables lined with bouquets of fresh-cut flowers and gorgeous plates of food. But what have we been missing out on? A little background (which turns out to be quite a lot) of Chef Owen.

Matt Owen didn’t start cooking professionally until he was 24, but his time in the kitchen, as well as his love for cookbooks, began much earlier. Growing up, Owen was a latchkey kid and at the age of 12 would read his mom’s cookbooks to figure out what he was going to eat.

“I was reading a lot of cookbooks at the time,” he said. “I still do. I will read anything that will hold still.” Owen’s mom had two or three books from the 1970s that he referenced. “Jeff Smith’s Frugal Gourmet was broken down into countries, so I learned Japanese, Chinese and Greek recipes.”

Owen’s first real kitchen job was at Bodean seafood restaurant (in the original location, across 51st street from where it stands today). He was hired as a wholesale fish cutter, but after a line cook didn’t show up for a shift, Bodean Executive Chef Tim Richards (now of Doc’s fame) took the inexperienced Owen under his wing. “He taught me all of the introductory lessons to cooking: prep, timing and technique,” said Owen.

Now in the kitchen, Owen said he really didn’t have the courage to cook professionally until he was older. “One day I couldn’t not do it anymore. I was so curious of how the professional kitchens did it.”

The next step would be to attend culinary school, but he wasn’t sure where to go. “I read an article in a food magazine about Portland, Oregon, and the food scene there. Chefs there were buying vegetables at the local markets and working with local producers just like the chefs in Europe do. There was nothing like that going on here in Tulsa, so my girlfriend at the time and I packed up and moved to Portland,” he said.

After attending culinary school, Owen worked for nearly nine years at various Portland restaurants, gaining experience in Portuguese, Spanish, rustic Italian and Japanese cuisines. “Whatever the really good restaurant was at the time, I wanted to get in there.”

Owen met his wife, Jessica, while working in Portland. “She is a really good chef.” (Owen accentuates the “really” when talking about her.) “She has cooked with Andy Ricker at Pok Pok and for Masaharu Morimoto,” Owen bragged.

Shortly after getting married, Matt and Jessica moved to Kauai to care for her father, a local restaurateur who was recovering from knee surgery. “You just don’t turn down an opportunity to move to Hawaii,” Owen said.

During his time in on Kauai, Owen worked with friend Helen Lacono and Jim Moffat at ‘Living Foods’, on the island. “Helen bought ingredients from the local farmers’ markets and local fishermen and served a five-course, BYOB dinner every Friday and Saturday evening,” he said. “She taught me how to forage for ingredients and construct a menu. I also learned how to work closely with farmers and local producers. It was easy, because there in Hawaii if you plant it, it grows!”

The Owens moved back to the Tulsa area in 2010, where Matt became sushi chef, then executive chef at Yokozuna. The stint was short-lived, for in 2012, the opportunity arose to help friend Chris Kajioka open a restaurant in Honolulu: Vintage Cave Club, an ultra-exclusive, finedining restaurant with a $300 12-course tasting menu. Located in the basement of a shopping mall, its entrance, in the parking garage, hides any hint of what awaits inside.

“The owner flew in stonemasons from Italy and built the restaurant to resemble a castle. There were Swarovski crystal chandeliers, original Picasso works of art and $400 dinner plates,” said Owen. “It was nuts. I have never seen anything like it!”

All extravagance aside, Chef Kajioka taught Owen many valuable culinary lessons, culled from his experience working for well-known chefs including Thomas Keller of French Laundry fame. The crew had daily meetings before and after service to discuss why and how to do everything. Does “this” need to be on the plate? Does “it” need something else? “He taught me how to find what I want to say about food. And how to be critical of my own creations,” Owen said.

That put a bug in Owen’s ear. “I thought, ‘How could I do this in Oklahoma? I go fishing and hunting and foraging when I’m there—could this sort of dining experience be possible there?’”

A 2014 anniversary trip to Oklahoma led Owen to the Canebrake. “The place and the food was mind blowing! Especially in the middle of nowhere,” said Owen. A mere 48 hours after returning home to Hawaii, a friend let Owen know that the Canebrake was looking for a chef.

Owen spoke with Canebrake co-owner and Executive Chef Sam Bracken for several hours over the phone. “We saw eye to eye on everything,” Owen said. After a week-long visit to the Canebrake property to cook, Owen and his wife moved in. “She managed the dining room and bar. We lived on the property. We were fully invested,” said Owen. Unfortunately, the Canebrake closed shortly thereafter.

Meanwhile, Kelly and Carla Grogg had been celebrating the seventh successful year of Grogg’s, and wanted to do something new to the place. It was Kelly’s idea to add a food-service component. The intent was to close the circle: Grogg’s was already growing food in the form of edible plants, why not educate customers at the same time about eating sustainably?

“Most our customers are already edible gardeners who grow food in home gardens,” said Carla. “They come to our classes and are aware of the unsustainability of large-scale farming. It just made sense to add food service to the mix. Plus, the staff can only use so much of what comes from our demonstration gardens.” At the suggestion of Emily Akin, the garden center’s operations manager and a Canebrake alum, the Groggs contacted Owen.

Upon touring the facility, Owen said as a chef he couldn’t have heard a better set of ideas. “They wanted to serve dinner on Friday and Saturday evenings with only 40 people per night. I get to write the menu and cook what I want. We only cook and eat what we grow. And I get to run the show,” he said. “They basically said ‘Hey, you know that restaurant you’ve wanted to open for years? We want to do it!’ I was sold!”

Owen advised on all aspects of the kitchen’s construction, which started in March. The Reserve at Grogg’s Green Barn served its first dinner on March 31 to a packed house of friends and family. I was fortunate to attend. “We are really starting to hit our stride with our style of service and the food production,” said Owen.

The five-course dinners focus on what’s coming out of the garden, as well as what featured farmers or producers have available at the time and include wine and beer pairings. Thus, the restaurant will close for three weeks in August, when it’s too hot to grow anything, and over the winter, from November to March. “We will close out the year strong with a heavy anticipation for next year.”

Some of the local producers Owen is excited to work for include 413 Farm (chicken), Prairie Creek Farms (pork and possibly quail and squab in the future), 7K (beef ), Swan Bros. Dairy (milk, cream and cheese) and Wagon Creek Creamery (Greek yogurt and other dairy). “We use all parts of the chicken, including rendered fat and skin,” said Owen. “And our eggs? We walk out back and grab them fresh. They are still warm!”

During pre-dinner cocktails at the first dinner held at The Reserve, I honed in on Owen’s cookbook collection, some of which is displayed on shelves just outside the kitchen. “I have a lot of ‘old faithfuls’ that influenced my techniques,” said Owen. “Marco Pierre White’s White Heat is what made me want to cook professionally. The book is not only about recipes, but life in the kitchen. It helped prepare me.” He also counts Tom Colicchio’s Think Like a Chef as a favorite. “It should be a textbook in culinary school,” said Owen.

“I learned to cook from books first,” he said. “We can’t eat out or travel all the time. Many times, the closest you can get to other kinds of cooking is by reading a cookbook.”

Recently, I read an interview with famed sustainability champion Chef Dan Barber of Blue Hill at Stone Barns in New York. He was asked if farm-to-table cooking requires us to consider ingredients first, and recipes second.

“As chefs, we should be responding more to what the landscape is telling us what it wants to grow,” Barber said, “instead of thinking about an exciting dish and running to the farmers’ market to see how much of the ingredients we can get.”

This has been Chef Owen’s philosophy from the get-go, and as a result, Owen, as well as Kelly and Carla Grogg, have elevated The Reserve at Grogg’s way past the trendy farm-to-table moniker. The only name to give this experience is seed-to-fork. We’ll pop the cork on a locally brewed and bottled beer to that anytime!

To learn more or to make a reservation, visit: GroggsGreenBarn.com/The-Reserve or call 918.994.4222.

Article from Edible Tulsa at http://edibletulsa.ediblecommunities.com/eat/stove-seed-table
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