By TEDDYE SNELL
Tahlequah restaurants serve up meals just as diverse and eclectic as the local population, with cuisine ranging from fine dining to “Okie-fied” fare that brings to mind Sunday dinner at grandma’s house.
Most folks staffing the kitchens would call themselves “cooks,” just like grandma, though a growing number of establishments are employing trained chefs. But it’s the presentation on the plate, more than a certificate on the wall, that tells the tale.
The Branch, one of Tahlequah’s newer restaurants, features fine dining, and often entices diners by posting photos of its fare on Facebook. Chef Kris Snyder studied at Le Cordon Bleu in Las Vegas, and has been with The Branch for about a year.
“I was a sous chef [at The Branch] for a while, and finally took over the head chef position,” said Snyder. “What we’re trying to do here is cater to students and faculty at Northeastern State University with affordable meals, as well as people who want to have a fine dining experience, and can afford to spend a little more. Essentially, we’re tying to fill the whole demographic.”
Snyder offers a broad spectrum of influence to choose from, including Pacific island, fusion, Caribbean, Spanish and other dishes from all over the globe.
“I’m a steak guy, myself,” said Snyder. “I’ve worked in restaurants from California, to Arizona to Las Vegas to Tahlequah, and in my opinion, we get the best steaks here.”
Snyder worked in commercial kitchens for 10 years before deciding to attend culinary school.
“That’s my advice to anyone looking to become a chef: Work in a kitchen for two years before attending school,” said Snyder. “Going to school in Vegas, there were a lot of kids who had never worked in a kitchen before, and they found out quickly it’s not all lights and glamour. You definitely need the experience before going to school.”
Another area chef who has made a name for himself is Sam Bracken, owner of the Canebrake, near Wagoner. Bracken was recently named to “Best Chefs America,” a book set for release March 1. He was one of 25 Oklahoma chefs included in this year’s edition. The book is a compilation of 4,800 chefs and their corresponding restaurants throughout the country, broken down geographically and alphabetically. Peers nominate chefs to be selected for “Best Chefs America.”
Bracken was unavailable for comment, and Canebrake staff indicated he was out of town this week, attending an expo event.
Craig Landsaw, owner of KTK Steakhouse in Tahlequah, said his restaurant doesn’t have chefs on staff.
“I used to, and he could do a lot of things, but he couldn’t cook a steak,” Landsaw said. “I have three cooks at my restaurant. My take on it is, if you put a bunch of stuff on my plate I’m not going to eat, then why bother putting it there? I don’t go for lemon grass and things like that.”
Landsaw was born and raised in Oklahoma, and has certain ideas about what people here enjoy eating.
“I’m Okie-fied; I’m a born-and-raised Okie, and I’m going to eat what’s on my plate,” said Landsaw. “That’s just how I feel about it. Our food is good, and that’s why people keep coming back – well, that and my bubbly personality.”
Ralph Winburn works full-time at Tahlequah City Hospital, but his love of food – and flair for preparing it – spurred him to take on a second career. He and his wife, Polly, own and operate The Soul Shack, which caters and provides concessions at many local events. The Soul Shack specializes in barbecue and soul food.
“I first realized I was a baker at the age of 11, and over the years, I’ve held jobs as a short-order cook,” said Winburn. “Most old-school recipes that I love came from home-cooked meals in basements of churches after service.”
Winburn said he’s broadened his culinary horizons, thanks to his wife.
“Twenty years ago, when I met my wife, Polly, I began to eat foreign foods, because she lived all over the world, and our mom, Molly, passed on a lot of her secrets to Polly,” said Winburn. “My specialties are a few items of soul food like chicken and dumplings, or Johnny cakes.”
Winburn’s forte, though, is working an outdoor grill or smoker.
“Everything else from me comes from outside on the grill or smoker, where I spend time sitting around picking the brains of other local barbecue pit masters, like Matt Young, Dave Carrol, Benny Stevenson, James Taylor, Walter McDowell and others, so I consider myself a grill master.”
Winburn gives Polly most of the credit for preparing tasty meals.
“My wife, with her various backgrounds, is definitely a chef; she never ceases to amaze me,” said Winburn. “Twenty years together, and she is still coming up with fabulous meals that shock and amaze me.”
For Winburn, feeding others is a family affair.
“What I get out of feeding people is that I know they get a good meal and plenty of it, so it feels as though they are part of our extended family,” said Winburn. “So its not just feeding them, it’s busting with them as well, which is a part of The Soul Shack experience.”