If you’d walked by the quirky, mustard-walled building at 3rd and Elgin a few months ago, you would have seen one of Tulsa’s best-known chefs – a Holland Hall and University of Oklahoma graduate – hauling huge slabs of sheetrock across the muddy floor and banging them into place with iron rods. Justin Thompson is a lot like the pioneers who built this city a century ago; he enjoys the hands-on grunt work of creation.
Walk inside that building today and you’ll see a rustic yet elegant room that welcomes diners with the glint of burnished copper, the ruddy glow of brickwork, and the subdued earth tones of pastel walls. Intricate charcoal drawings of edible plants adorn the walls.
“They’re by Taylor Young,” Thompson says. “He’s a great local artist I discovered.”
Thompson enjoys getting involved with details, with fitting raw ingredients into place to produce something a less creative person would never have dreamed of.
Finding the best ingredients, using local sources, perfecting his technique and adding creative vision and a lot of sweat and hard labor: that summarizes Thompson’s philosophy of building, probably of life, and certainly of cooking.
“How you sear the meat, how you make the sauce,” he says. “Good cooking is all about technique.” He pauses a moment. “I take a basic idea and make it better than it was before.”
He’s done it before. His physician father (who, incidentally, helped haul that sheetrock) hoped Thompson would follow him into the profession, but at OU Thompson spent more time cooking than studying his major (philosophy and zoology). He had found his vocation. A few years later, he opened his first restaurant, Ciao, on Brookside. Later, by now discovered by Tulsa super-restaurateur Tim Baker, he created The Brasserie and Sonoma. Exciting at first, his work there later became routine: supervision and administration.
“I missed the thrill of holding a vegetable fresh from the farm in my hand and figuring out what I was going to do with it,” he says.
Thinking of the long hours of hard, hot and sweaty work that it takes to run Juniper, Thompson’s eyes light up like a small boy’s at the gates of the Tulsa State Fair.
He devises a new menu every week. On Sunday and Monday, when the restaurant is closed, he and his talented sous-chef, Trey Winkle, meet with the dozen local farmers with whom they collaborate (tiny farms such as Three Springs Farm in Cherokee County), determine what is the best fresh produce they have available that week, and plan the menu around that. There is also a short menu that doesn’t change. It includes such dishes as sweet carrot soup with lobster and cognac cream, cucumber and local goat cheese salad with sweet Hendrick’s gin vinaigrette and rose petal focaccia (the focaccia complements the rosewater flavor of the Hendrick’s gin, says Justin), and coffee-rubbed rib eye served atop a fennel and wilted onion confit. The cooking pairs French technique with southern European ingredients and flair. Like everything else in Juniper, it is quintessentially Justin Thompson. 324 E. 3rd St., Tulsa. www.junipertulsa.com