“I’ve been cooking as long as I can remember,” says Paul Wilson as he strolls through his new restaurant, Papa Ganouj. “When I was 12, I tried to invent a better hash brown for my grandpa.”
With bright gray and salmon-colored walls, a laid-back staff, oak ornaments salvaged from the Mayo Hotel and mismatched crockery, Papa Ganouj looks like your average hipster hangout. But the kitchen is another story.
“I love doing simple peasant food,” says Wilson, “and then vaulting it to the next level.”
There’s Heather Nail, who ran the kitchen at Doc’s Wine and Food and at Leon’s on Brookside. Seemingly at once, she sauces a plate of moussaka lasagna, chops a vaguely alien tropical fruit and seasons a frothy, pungent bouillabaisse with saffron, fennel and anise-flavored arak. There’s Roque Heidler, formerly of Juniper and Tavolo, stirring a bright, bubbling sauce of red pepper coulis as he uses his other hand to stretch handmade squid-ink pasta.
“He’s our presentation guy,” says Wilson of Roque, who then uses a pair of tweezers to ornament an appetizer with orange zest, anchovies and Rose of Sharon petals from the bartender’s garden.
Wilson, himself a master of technique and presentation, was barely out of his teens when he started working his way up from a dishwasher at an elegant bistro in Minneapolis. He bet his coworkers – seasoned chefs from France – that he could land one of the most coveted cooking jobs in America. They laughed; they lost. He worked alongside famed French Master Chef René Bajeux in New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina. Back in his childhood hometown, he’s cooked at The Kitchen on Brookside, Lunabread and Juniper.
Wilson pauses to give directions to a sous chef. He starts dicing a humble yam. Many of the entrees are humble dishes – coq au vin, bouillabaisse, bourguignon, puttanesca – the French and Italian equivalents of chicken fried steak.
“I love doing simple peasant food,” says Wilson, “and then vaulting it to the next level.” 1328 E. Sixth St., Tulsa. www.papaganoujtulsa.com