Tall and rugged with tousled hair, he’s the sort of man you’d expect to see hanging 10 above a soaring wave or relaxing aboard a luxury yacht. But Brandon Benelli worked for three years in the California kitchen of Napa Valley’s French Laundry, considered one of world’s finest restaurants, cooking alongside its owner, the legendary Thomas Keller.
“It was the most challenging experience of my life,” he says.
Before that, he graduated from America’s premier cooking school, the Culinary Institute of America. Then came travels in Europe – honing his skills by cooking at a trattoria in the ancient Tuscan town of Montevarchi, Italy. Somewhere in between, he spent a year as Hugh Hefner’s butler in the Playboy Mansion. And now, he is in Tulsa, taking a quick break moments before beginning the second day of his new job as the executive chef of Lucky’s Restaurant.
“It used to be just New York, San Francisco and Paris,” Benelli says, “but now it’s nationwide. It’s Omaha, it’s Atlanta, it’s Kansas City … and it’s Tulsa.”
Next to him is his brother and new boss, Matt Kelley, also a CIA graduate, chef and owner of Lucky’s.
When it opened on Cherry Street, Lucky’s was packed nightly for dinner by eager foodies wowed by sophisticated entrees such as the Riesling chicken, distinguished by a fruity, floral bouquet of wine with a hint of lemongrass contrasting with earthy enoki mushrooms in a rich stock. At brunch, guests craving Lucky’s eggs and chicken fried steak lined up out the door.
In the years since those first days, Lucky’s has become even better. Kelley offers fun, creative, weekly specials like glazed slow-roasted pork belly with gingered carrot puree and red-eye gravy made from molasses, coffee, ham and bacon, as well as grilled bison with scarlet runner beans in a Oaxacan mole negro, blackberry compote and crispy red Russian kale. And now, Lucky’s enters a new era with Benelli.
From their days cooking in California, where they had easy access to some of the finest produce anywhere, both brothers continue a solid practice.
“I learned to source the finest ingredients and keep the food simple: simply prepared but perfectly prepared,” Kelley says.
“I call it ‘the elegance of simplicity,’” Benelli adds.
Everything is local, made possible through Lucky’s contracts with Southwood Farm & Market and Grogg’s Green Barn, both local businesses. Even the Lucky’s bar is sold on this idea. Bartender Liz Pounds – affable, graceful and dignified – uses only the freshest fruits and herbs to design her brews.
“I’m a liquid alchemist,” she says.
Benelli puts that philosophy to work in the kitchen.
“Try this,” he says, brandishing an entrée he prepared and plated in fewer than 10 minutes – two chunks of fish and glistening green asparagus nestled in a corner of the dish with a bright scarlet swirl covering the rest of the plate.
“That’s romesco sauce,” Benelli explains, “and the fish is halibut cheeks.” The taste yields an explosion of flavor that is the essence of beach living, sunshine and fresh-caught goodness. “Now that’s what I mean when I say ‘the elegance of simplicity,’” says Benelli.
A few years ago, Kelley muses, you wouldn’t find a chef of Benelli’s caliber in Tulsa. “But things have changed a lot in the past five years, thanks to … all the brand new restauranteurs.”
“It used to be just New York, San Francisco and Paris,” Benelli says, “but now it’s nationwide. It’s Omaha, it’s Atlanta, it’s Kansas City … and it’s Tulsa.” 1536 E. 15th St., Tulsa. www.luckysrestauranttulsa.com