His tale is mesmerizing … idyllic.
“I grew up in Manitou Springs, Colorado, right by Pikes Peak, but my best memories are summers at my grandparents’ Rhode Island farm. Me and my brother would spend the days tending the vegetable garden, picking the berries that grew all over. We’d eat half what we picked, and my grandma made the rest into a pie.
“Sometimes we’d eat ‘cannibal sandwiches’ from a fresh side of beef, or drive to the sea and get lobsters fresh from the ocean. It was the best thing in the world.”
Just before the dinner rush at the huge, glorious Smoke Woodfire Grill in Owasso (the original is in Tulsa), Erik Reynolds – a giant of a man, normally full of energy but tired now – takes a brief break and relaxes with his happiest memories … food memories. It’s been a strenuous, exciting 18 months to navigate the thousand tasks, pitfalls and challenges involved in opening not one but two restaurants in a new, enormous, high-ceiling, downtown brick building.
“Owasso has been fantastic,” Reynolds says. “We got 1,200 visitors in one month – 85 percent or more of what comes out of our kitchen is made from scratch, and that volume nearly killed us.
“And wait till we open MAD next door – MAD means Modern American Diner. We’ll have breakfasts and street tacos and cool, fun appetizers. Fried chicken, champagne cocktails, local beers and ridiculously huge milk shakes. It’s going to be a madhouse.”
It will be double the toil, and Reynolds is thrilled – he isn’t a stranger to hard work.
“My first job at 13 was dishwasher in a mom-and-pop diner,” he says. “I would have to hand-scrub dried egg yolk off each tine of each fork. I got $2.35 an hour, and it seemed like a good deal to me. But these days, I can’t do a 10-hour shift on the cooking line; my knees won’t take it.”
Reynolds actually prefers working on the line. He took college courses in restaurant management when he was in high school and, by 21, he was a restaurant manager. He did that for five years in Wyoming and Oregon “and then I quit,” he says. “I just had to get back to the kitchen.”
Even then, with his background and leadership talent (learned during two years in the Army), he usually ended up running the kitchen, where “it’s better to be on the line. You can learn more. You learn from each chef you work with,” he says.
Midway through his career, he got a job at Jeffrey’s in Austin to work the line. That was his favorite job. He learned to cook with local ingredients, work with produce fresh from the farm (bringing back childhood memories), use fine ingredients like truffles and morels, and, most important of all, master the grill.
“You can’t get full flavor unless you cook on live fire,” he says. “There’s something in our DNA that triggers primal feelings to fire. That smoke. That char. That’s the way we cook at Smoke, and I’ve had that grill so hot the pan melted.”
In Austin, Reynolds also worked for an elite catering company. He cooked for President George W. Bush, his wife and his entire cabinet. He cooked for people so rich that every wing of their mansion had a huge, restaurant-quality kitchen. He cooked for “Willie Nelson, Prince, Hall and Oates, all kinds of people,” he says. But that’s another story, and it’s not really who Reynolds is.
“I came from a poor family,” he says. “I got to where I am by working hard, being loyal and listening to people. I’m living the American dream.”
Meanwhile, the restaurant has filled up. Reynolds goes back to work. He’s tired but content.