Walk into any one of Tulsa's finest restaurants, head for the kitchen, and there's a good chance that the famed chef in charge started his career long ago in a nondescript strip mall far from the center of town. Back then, in a long low slouching building erected 40 years before, were a series of somnolent shops and two packed, dimly lit bars where cowboy hats and beehive hairdos were the norm. Next to one of those bars was a tiny restaurant and fish market staffed by a group of young men who went on to become the top chefs in Oklahoma. Ask any of them today about that restaurant and you'll hear fresh vivid memories of what might have been the best time of their lives.
"Bob would tell us to go to the market and pick the best fish we saw," recalls Tim Inman, chef and owner of Stonehorse Cafe. "'This fish ain't wine,' Bob would say. 'It don't get better with time.'" Bob was Bob Faulkner, and along with his wife Mary, he ran Bodean Seafood Market & Restaurant.
"Bob was the ruler," says Mary Faulkner, "and when he died I felt lost. But then I realized, I'm a mom, I know how to do that! And so I thought of all of Bodean's as my family." Working with them, agrees Inman, was like being a part of a "fantastic family."
"Great people!" agrees Tuck Curren, proprietor and chef of Biga. "They knew good food, they knew to hire the best chefs, and,” Curren adds, "they knew to give them freedom." Freedom, Mrs. Faulkner explained, to "let the creativity flow, let them express themselves through food." "They gave me room to grow, to succeed (or sometimes fail), to learn new things," says Inman. "They gave me enough rope to hang myself." Inman smiles. Tim Richards, executive chef at Bodean for more than a decade and now executive chef at Doc's Wine & Food on Brookside, is more succinct. "Bodean's made me the chef I am today."
Trevor Tack, a young man from Chickasha, has the glowing good looks of a matinee idol and the stunned bemusement of a man who suddenly finds himself in paradise. Already an experienced chef (R Bar and Main Street Tavern), he's the new executive chef at Bodean. "I'm in heaven!" he exclaims. "I'm surrounded by the world's best ingredients and people who love food." Every morning he walks through a glass door in a white modern building, the new Bodean, just across the road from that now-demolished mall. Past the lobby, with its ceiling of blown glass in the shape of waves and big tank of colorful tropical fish meant to simulate an undersea cavern, through the spacious elegant dining room where platoons of waiters are already laying crisp white tablecloths, into a vast and spotless kitchen, where rows of disciplined sous-chefs are setting up their mise en place. Just beyond is a heavy steel door that leads to the fish cutting room, where fresh whole salmon, their eyes still glistening, await their fate. Beyond that, through a tiny portal, is the market. Long rows of display cases each hold scores of gleaming filets. "The fish is completely different from yesterday," Tack marvels. "Just today we've got shipments from New Zealand, California, Alaska and Massachusetts," confirms Kieron St. Ledger, the dapper New Yorker who is Bodean's general manager.
The market is the heart of Bodean. The restaurant has developed contacts with scores of suppliers around the globe, and twice a day every day of the year (though, St. Ledger confesses, sometimes it's only once on Sundays) flights arrive at Tulsa airport bearing fish caught only hours before. There's an employee whose sole job is to pick up that shipment and deliver it. If you've eaten at any of Tulsa's better dining establishments, you've probably tasted that fish. Bodean supplies almost all of them. "Bodean is a name synonymous with quality of fish," says St. Ledger. But if you eat at Bodean, you get the best of the best. That's why Tack is in the market now. Each day, he says, I visit the "market and find the best and the brightest. I hand-pick the best for the restaurant." "When I worked there," recalls Richards, "I wouldn't touch a fish that had been frozen. All our fish came from day boats, caught that day and put on a plane." Most people don't realize that you can find some of the finest, freshest seafood right at the center of America a thousand miles from the sea. "Airplanes," Richards says, "are a real game-changer." A salmon that's happily swimming in a remote river in Alaska one morning can be on your plate at Bodean the next evening.
Though respectful of Bodean's long and proud tradition, Tack is not paralyzed by it. "They didn't hire me to stay the same," he declares. "We've got an eye on the future." By the time you read this, much of the menu should be updated. "My cooking style is straightforward," says Tack. "Just give me the best ingredients possible, and I let them speak for themselves. But you can't pigeonhole my style because I'm still growing. I want to get better at everything." He's come to the right place. The Faulkners have always nurtured their staff. Sous-chefs, waiters (some of whom have worked here for two decades), dishwashers – all are encouraged to improve themselves. Curren started out as waiter and ended up one of Tulsa's top chefs. They all but bludgeoned me into getting my CSW [Certified Specialist of Wine] certificate, recalls St. Ledger. They paid my tuition, they paid my wages, they even paid for a hotel room and car when I went for the exam. Now St. Ledger gives other employees weekly wine tutorials to pass on the learning. "I treat everyone with respect," says Faulkner. "Integrity is really important, too. And I have a wonderful staff, loyal and thoughtful.”
And the future? We might offer a few more land-based items, Tack says, make sure the wealth of the sea remains sustainable. We must keep abreast of changing times, he adds. "We intend to be relevant for a very long time." Meanwhile, as Tack takes over the kitchen, the Faulkners' son Taurus takes over the business. "As good as we were before," says Faulkner, "Taurus has brought so much more. I'm proud of how they are leading Bodean's next generation." She sounds energetic and confident, as well she should. "Our train track is laid down and well-traveled," she says. "No one is gonna stop that train."