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10. Meghan Synco

Executive chef, Hal Smith Restaurants, OKC

Sun-dried tomato macaroni and cheese

Straight out of culinary school, Meghan Synco jumped right in the middle of some impressive food gigs. She joined the team at the Oklahoma Golf and Country Club and specialized in molecular gastronomy and banquets. She moved to Whiskey Cake, where she was the sous chef under Kenneth Hardiman.

With Hal Smith Restaurants, Synco has taken Mama Roja Mexican Kitchen and Hefner Grill to new heights while sticking to tried-and-true house concepts.

For Synco, picking a favorite dish all comes down to the ongoing competition with her father, Walter Correia, over who can make the best macaroni and cheese. Synco describes him as a “very passionate home cook” who makes a worthy competitor.

“We always bring in a panel of expert judges – my picky stepdaughters – who have crowned him the champion more than once,” she says.

As she continues to experiment, by adding sun-dried tomatoes and thyme bread crumbs, her father sticks to the original while adding his own flourishes. As true culinary students, Synco and her father often delve into the quality of noodles and the “pan-life” of a dish once it’s cooked.

With a final challenge to her father, Synco states: “The battle rages on, and now this one is in a magazine. Game on, Pops!”

Most embarrassing moment in the kitchen

In culinary school, I had a bakery class at 8 o’clock in the morning. I don’t consider myself a morning person, so I was hardly awake enough to perform at a level necessary for the art of baking. It was cookie day, and I was assigned chocolate chip. Who could mess that up, right? Salt and sugar look quite similar, even when you aren’t baking with your eyes closed. Needless to say, I was more than heavy handed with the salt. I had added 48 times the amount necessary. No amount of chocolate topping could recover your taste buds from that Sahara desert.

Tips for breaking into the restaurant business

Mise en place means a place for everything and everything in its place. Professional or not, a well-stocked and organized kitchen brings peace of mind and a willingness to try new things.”

[cooked-recipe id=”65745″]

9. Bill Lyle

Executive chef, Summit Club, Tulsa

Pork belly, risotto, cauliflower bechamel, candied gremolata

There’s no golf course at the Summit Club, the elegant sky palace of Tulsa’s elite, so food is the focus. Bill Lyle works all day, every day, to raise the bar on the city’s cuisine. (“I once took a day off to buy a house,” he says.)

Lyle, a culinary veteran with years of experience, has been at the helm of fine-dining restaurants at the University of Arkansas and Crystal Bridges Museum in Bentonville, Arkansas. He says the kitchen at the Summit, with 25 chefs working for him, is his biggest challenge yet, and he loves it.

“I get passionate about food,” he says.

Inspired by classic French cuisine, his meals are rich, luxurious and irresistible. This dish – pork belly, risotto and gremolata atop a bechamel sauce … and dazzlingly decadent in appearance – reveals the chef’s hidden passion.

“Sustainability and edible responsibility are very important to me,” he says. “The bechamel is made with cauliflower to help reduce our dependence on cattle, and the risotto is made with local beets and barley. I’ve used local pork and I made the gremolata from local pecans.”

Most embarrassing moment in the kitchen

One of my first wine dinners, as a very young chef, struggling with the word gewürztraminer in front of a large audience. 

Favorite Thanksgiving dish

Crispy turkey skin with chestnut puree

Tips for breaking into the restaurant business

“Pick up two full-time kitchen jobs. Not only will you learn faster, but you’ll find out if you are cut out for the 80-hour week.”

[cooked-recipe id=”65750″]

8. Tuck Curren

Owner, Biga/Duet Jazz, Tulsa

Porchetta

You might have seen Tuck Curren about town – a dapper, affable restaurateur, confident chef, and owner of some of Tulsa’s most loved restaurants.

But more than three decades ago, when the young Curren arrived in Tulsa from upstate New York, he worked as a waiter to support his family. Even then, he was fueled by a desire to be a chef. Newly married, he and his wife, Kate, spent what little spare time they had poring through cookbooks. (He now owns over 600.)

“Kate and I have been married almost 35 years,” Curren says, “and we have been cooking together all that time. We would cook a whole dinner – soup to nuts … with an appetizer, entrée and side and dessert. We both grew up in New York and loved the Sunday roast for dinner at 3 p.m.”

Curren especially enjoyed finding obscure, complex Italian recipes. Porchetta, a carefully constructed pork roast from the Lazio region in Italy, became a favorite and has remained a staple years later.

With it, “we might have had lemon and bay leaf roast potatoes, and Kate’s world’s best broccoli,” Curren says. “The kids loved all the different types of food. This was our start, and some of our favorite memories. We have worked together ever since.”

Most embarrassing moment in the kitchen

“Slicing my finger at a catering and trying to cover it up … and not knowing how to turn on the food processor on a live TV show. I have checked ever since.”

Favorite Thanksgiving dish

My wife’s sausage and bread stuffing.

Tips for breaking into the restaurant business

If it is a home cook, taste your food throughout the cooking. To cook in a kitchen, talk your way into a job, observe, and learn to see if you like it.

[cooked-recipe id=”65756″]

7. Jacque Siegfried

Executive chef, Chamber, Tulsa Club Hotel

Beef Wellington

“I cook out of pure happiness,” Jacque Siegfried says.

Some of the happiest times of her life came at cooking school and while working at Cedar Ridge Country Club; at both places, she could grow, experiment and learn while being surrounded and encouraged by chefs as passionate about cooking as she.

Beef Wellington brings up fond memories of both periods and symbolizes how she triumphs over obstacles. As a student, Siegfried says beef Wellington represented classic French cuisine, and when, after much work, she mastered the dish, she knew she had what it took to be a chef.

“I was insanely lucky at Cedar Ridge because they let me run around creatively,” she says.

She came up with a new spin on beef Wellington – with a pastry base, spinach, mushrooms, Gorgonzola and onions – and the chef there let her serve it. It sold out within an hour. This, for her, was “a great victory … that built my confidence on altering classic dishes, especially ones people get intimidated by. I make this dish probably every couple of months in my life. It’s quick, delicious and serves beautifully.”

Most embarrassing moment in the kitchen

One time, a chef asked me to make a tuna salad-ish type of dish. I made this tuna tartare/olive tapenade-inspired salad. I personally enjoy raw meat, so I ate it and it was the bomb. I took it to the chef and he tasted it and was like, “Um … did you just feed me raw tuna salad?” And I said yes, super excitedly, and he looked like he could gag.

Favorite Thanksgiving dish

Potato salad. My grandmother would make it on every large holiday and she would let me help her while listening to music and talking. I carry on this tradition of making her potato salad at main holidays. It causes so much happiness.

Tips for breaking into the restaurant business

Just have fun and cook happy. Cooking is not hard – yet you should struggle. Do the things that are hard, and fail at them, many times. That’s how we grow. There will be long, 9-to-15 hour days, and you won’t see your spouse or family at every event or evening – so don’t leave the kitchen stressed out or angry and let that carry over in your personal life. This industry is extremely rough, but it is magic. It is science and art meeting together, then creating memories for the people you cook for. As long as you are growing and having fun, you will be great.

[cooked-recipe id=”65720″]

6. Juan Torres

Executive chef, Mickey Mantle’s Steakhouse, OKC

Mexican shrimp cocktail

Joining Mickey Mantle’s in its first year (2000), Juan Torres, like many in his position, worked his way from the dish pit to wearing an executive chef’s hat – at both the Oklahoma City restaurant and its co-branded (with Kirby Steakhouse) location at WinStar World Casino in Thackerville.

In his nearly two decades at the restaurant, Torres has helped to expand the menu and broaden the number of steak cuts to include domestic and imported wagyu beef. Keep an eye on what else the culinary team has in store for the joint’s 20th anniversary next year.

Torres offers a family recipe based on a familiar classic – shrimp cocktail, with avocado, jalapeños … and 12 ounces of Sprite.

“Over the years, I’ve added my own touches to it and it’s becoming a family favorite,” he says. “My family always requests it during the holidays and other special occasions. It’s also a big hit at our family reunions.”

Most embarrassing moment in the kitchen

“I don’t have a specific moment in mind, but I hate being on film. I get so embarrassed when I have to talk on camera.”

Favorite Thanksgiving dish

Baked ham with biscuits and gravy.

Tips for breaking into the restaurant business

I don’t have a specific moment in mind, but I hate being on film. I get so embarrassed when I have to talk on camera.

[cooked-recipe id=”65734″]

5. Devin Levine

Executive chef, Cox Business Center/
BOK Center, Tulsa

Roasted butternut squash,
apple and sage bisque

A dinner for 3,000 is no problem for Devin Levine, who provides the eats at many a star-studded gala.

He has four decades of experience and got his start in a burger joint when he was 9. He rose to more elegant environs, most notably Southern Hills Country Club, where he worked for 34 years. At the BOK and Cox Business Centers, he creates menus for some of Tulsa’s most elegant events.

He has cooked for two U.S. presidents (Barack Obama and Gerald Ford) and one prime minister (Margaret Thatcher). One of his home runs is hearty roasted butternut squash, apple and sage bisque.

“I have prepared this dish many, many times over my career,” Levine says. “The combination of flavors best represents my own individual cooking style. I even featured this bisque on a multi-course dinner I prepared for president Gerald Ford when I was executive chef at the executive dining room at the top of Bank of Oklahoma.”

Most embarrassing moment in the kitchen

Once, during a busy day, we were having a light moment with the staff in the kitchen, tossing a quarter across the kitchen to see who could come closest to the far wall without hitting it. When I turned around, the general manager and vice president of the bank were standing behind me with their arms crossed, sour looks on their faces. After they saw me turn several shades of red, they busted out laughing knowing they caught me at an awkward moment. 

Favorite Thanksgiving dish

Roasted yams, Brussels sprouts, portobello mushrooms and creamer onions with garlic and fresh sage.

Tips for breaking into the restaurant business

“Do your research on our industry. Have an idea of what facet of our industry you are looking to pursue and look for jobs that can provide that education and experience. Take full advantage of the internet and social media to further your knowledge of cooking, and, by all means, go out and eat often to experience different cuisines firsthand. “

[cooked-recipe id=”65747″]

4. Jeffrey Gordon

Executive chef, Café Cuvée, OKC

Coq au vin

Jeffrey Gordon, an alumnus of Kurt Fleischfresser’s culinary apprenticeship program and creator of Prodi Produce (a specialty produce supplier), brings modernity to old-school, classic French dishes as head man at one of OKC’s crown gems.

This cooking style is evident in his unique take on coq au vin, typically a roast chicken with mushrooms, garlic, wine and lardons.

“My mother would make a similar dish, always around this time of year,” Gordon says, “[but with] chicken thighs, rosemary, garlic and pomegranate seeds. When I would come home and smell the wonderful aroma of roasting chicken along with rosemary and garlic, I knew that fall was finally here.”

Marinating the chicken in red wine and fresh thyme, then roasting, deglazing with more wine and adding vegetables, Gordon tops this holiday masterpiece with a savory rosemary gremolata, which reflects his time in Italy while studying cooking and farming techniques.

Most embarrassing moment in the kitchen

There are so many. Trying to catch a falling knife, burning bacon, using a wet towel to pick up a hot pan. 

Favorite Thanksgiving dish

As much as I love a good cornbread dressing, fluffy whipped potatoes are still at the top of my list. Potatoes. Butter. Salt. What’s not to love?

Tips for breaking into the restaurant business

“I think everybody should work in the service industry, for any length of time, just to gain perspective and maybe a little appreciation for what we do. You can’t teach passion. You’ve got to have a passion for cooking if you want to be successful, and, if you have the passion, never stop learning, reading and pushing yourself to do better.”

[cooked-recipe id=”65727″]

3. Scotty Irani

Personal chef, In the Kitchen with Scotty, OKC

Black currant and lingonberry jams

Owning Scotty’s Restaurant in Nichols Hills Plaza was not enough for Scotty Irani. He strove for more and became an in-home personal chef, created an online spice blend company, In The Kitchen With Scotty, and worked as a food writer. The jam on top of his career is morning chef for the OKC television show Rise and Shine.

As for another type of jam, Irani offers two homemade favorites that remind him of the holiday season with his family.

“As someone who cooks professionally, I’m lucky when it comes to family during the holidays: no one expects me to cook,” Irani says. “I do offer to bring the extras, like wine or gravy. These jams are great as a condiment with roast turkey, ham and even lamb. Black currant has a deep cassis flavor, and lingonberry is similar to cranberry … but not as cranberry-ish.”

Irani buys frozen black currants (fresh is not allowed in the United States) and lingonberries from a local shop, European Store Oklahoma.

“They have all these great items from Europe and Russia,” he says. “Folks can search their nearest specialty stores for the berries. It’s totally worth it and makes a wonderful surprise for the holiday table.”

Most embarrassing moment in the kitchen

Volunteering myself to work front of the house when we were short of servers. I belong in the back.

Favorite Thanksgiving dish

My mother makes a simple cranberry-orange relish that I love. She takes whole cranberries, hand cranks them through a meat grinder, along with whole oranges, adds sugar, and boom. Thanksgiving magic.

Tips for breaking into the restaurant business

Experiment. Understand ingredients – produce, proteins, herbs and spices. Get those flavors and cooking experiences in your head and taste everything.

[cooked-recipe id=”65737″]

[cooked-recipe id=”65740″]

2. Tiffany Tisdale-Braxton

Sous chef, Vista at the Boathouse –
The Gathering Place, Tulsa

Smoked turkey and mixed greens

The mission of the Gathering Place is to bring people together. Tiffany Tisdale-Braxton, sous chef of the park’s high-end restaurant, Vista, has done that her whole life by cooking with her family during holidays.

Hers is a large and prominent family; she is the granddaughter of the Rev. L.L. Tisdale, a respected Tulsa pastor, and the daughter of Wayman Tisdale, the late jazz musician and basketball icon.

Along the way, she taught herself the ins and outs of the culinary world by becoming a caterer and cooking for celebrities – including the entire offensive line of Washington’s NFL team. At the Gathering Place, the park with worldwide fame, the girl who helped feed her family has blossomed into a woman who helps feed the world.

Her recipe of smoked turkey and mixed greens comes from that formative period of her life when she first aspired to become a chef.

“Since I was a child, it has been one of my favorite [dishes],” she says. “My mother, aunts and grandmothers all used to prepare them for every holiday gathering and it’s a staple holiday food within the African-American community. It is tied to my most joyful childhood memories.”

Most embarrassing moment in the kitchen

My first culinary job, being asked to score pork belly and not knowing exactly what he meant. I was self-taught for the most part, so I missed proper terms for things here and there.

Tips for breaking into the restaurant business

Get around someone that is more seasoned (no pun) in the field than you and learn all you can. Don’t be afraid to be “wrong” and suck up all the knowledge you can. Don’t take constructive criticism too personally. 

[cooked-recipe id=”65753″]

1. Rhi Roesler

Chef de cuisine, Republic Gastropub, OKC

Kibbeh and tabbouleh

Rhi Roesler’s career began with a bang. After graduating from New York’s International Culinary Center, she boarded a cruise ship touring around Hawaii. She cooked in the main galley and, by the end of the job, was promoted into the upscale, 35-seat French bistro aboard the ship.

Afterward, she spent several years in New York at various restaurants before returning to OKC and joining the formidable Good Egg Dining Group in 2013.

At Republic Gastropub, Roesler blends casual and upscale New American dining. Her holiday dish of kibbeh and tabbouleh, however, showcases her Mediterranean roots.

“My Lebanese grandmother – 92 years old – makes [this dish] still to this day,” she says. “I haven’t been able to find anyone who makes it quite like she does, and it’s one of my favorite things to eat when we sit down for our holiday feasts.”  

Most embarrassing moment in the kitchen

“In the middle of a busy lunch shift, I reached down into my lowboy and, just as I bent over, my chef pants ripped along the entire rear seam. My crew stopped for a moment to giggle. I quickly threw an apron around my waist backwards so it looked like I was wearing a red skirt and carried on. The shift must go on.”

Favorite Thanksgiving dish

My family holiday meals are always a combo of traditional American feasts (ham, turkey, green bean casserole) mixed in with my great-grandma’s Lebanese recipes that have been handed down from generation to generation. I love the mix of kibbeh and turkey stuffing and gravy.

Tips for breaking into the restaurant business

My family holiday meals are always a combo of traditional American feasts (ham, turkey, green bean casserole) mixed in with my great-grandma’s Lebanese recipes that have been handed down from generation to generation. I love the mix of kibbeh and turkey stuffing and gravy.

[cooked-recipe id=”65742″]

Scotty Irani
Author: Scotty Irani