Getting Fresh with Chef Jonathan Stranger

ION Oklahoma Magazine, August 1st, 2013

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Stranger with wild arugula

Getting Fresh With Chef Jonathan Stranger

By Heide Brandes

Jonathan Stranger talks about food the way most people talk about lost, secret treasure — his finds are sheathed in dark forests, hidden under rotten logs or tucked away in splintery wooden boxes at the farmer’s markets.

At Ludivine in Oklahoma City, that food comes alive in dishes that change with the seasons. In summer, the summer squash and vine-fattened tomatoes reign supreme. Come fall, apples and eggplant are plump and ready to be picked, and in Stranger’s restaurant, the pork comes from pigs that have only known the red dirt and clear sun of Oklahoma.

Stranger took a chance in Oklahoma City when he opened Ludivine, a concept restaurant located at the corner of 7th and Hudson in downtown. Not only did he choose a location that wasn’t “hip” at the time, he chose to only cook with produce that could be picked with his own hands, with protein that came from farms owned by people he knew by first name. He’s foraged in the secret spots in the country for missile-shaped morel mushrooms and edible salad greens that most people call weeds.

Ludivine is a “farm to table” style restaurant, using only local ingredients and local foods that are in season. You won’t see cantaloupe on the menu in February, because, well, that’s not natural.

Stranger, with a tattooed pig peeking out of the sleeve of his left arm, gets excited when talking about the weekly trips to the farmer’s market to choose that week’s produce. He lights up when he says he’s learned to forage in Oklahoma hills for menu items. He laughs with affection when he talks about that red-bearded giant in Guthrie who sells rabbits to him.

Today, he’s excited about catfish.

“We finally have another catfish farm in Oklahoma,” he said, lamenting the fish algae that spread from Texas up to the state, shutting down hundreds of fish hatcheries as catfish suffocated from green growths in their gills. “We always put a chef’s special up on the chalk board, and it’s something unique. So, thanks to the catfish, the chef’s special will be deep-fried catfish egg sack with smoked porridge.”

Um… what?

“The weird stuff sells out faster than anything in the menu,” said Stranger. “It’s weird. When we first opened, we freaked a few people out with what we had on the menu, so we had to learn to be more approachable with the food. Now, people want the specials.”

The special changes often, like the menu. One day, succulent little rabbit kidneys with beets may be on the board. Another time, it could be lamb heart tartar.

Whatever the choice of the day is, it’s local. It’s more local than local. If they bread is local, then the wheat it was made with better be Oklahoma wheat. If the beef producer is local, then that cow had better have been fattened up on Oklahoma prairie grass.

“I’m always researching this stuff,” Stranger said. “A lot of restaurants call themselves local, and that’s frustrating. Diners don’t educate themselves on what local or natural is. If you do local foods, you have to constantly change the menu to reflect that.”

WILD ONE

Stranger looks a bit wild and local himself. With a gingery dusting of a beard and a scruffy mop of hair, he could easily be mistaken as a local musician instead of one of Oklahoma’s most talented chefs. His arms are colored with tattoos. He cusses when he talks about how awful Houston is. He’s done his fair share of not-so-healthy substances.

Raised in Oklahoma City, the wild child wanted to run way to New York City, and when he turned 18, he did just that. Cooking was the last thing on his mind. He wanted to learn marine biology and become the next “Indiana Jones of the ocean.”

“It wasn’t like that though. I switched my major to business, but then faded into cooking full time,” Stranger said. “I lived with seven other people in a small brownstone, and we were really having fun in New York. But, I really liked cooking.”

He started as prep chef at Jean-Georges, working his way up to a line cook after three years. At that level of cooking excellence, you do your time. However, sweating over hot pans on the line paid off, and Jean Georges sent Stranger to the Institute of Culinary Education in preparation for a new restaurant, Spice Market, in New York City’s Meatpacking District.

“I stayed there a year, but I was trying to figure out how to live the New York City lifestyle, because you don’t get paid a lot,” he said. “I really wanted to be a butcher, because butchers can make six-figure salaries in New York.”

In 2005, Stranger moved to Germany, lived in a castle and learned the art of deconstructing an animal. He returned to America to become a chef on a charter yacht, a job that he calls “the worst job ever.” So when his “mentor,” Chef Paul Wade, invited him to become a part of his crew at the Four Seasons in Houston, Stranger went.

“I hate Houston,” Stranger said. “Wade quit after two months, but I stayed on for a year. I didn’t have a car, anything. So I came back to Oklahoma City.”

He also came back with a snoot full of cocaine and a body that was about to give out.

“I’m 6’4” and I weighed 140 pounds,” said Stranger. “My mom knew what was going on. They did an intervention and I went to Betty Ford. It was a great thing to happen. I was so over it at the time, so over feeling desperate and blowing all the money. I knew I had a problem. What was funny was that I refused to eat fast food or put unhealthy food in my body, but here I was doing this.”

But Oklahoma City offered a wealth of opportunity as well. Stranger began working on a seven-acre organic farm and helped sell produce at the farmer’s markets. Although they sold extra produce to locally-owned restaurants, other chain eateries wouldn’t buy.

“They don’t have that food mindset,” he said. “It is depressing, but it led me to what I like. There was a gaping hole in the local market for a restaurant using local foods.

“After many years cooking in different locations around the globe, I was shocked when I returned home to find the same quality of ingredients being grown right here in Oklahoma,” he said. “I soon realized that there was an opportunity to really do something with these great products and work with so many great people who really care about what they grow and raise.”

He began working on a way to bring it all together and after a few years, opened Ludivine with his partner Russ Johnson.

“To me, it is a place where many people, products, and ideas from around Oklahoma have come together to create something very special,” he said. “We work with 60 to 70 producers locally, some only owning two acres. We have six or seven Oklahoma places where we get our protein like duck, quail, rabbit and pork. We support the farmers markets.”

The quality local produce, the changing menu and the attention to detail has earned Stranger respect nationally and internationally. He’s been featured as one of the top five chefs in the Southwest by Food and Wine magazine, has helped host notables like Anthony Bourdain and more, was listed as “Outstanding in the Field” and has been featured in the New Yorker, Saveur magazine and Bon Appetit.

“A good chef is a bit of an anarchist,” Stranger said. “You don’t live a normal life, but I think people notice that what I do is different. (Chefs) don’t do it for the money; we do it because it’s awesome. Oklahoma food is becoming more and more Oklahoman, and I like that.”

Editor’s Note = Crestview Farms, featured in the photographs, is located at on the northwest corner of Douglas Blvd. and Sorghum Mill Road or at www.crestvieworganicfarms.net. They can also be found at the Farmers Market each weekend.

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