When Tulsa chef Miranda Kaiser was asked to come to the Oklahoma State University Institute of Technology in Okmulgee to cook barbecue, her first reaction was, “Why are you asking me?”
“I mean, what does a British-Israeli girl like me know about barbecue?” said Kaiser, laughing.
Well, said Gene Lieterman, dean of the School of Culinary Arts at OSUIT, that depends on what one means by “barbecue.”
“That was our idea for this season of Cowboy Chef’s Table,” Leiterman said, “to take classic American foods and have chefs create their own, personal take on them — to really go beyond what people traditionally think of as, say, barbecue.”
This is the second year for the Cowboy Chef’s Table, a program that gives culinary students the opportunity to work with top area chefs in preparing, cooking and plating unique dishes, which are then served to a lunch crowd made up of OSUIT faculty and staff, as well as members of the community.
The lunch costs $20, with proceeds going to scholarships for the School of Culinary Art. The first year of the Cowboy Chef’s Table raised close to $13,000 for the culinary scholarship fund.
Kaiser and Alex Pierce, who recently took over as executive chef at Southern Hills Country Club in Tulsa, were chosen to take part in the first Cowboy Chef’s Table this year on Oct. 9.
Pierce, a native of North Carolina, may not focus his culinary activities on barbecue, but he is well-versed in the traditions of his home state.
“It’s kind of unusual that within the relatively small area of North Carolina, there are three distinct kinds of barbecue,” he said. “In the west, there’s a lot of pork shoulder with a more tomato-based sauce. As you get near the coast, it’s whole-hog barbecue and the sauce is just about straight vinegar.”
Pierce’s dish followed none of these traditions. Instead, he created a smoked short rib, coated in a propriety dry rub and finished with apple cider, served with charred broccolini, roasted fingerling potatoes mixed with Manchego cheese, garlic and shallots, with a pickled green tomato relish and a chimichurri sauce.
“When I think about barbecue, I think of those charred flavors you get from the grill,” he said. “And there always has to be something pickled, so the green tomato relish is a nod to my North Carolina heritage.”
Kaiser also turned to her heritage to come up with her dish.
“In Israel, there’s a tradition of cooking over fire, called al ha’esh, which literally means ‘on the fire,’” she said. “And it’s usually done using these crappy little grills called mangals, which you usually end up throwing away.”
What she came up with was “Jerusalem Kofta,” a sausage-shaped mixture of ground lamb and ground turkey seasoned with about 20 different herbs, spices and aromatics. It was served over Mujadarra Rice, a cinnamon-spiced rice and lentil mixture (“It means ‘smallpox,’ because the lentils look like smallpox scars,” Kaiser told the diners. “Sorry — but it’s delicious.”), a smear of condensed yogurt called labneh and a cucumber radish salad that added a pickled element.
All this was served with cabbage cooked in a sharply spiced tomato sauce — Kaiser’s nod to the traditional barbecue sauce.
“And we have way too much cabbage,” she said, as she stirred one of several hotel pans full of sauced cabbage and adjusted the seasoning. “The guy who I had chopping it up just kept chopping and chopping and I forgot to tell him to stop.”
Before the dishes were served, Kaiser and Pierce conducted brief demonstrations, with Kaiser demonstrating the technique to turn yogurt into labneh, and Pierce showing how his dish is to be plated, and answering questions from the audience.
Leiterman also asked the two chefs about their thoughts on what barbecue means, and both agreed that it’s as much of an event as a meal, designed to bring family and friends together over fire and food.
“Although, in America, you have one guy who spends all day and night cooking, and then at the last hour, everyone else shows up and wants to eat,” Kaiser said. “In Israel, things are cooking and coming off the fire all day, so everyone is always there. You start with the kidneys, then you go on to the turkey testicles....”
She paused to grin at the audience. “Don’t worry — we’re not serving that to you today.”