Good Food. Made with Love.
Chef Kamala Gamble
Chef Kamala Gamble talks about her vegetables the way most people talk about their children. “Those are our carrots, our Swiss chard. I’ll get to the tomatoes soon,” she says as she flips through photos of produce so beautiful that you actually want to look at these pictures of vegetables.
All of them come from Guilford Garden, the two-acre suburban farm hiding in plain sight in northwest Oklahoma City. The sprawling venture now covers what used to be four residential lots, and the tidy rows look ready for spring planting. Chickens and rabbits live in the back near the well; new hoop houses for growing in cold weather line one end. Kamala picks a few leaves of winter arugula and hands one to me, explaining that the heat from the hoop house makes it spicier than arugula grown in colder conditions. It is intensely peppery and startlingly delicious.
Guilford Garden is part CSA and part supply chain for Kamala’s catering business, Kam’s Kookery. Now in its fifteenth year, nearly 150 local families subscribe to weekly or biweekly CSA boxes of the garden’s impressive year-round produce. The Kookery is equally as impressive with Kamala’s and business partner chef Barbara Mock’s slow food creations enlivening the tables of some of the city’s largest events. The team gives the same level of attention to catering intimate weddings and smaller parties. In fact, many families hire the catering duo for wedding after wedding until booking Kam’s Kookery is as much a part of family tradition as wearing a grandmother’s veil.
Looking around at Guilford Garden’s meticulously laid out plots, it’s hard to believe that this wasn’t all by design. “There was no grand plan,” she says, gesturing expansively across the acreage. “We just did it.”
Kamala’s grand plan, in fact, was to pursue a career in finance, which she did successfully after graduation from the University of Oklahoma. About ten years into a comfortable career as a bank examiner, she quit it all and enrolled in culinary school in Arizona. She had grown up with gardens, with dirt, and with fresh vegetables at every meal. The urge to return to what she loved ultimately outweighed the stability of banking. “I became a chef,” she explains simply, “because in my home, when people were eating, they were happy. If I get to feed you, I get to make you happy. That’s why I am a chef. Not because it’s art, but because I get to make you happy.”
As a chef, Kamala cut her teeth in some of the country’s first kitchens to embrace the local, slow food movement: Chrysa Robertson’s Rancho Pinot in Scottsdale, AZ and Rick Bayless’s La Frontera in Chicago. At La Frontera, she says, under Chef Tracey Vowell, the staff commonly took field trips to the farms where the evening’s ingredients would be found. The experience shaped her passion for the local movement. “You can use local for esoteric reasons, or because it keeps the money here, which I agree with, or because it’s better for the economy, because it’s better for the earth,” she says, “but honestly, it just tastes better.” Based on the arugula we sampled earlier, I’m inclined to agree. That commitment to flavor filters through every aspect of her catering business, which uses local, seasonal ingredients to an extent not often seen in the business.
Over coffee, Kamala admits that they don’t advertise much, but that hardly seems problematic. As we chat, texts and calls are flying in, tying up loose ends from last night’s 1,200 person plated dinner and preparing for tonight’s customer: The Oklahoma City Museum of Art’s Omelette Party. If you’ve eaten anything at a similarly large-scaled local event in the last few years, odds are good that you’ve enjoyed Kamala’s tremendous talents. When your fan base is as rabidly loyal as hers, advertising is simply unnecessary.
The love of everything local reaches beyond simply what Guilford Garden can produce, however. Kamala’s relationships with other local, often women-owned food businesses are perhaps even more extensive than her selection of heirloom tomatoes. Peach Crest Farms, Brown Egg Bakery, Living Kitchen, Aunt Pitty Pat’s—Kamala counts these and innumerable others as both collaborators and trusted friends. Her reliance upon and empowerment of female community is pervasive and beyond gracious.
She also has the rare distinction of only having worked in women-run kitchens, but this, as it turns out, was by design: “I looked up all the women chefs,” she explains, “and I went and visited their places. I sought them out and then worked for them—and they were all fabulous.”
In an industry dominated by male names, she speaks of chefs like Ann Cooper, Alice Waters, and M.F.K. Fisher with the respect normally reserved for long-dead statesmen. Bookshelves are lined with their various works, side by side with many of the cookbooks Kamala read for fun as a child. Ultimately, though, she says, “With the really good chefs, everything’s just made with love. They can be men or women, honestly. The good ones treat cooking as a nourishing, nurturing thing to do, and they treat their staff like that.”
If you had to pinpoint a single defining characteristic of Kamala’s, it would be her capacity for nurturing. From seedlings to anxious brides and the entire gamut in between, she nurtures them all. She teases life from the dirt joyfully, and it reaps dividends in her food. It’s what’s earned her the explicit trust of so many in the community. As I prepare to leave—she needs to pick up her kids at school—I find my arms suddenly full of freshly picked Swiss chard and arugula. I must come by later for the ground beef she’s been telling me about. I steal a bite from a brilliantly green Swiss chard leaf before stepping out the door. It’s even better than the arugula.