Turn Off, Tune In, Drop Out
Chef Jonathon Stranger, Chef Josh Valentine & Derick Reffner
When given the opportunity to sit down with a professional chef to hear more about their career aspirations, it's never a conversation that fixates on hopes of a skyrocket career including celebrity appearances or their restaurant becoming a global chain. The reality is that it's usually minimalistic and simple, usually focusing on the food itself.
Sitting in a booth at Shartel Cafe, Oklahoma native and restaurateur Chef Jonathon Stranger, of Ludivine and R&J's Supper Club, sips a breakfast smoothie. His eyes are still acquainting themselves with the new day, and his voice is still calibrating from the few words spoken that morning. Comfortably slouched in his booth, you wouldn't know it just by looking at this tall, unassuming young man—hair slightly askew, dressed in a simple white tee—that this is a man cultivating an innovative food destination right in our own backyard. Staged in Southeast Oklahoma, he's hand-picked some of the top players in Oklahoma City's food industry to join him in his vision. He’s spent the last two years meticulously honing what is to become one of Oklahoma's most sought-after foodie destinations, while also establishing a legacy for future generations.
In 2013, developer Grant Humphreys started turning the earth on a 1,600 acre plot on beautiful waterfront Lake Eufaula, establishing the "modern urbanist" town of Carlton Landing. His vision of a modern homage to days gone by is a refreshing nod to the past—harkening back to the times when families weren’t addicted to screens, and life was lived in the present surroundings. Memories were built around a community accessed within a ten-minute walk.
"We had just opened Ludivine and I was working 100 hours a week. Grant approached me about opening a restaurant," Stranger said. "I was like, uh, okay? You’re going to build a town? This sounds great but it sounds a little utopian," he said of his conversation with Humphreys.
Humphreys approached Stranger with the possibility of creating the ultimate food experience for the rising town, and Stranger knew he couldn't do it alone. He convinced his long-time friend and international farmer, Derick Reffner, to help bring his plan to fruition. "I always wanted to work with Derick, to own something together that would combine both of our strengths. Mine would be cooking, and his would be farming," he said. "We presented a plan to Grant and he shot it down." However, Stranger just couldn’t shake his intuition this innovative concept was a good idea, and started looking at alternative locations for his collaborative food vision. "We went to every freaking lake within driving distance that had land—there is some stuff out there that is just straight scary! There’s some great farmland but someone is going to get murdered....Derick's going to get murdered!" Stranger said. "One day we were at Lake Eufaula and we stopped and said hello to Grant. He was like, ‘listen—I really need someone to take over this farm. The farmers just left and the season's upon us.’" Humphreys had hired a novice crew to run the farm and food for Carlton Landing. Stranger mentioned, "They were really young, and wanted to become farmers, but it's a lot of work and a lot to learn. They were also running the food trailer without any food and beverage experience."
Stranger looked at Reffner and said, "Why don't you go do this job? I think you'll love it, and it will be a great way for us to work together." With two vintage Airstreams in tow, Reffner moved to Carlton Landing and immediately began working on The Farm at Carlton Landing. He took over the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) offering baskets of fresh garden vegetables, and locally sourced milk and eggs every weekend.
"Our year-one goal is to maintain [The Farm and CSA] and take over the food trailer," Stranger said.
Luckily for Stranger, renowned Chef Josh Valentine was looking for a change of pace in both cooking and lifestyle after his abrupt parting with The George Prime Steakhouse, which was thought to become Valentine's homage to his late father and his personal culinary masterpiece. In early May, Valentine traded in his fine dining chef coat and relocated into the second Airstream trailer at Carlton Landing and seamlessly transitioned into helping Reffner at The Farm. In turn, he also became Carlton Landing's resident chef, completing the third component to Stranger's culinary trifecta. "We’re building a national culinary destination. Derick is the farmer, Valentine is the chef, and I'm just this guy who gets to do something amazing with his friends," Stranger humbly commented.
A more permanent structure for Valentine to operate from, called "The Lake House" is projected to open in 2016. In the interim, Valentine re-opened the local food trailer and started hosting vibrant community dinners, showcasing the beautiful Carlton Landing landscape and held every Friday evening for residents and visitors. "I love Oklahoma. This is my home. I was raised here," Valentine said. "I haven't been this excited, food-wise, in a long time. It's really a truly unique opportunity that you rarely have the chance to be a part of," Valentine said. "Seeing the whole thing develop, beginning to end, and getting to participate in it is truly special."
Chef Valentine intended to get back to his roots with taking the position at Carlton Landing. "There's emotion in food," Valentine said. "I can definitely feel you can tell when somebody is cooking because they love it, and you can tell when somebody is cooking because that is what they think they need to be doing. There is a huge difference."
Doing what he does best, Valentine is creating food anyone can enjoy, sourcing only local ingredients, and keeping the food simplistic in technique. "Being able to farm, forage and hunt—to be a part of that whole process and then see it come out on a plate—I think the guests will be able to tell all the care that was put in." Valentine mentioned, "I’m not trying to blow people's minds with the food, I just want them to see a different perspective. Same food, same ingredients—just more thoughtful. It's comforting since they’re dishes [everyone is] familiar with."
A refreshing and completely realistic expectation level is at the center of what this culinary team is building. "We’re going to fail a few times which is good, because we will learn," Stranger said. "But, I think long-term this will be a rural culinary lifestyle destination."
Upon first visiting Humphreys’ community in 2013, Stranger walked the land to become acquainted with the surroundings. "You have to see it to understand it. There are bikes thrown all over the street. It's not manufactured. There's a strong sense of community, mainly outdoors. It makes it hard being back in the city, that's for sure," said Stranger, whose family is now building a home in Carlton Landing. He mentioned, "Carlton Landing is totally family-driven. Ever since my daughter was born, everything changed for me culinary- wise; what I want to do and the level of service. We aren’t doing this for financial success we are doing this for long-term family success. We just want to be able to pay the bills."
At this point of the interview, most of the patrons at Shartel Cafe had left to begin their day. I had had enough coffee to make my heart explode, and that smoothie he had ordered for breakfast was gone hours ago. Looking at the time, close to three hours had passed—his eyes were fully open, and his voice had finally reached its full calibration. We continued to swap stories, culinary and not—his far more colorful than mine. We parted ways with a smile and a hug, and a standing invitation to visit Carlton Landing.