Riffing on Tulsa's culinary culture, owner Amelia Eesley and chef Kevin Snell have created their own genre that they call “Oklahoma gaucho.”

By Naomi Tomky
Updated: July 11, 2019
Frieden Photography

The peanut and black-eyed pea salad at Amelia's in Tulsa is a spin on Texas caviar that is a riot of texture, from the soft, soaked peanuts to the just-al dente beans and the crisp vinegar-toasted pepitas. It is the kind of jaw-droppingly perfect dish that transcends the sum of its parts and challenges what people expect a peanut to do in a salad. Which isn’t all that different from what Amelia’s does to any assumptions people might have about the food they’ll find in Tulsa.

“The restaurant scene in Tulsa is coming out of mediocrity,” says owner Amelia Eesley. “We’re trying to be a restaurant that is serious: not just to make money, not just because.” Eesley and chef Kevin Snell set out to build a place that transported diners, in theory, out of Tulsa. But the story of how Amelia’s evolved is emblematic of the odd-ball, laissez-faire, roll-with-the-punches style of Eesley and Snell, and even as the pair looked to incorporate their fine-dining backgrounds, Southern roots, and inspiration from Argentinian live-fire cooking, they managed to create their own genre, which they now call “Oklahoma gaucho.”

Frieden Photography

Eesley and Snell met when both worked at Stonehorse Café, long one of Tulsa’s most respected restaurants. Eesley entered the restaurant world in New York’s fine-dining scene and spent years steeped in Danny Meyer-style service before moving back home to Tulsa with the goal of opening her own place.

At Stonehorse, where she was GM, she says she “tried to work like an owner,” to pick up what she needed to know. Meanwhile, Snell started working in the kitchen of a high-volume Tex-Mex spot in high school, cranking out quesadillas before moving to Tulsa—and applying for work at Stonehorse whenever he could. Eventually he landed the job and, like Eesely, set out to learn as much as he could. Still, when the time came to open in 2017, there was a lot to learn as it happened.

“I didn’t know how to get a chef,” she admits of when she began readying to open her place. “I knew that I wanted to do wood-fired cuisine,” says Eesley, because they were opening right across the street from the Woody Guthrie museum in Tulsa’s Arts District. “He is old Oklahoma, cooking over the campfire, that kind of music,” she says.

Frieden Photography

Meanwhile, the Argentinian gaucho and live-fire cooking popularized by Francis Mallmann was a huge inspiration to Snell, who saw that it wasn’t that different from the outdoor cooking he did growing up in nearby Arkansas. Eesley saw what Snell was doing and recruited him to be a part of the restaurant. As she created the feel—with a living wall in the front and a chef-facing bar that snakes around to almost circle the wood-fired grill, as if it were a campfire—Snell set to work on the menu.

When everything came together inside the tile-walled Arts District spot, what grounded the food most were the ingredients: the commitment to supporting local farmers ended up driving the menu more than anything else. The mix of roaring flames and Southern ingredients that the pair have produced, two years in, is a spot good enough to compete in any restaurant scene in the country, but that is charmingly, essentially, Tulsan.

On the menu, that means a mélange of techniques, and dishes that seem to come from all over: Carolina Gold rice cooked as “Charleston ice cream” and boiled like pasta, crawfish bisque, campfire trout, tons of chimichurri, and a bit of hummus. But the result is the opposite of a Monet: a mess from afar, but up close the dishes come together, making sense on their own and as part of a meal.

Frieden Photography

The black-eyed pea salad, for example, started with the boiled peanuts Snell ate on vacation in the South as a kid. “We’d buy them on the side of the road,” he recalls, but admits that they weren’t really all that good—"boiled for hours until they were kind of mushy.” So he took the flavor and paired it with the kind of textures he wished for it—starting with Oklahoma caviar (the beans) and layering it with their house-cured and -smoked bacon.

Snell admits the eclectic-ness of the cuisine comes from them just doing whatever they want, using the restaurant as creative outlet. But under inspection, the structure comes from the two main influences: the ingredients of Oklahoma and the grilling from Argentina. Sometimes that mash-up is obvious, like in the cheeseburger empanadas with 1000 Island. Other places it bubbles below the surface in ways that sneakily endear the restaurant to Tulsans, who are trying to embrace the city’s new restaurant culture. “They're looking for something that’s going to be new to them, but maybe familiar flavors,” says Snell. “It just kind of evolved into the restaurant.”

As Eesley’s hospitality and Snell’s masterful cooking weave those familiar flavors into newer and more interesting flavors, they’ve brought Tulsa’s diners with them on an adventure that includes chicken osso bucco (pounded thigh wrapped around the leg like a shank), ember-cooked vegetables with triple cream brie, and Korean barbecue—all from right nearby. “We knew this restaurant’s identity came from who we are,” says Eesley. “It’s been interesting to watch what it becomes.”

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