In the heart of Tulsa lies an unseen thread that weaves the city's diverse tapestry — our local chef community. With their seasoned hands and passionate hearts, this band of culinary artists are the unsung maestros of our city's vibrant food scene. Each chef is a storyteller, their dishes a narrative of flavors that tell of tradition, innovation, and the rich blend of cultures that Tulsa proudly embodies.
Et al. is a collective of chefs in Downtown Tulsa that works out of Foolish Things Coffee Co. at 10th & Main. They focus on building a more equitable future for the food and beverage industry. They offer a variety of cuisines and services, with core values like full profit distribution and equal pay. In 2023, they were a James Beard Foundation Best New Restaurant semifinalist. You can visit their website or follow them on Instagram to learn about their programs and explore their six food concepts operating out of Foolish Things Coffee in Downtown Tulsa. This blog is a tribute to the craft and wonderful community of chefs at et al. as told by Chefs Chloe, Sam, and Garrett.
How it began
Several of us met working as chefs at Vintage Wine Bar around the time COVID was happening. We did this program called "Food for the Screwed," where we would cook 80-quart containers of food like curry or braised beef and stuff from Vintage on the patio and then deliver it to people, or they would come to pick it up at Vintage. That's where we got our idea to pay everyone equally because we would get cash from whoever needed food; it was like delivering to people who also didn't have jobs then, so we'd have a pile of cash or stuff on Venmo, and at that point, we were like, "Well, it only makes sense to split this equally between all of us." And then, that became the foundation of our whole business. It wasn't totally by accident, but that was the most thought we really put into the business side; it felt fair for everyone to make the same amount of money for being a part of the operation. So then, when we started et al. as a company, we just maintained that, so it's broken up hourly. Like we'll take all of our profit from the pay period, and then split it up by who worked the hours. So, everyone makes the same hourly amount, not necessarily the same overall amount every time. But that's been a big one.
One of the many benefits of how we pay is that folks like Garrett and I (Chef Sam) can leap into this world and into this career, knowing we can do it, be comfortable, and at least make a living wage. Garrett and I both had prior careers, and after 30, it would be tough to grind from washing dishes and working your way up to where you can be on the kitchen line somewhere. This structure allowed us to jump in, change careers, and have the opportunity to do a little of everything right away and learn exceptionally fast. And a lot of that comes from the leaders of the group sharing basically everything equally. Many could go off and do something else very easily, but they want to share it so that it benefits everyone. So, going forward, how or if we change is hard to say, and there is a lot to be determined regarding the future of et al.
Justin Carpenter, the owner of Foolish Things Coffee, somehow knew about us; perhaps he got food from "Food for the Screwed." He found out we were leaving Vintage and that we were looking for a space to launch our new concept. It is fortunate how that turned out because our relationship with him and his team has only gotten stronger over time, even as we have expanded. Their team and ours share the space very well; we have a shared calendar with the Foolish Things' staff that helps us coordinate with them as they cater and rent out the space. Justin has been so supportive of us and wants to see us grow. People in the food industry are always surprised to hear that we swap out theirs and our kitchen every day and that we are all still friends. They've also very kindly asked for their equipment back when we have accidentally taken it. Their stuff frequently ends up in our things by our own fault. I (Chef Chloe) am sure it's a pain.
Planning new meal concepts
The meal concepts we dream up and create are fairly collaborative, but we don't have a fully established method. The way we approach it on our team is, if you have the idea and the ability to make it happen and you get the team's buy-in, then there's nothing stopping you from making it happen. A good idea and the will to make it happen is pretty much all it takes. The "group buy-in" looks like a lot of voting; we have a burgeoning democracy and love Google Forms.
For example, Garrett and my (Chef Sam) Pickles at the Barbecue dinner that just wrapped up in the Fall, the idea came about that we would co-lead a program, which felt right for us because our skills align, and we work well together. So, we found food that spoke to us both while we were doing the dishes, and then from there, it just gained steam, and it turned out great.
So far, we haven't taken any ideas from our customers yet; our food series and concepts have just been based on our different skill sets within the group. That's one of the best parts of having people from very different backgrounds, careers, and parts of the country. Chefs Garrett and Sam did a very Southern-inspired food series. I (Chef Chloe) have a big history background, so I do a dessert dinner. Chef Colin does a lot of Japanese cuisine. So, our concepts have come about really naturally so far. People on our team will gain the skill set and grow a lot in their talents to lead and cook well. So when we need to start another dinner series, we look around the room and ask who's ready and who has good ideas? So far, we haven't had to ask a lot or try to come up with something on the spot. Our ideas slowly build as we talk about it during dinner or if we go out to the bar and start joking and coming up with different ideas. Of the many ideas that are just jokes, we'll eventually get one that sounds really good. And then suddenly, we're like, "Oh, are we buying a grill?"
What it takes to be an et al. Chef
Before hiring someone, we have them do a stage — work a couple of shifts with us. Then, the team gets together, and we vote yes or no. For anyone we've hired who currently works with us, it's been 100% a yes. Everyone on the team was confident we'd all get along and that they'd be a good fit. A candidate's background has almost nothing to do with it. On our team, we have people who were gardeners, Garrett was a mechanic, Sam was an engineer, Colin was a teacher, and Julia did software development. We have people from all over the place. So, we try not to write that off if someone says, "Oh, I've never worked in a kitchen." That's fine. That's half of us, and we can teach you. So, we mostly care about how they will get along with us and their attitude.
It certainly doesn't hurt to go into this work with some experience or education. But mostly, we just require a food handler's permit, and that's it; otherwise, we have taken on all kinds of people. We do interviews and such, but what's really telling is the stages where we can see how someone works and whether their personality works well with ours. And almost everyone on the team can recognize pretty quickly if this is somebody they could work alongside indefinitely. We look for people who are kind, trustworthy, and respectful, and, of course, if someone can do dishes for 10 hours straight on dumpling night and still be smiling and cracking jokes — that is a good sign.
Not as much anymore, but back at Vintage, I was often chef butters; I have mostly pastry experience. I worked at Antoinette's Bakery for a long time, then got picked up in the Vintage kitchen. I'm one of the program leaders for several of the dinner series; I do Butter Bar, which is the dessert multi-course tasting menu, and lead on Bischix. I'm a co-lead with Julia and Caitlin for Compaignon, one of our newest programs that's like a rustic French dinner. Honestly, my favorite place to eat is here at et al. whenever I get a night off. I'm so excited — I'm up on Wednesday and get to come eat dumplings. I also love Que Gusto and Kai in Downtown Tulsa.
I used to work for six years as a plumbing and fire protection engineer. I've been cooking with my family all my life, but really, during the pandemic, I made a study of cooking. I have been a fan of the et al. team since they were back at Vintage. Chef Garrett and I took a cooking class with Chef Colin, which also immensely helped my cooking. About 18 months ago, the team posted that they were looking for two cooks to join the team. I thought it was a bit of a Hail Mary but was ready to try, and I somehow managed to convince them that I had the chops. So, I joined the team about a year and a half ago, and it's been great. Chef Garrett and I both started around the same time, and just about a year in, we got to co-lead a program called Pickles at the Barbecue; it was one of our Saturday night dinners. It is wild that one year into the industry we're at a place where, in terms of skills and such, it's possible. I love living in Downtown Tulsa and walking to all my favorite spots. For food, I also love Que Gusto and Kai, I also really love being within walking distance of Saturn Room and Valkyrie. I also enjoy being close to all my favorite events because all the best stuff happens Downtown.
I was an auto mechanic in Fort Worth, Texas, and I've lived in Downtown Tulsa for three years. I would come in regularly to eat and eventually took Colin's cooking class, and then I was offered a job afterward. I have cooked all my life, but Colin's cooking class was pretty focused, and I enjoy the way we do recipes. Paid research has been a big benefit to learning and being creative. I know the team appreciated my ability to do math, as we use a lot of ratios and percentages. I co-lead Pickles at the Barbecue with Chef Sam, and now I do Bischix, which is fun, and I help run Japanese Breakfast. Working at et al. has been life-changing over the past year and a half or so. I didn't think I would join the service industry unless it was to work with this group, so I don't see myself going anywhere else. My favorite things about Downtown Tulsa are Que Gusto, Kai, and Saturn Room.
Things to look forward to
We haven't popped up at other locations recently like we used to at American Solera, but we are excited to collaborate with other restaurants in Oklahoma City, Fayetteville, and even Colorado. So far, we don't have set plans to get our own space yet, but it is a goal of ours. We are looking for a space, but we aren't in a rush to move at all. It is really important to us to pay each other equally as we have been, and we would want to self-fund getting a space rather than having outside investment. There might be some realities of having our own space that we would have to adjust for. But we wouldn't be willing to sacrifice the spirit of our group. At a minimum, we want to maintain a space that allows all of us to keep learning, growing, and living in a dignified way. That will always be a part of how we operate. So, how we structure this going forward is still TBD because it's new for us and the world. So, we can't definitively say how it'll look as we grow and scale or anything.
We have only existed as et al. and worked out of Foolish Things since January of 2022, so it doesn't quite feel like the beginning of a business nor an established one yet; it more so feels like we are getting away with something. But it does feel way more established than it did. When we started, we had one fridge, some containers, and some pots and pans. Now we have eight fridges, prep tables, a sausage stuffer, and we've acquired all this stuff that has been paid for by the group, so we all collectively own all of it. Which is a very cool thing just to borrow stuff to take home. We treat all the food in our pantry like that and have half of a fridge dedicated to family meals or just things we get to take home because it just comes out of all our paychecks. So, we're all allowed to take it home. Whatever food we want. I (Chef Chloe) haven't been to a grocery store in ages.
If we got our own place, I think we would lean into one concept and a single menu but still have concepts and dinner series we'd host. I don't think we'll ever want to give up the experimentation and the freedom we can enjoy here. No matter what we do, we'll always encourage each other and create an atmosphere where we can try new ideas.
It does feel like we've built a community — like all my best friends just work with me (Chef Chloe). And it feels that way within our team but also with our regulars and customer base. Chef Colin especially knows the customers super well, down to their names and orders. We love working Downtown, and a lot of us on the team, including us (Chefs Chloe, Sam, and Garrett), are Downtown Tulsa residents. Several of us live 3-5 minutes away or ride our bikes to work. We love it so much that as we have had long-term discussions about different restaurant opportunities that come up, the location is integral to the decision. We are a Downtown group of chefs and have nothing against other places in Tulsa, but this is where we have been established. So, ideally, we'd find something in this neighborhood. We have a community here, and if we went anywhere else, we'd have to rebuild our customer base and those relationships. People would definitely follow us, but maybe not come as regularly. We have people who come every Wednesday for a Dumpling Night or even in the same week to attend three of our dinner concepts.
It is such an honor when people choose to come here. It truly feels like community these days, particularly now that it is so established and it's always busy. You come on Wednesday night, and the room feels warm and exciting. And when the weather's nice, it spills out onto our patio. Periodically, I (Chef Sam) get to serve because, again, we all do several roles, so on a given night, I might be washing dishes, running the point of sale, or pouring wine. But interacting with guests is so much fun because the community we've built is just exceptional. We feel the love, and I hope our customers feel it through the food, too. We've even become friends with several of our guests. There's been people for whom we catered their wedding, and now they are coming over to my (Chef Chloe's) house.