In 1899, Waite Phillips left his family farm near Conway, Iowa, for a journey of adventure and exploration. He ended up in Tulsa, and while Conway’s population declined from 350 then to 17 today, Phillips found fame and fortune here.

Barons On 1st, a fine dining restaurant downtown, is named to honor Waite and the other oil barons who changed the fabric of Oklahoma. The restaurant’s whimsical, eclectic decor, featuring overstuffed chairs and buffalo heads, has several sly references to Waite’s offices. But, explains executive chef Justin Donaldson, the concept behind Barons runs deeper than that. 

“It’s about taking a risk, stepping out of your comfort zone and enjoying the rewards,” he says.

And that’s as good a summary of Donaldson’s career as any. His father was in the Air Force, and he grew up in the same sort of semi-rural environment as Phillips – though in Illinois, not Iowa. At 16, he got a job bussing tables, then he was a dishwasher, a line cook and a corporate trainer. Later, he moved to Tulsa and found work at the Doubletree, which in those days housed one of Tulsa’s finest restaurants, The Grille.

The Seafood Plateau comes with prawns, Alaskan king crab, oysters, mussels and lobster. Main image cutline: A highlight at Barons is the purebred lamb with smoked cabbage, mushroom fricassee and natural jus. All photos by Stephanie Phillips

“That lit my passion,” he recalls. 

The head chef there was a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in New York, which some call the Harvard of culinary schools. Donaldson became determined to go there, and he did. 

After graduating, he worked in fine dining restaurants around the country. A chef in Minneapolis gave him a lead on a job in New York City, and he ended up working for Gray Kunz, a culinary icon so legendary that even today, twenty years after his death, the mention of his name will put a whimsical, longing smile on the faces of top food critics. 

“I’ve never worked for someone with a palate like his,” says Donaldson. “His flavor profiles were out of this world. There’s a reason he’s so highly regarded.” 

And what did Donaldson learn from Kunz? 

“A balance of flavors,” he says. “Not too salty, not too sour, not too sweet, not too acidic – but all of those things blended together in harmony.”

He continues: “I’ve been all over the place, but I’ve always felt that Oklahoma is my home. Every time I leave it, it calls me back.”

Once he returned to Oklahoma, he worked at Polo Grill, then got a corporate job that allowed for a lot of world travel. 

Classic and craft cocktails include the Baron’s Old Fashioned, the Coconut Palm with coconut washed vodka, strawberry champagne shrub, fresh lemon juice, orgeat and sparkling wine, and the Lover of Sandias with tequila, fresh lime juice, watermelon shrub and agave nectar.

“A month in Thailand, weeks in Japan, months in Europe. On the Amalfi Coast, I had limoncello made with fresh lemons from the hills. I got to experience the life behind a dish, the heart and soul of cuisine,” he says.

And now he’s at Barons on 1st. 

“The menu we have here,” Donaldson says, “is like a journey of me. My experiences, history, flavor profiles I’ve enjoyed over the years. It’s the story of my culinary history.” 

And what a menu it is. The elegant, beautifully presented dishes are the product not only of Donaldson’s years of learning, but also of many hours of preparation by the six chefs and line cooks in the kitchen. You can start your meal with wine-braised chicken “shanks” or mussels, or memorable soups with layers of flavor. All of these appetizers pair well with one of beverage director Alex Calderwood’s fresh, vibrant drinks, many created with house-made shrubs.

After that, you might opt for a lamb rack. It’s cooked to perfection and elegantly plated, with mushroom fricasee, smoked cabbage and a rich sauce a lot like demi-glace. Or the halibut – this dish is a masterpiece. The delicious fish filet rests atop a cauliflower puree accented with a Thai green curry made in house. Atop it all, making it transcendent, is a foam with notes of coconut, sweet and spice. This is the sort of dish Gray Kunz served when New York fine dining was at its peak. 

But don’t expect the menu to stay the same. 

“I’m excited to see what we’ll be doing in six months,” says Donaldson. “We constantly evolve and change. We’re just getting started.”

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