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A Culinary Love Language

Tulsa-based collective Et Al. offers creative control to a dozen talented chefs.

Based in downtown Tulsa’s Foolish Things coffee shop, Et Al. offers several chefs the opportunity to plan and run their own dinners. Photo courtesy Et Al.

On a recent Saturday night in autumn, eager dinner guests filled a normally quiet coffeehouse – Foolish Things, on the fringes of downtown Tulsa. A server brought the first of the seven course dinner: a tart with roasted beet ganache, whipped goat cheese and pomegranate in a walnut crust. 

It didn’t taste like beets or cheese, but like a rich, decadent dessert. This was Chloe Butler’s dinner – she’s a pastry chef, and each of the seven courses was a creative dessert. 

“People don’t realize how flexible you must be to be a pastry chef,” she says. “Temperature and humidity matter. You have to do what the pastry wants you to do. It can be disappointing when you put in hours of love and care and then a cold front blows through and you lose everything.”

The next day, chef Marco Herrera began preparing for Tuesday’s dinner service; that night, he was to be the lead chef. Butler and Herrera are both members of Et Al., a chef’s collective where all are equal, and jobs are rotated so the server one night is the chef the next. 

Every Tuesday, Herrera supervises a Mexican meal centered around tacos. The corn he uses is heirloom varieties that come by truck from Oaxaca. He starts cooking it Monday evening, lets it soak overnight, then begins six hours of hard work – cooking and grinding it with stones. It makes a tortilla that fills your mouth with flavor, and the Et Al. chefs will work as long and hard as it takes to get great quality. 

“We tried ways of doing it faster,” says Garret Lewis, Herrera’s coworker, “but they just don’t work.”

Herrera grew up in El Paso. His family is from Chihuahua, a vast land of prairie, deserts and pine forests just south. Many of the dishes he makes evoke his childhood. 

“We were poor growing up in El Paso,” Herrera explains while serving a tortilla de tamal. “And my grandmother, who comes from Michoacan, used to make these pancakes for us.”  

Many of the chefs in Et Al. are drawn to cooking meals inspired by childhood memories. 

“When I eat those meals, I’m a child again,” says Colin Sato, who, along with Herrera, is one of the founding members of Et Al. “Those meals are comforting and homey, and they connect with people on a visceral level.” 

Et Al. members are diverse, many with roots and childhood memories in one place, yet adult lives in another. The chefs draw on these deep, profound, elusive memories and use them to enrich the dishes they create – with great success. 

Julia Johnson is Et Al.’s newest member. She grew up in a family where food was the love language; her happiest, most meaningful childhood memories revolve around it. When Sato asked her, back in March, if she wanted to lead an evening dinner, her childhood food was a natural fit. But it’s not just a matter of reproducing mom’s old recipes. 

“We elevate the food,” says Johnson. “We give it a twist. It’s viewed and changed by our adult perspectives. And, like everything else at Et Al., it’s a group effort. We started making the menu in April and we didn’t complete it till October. We read a million cookbooks, tried a million dishes. There were a lot of tastings, a lot of experiments. It’s misleading to have my name on the dinner because it’s a whole team project.” 

In that project, though, Johnson was the leader, and that’s not always an enviable position. 

“The leader is first to do the toughest jobs,” says Sato. “‘Collective’ means everyone sacrifices on behalf of the group. Everyone here could leave and get a better paying job.” 

And yet, the group – 12 at last count – sticks together. In a way it’s like Johnson’s childhood: Et Al. is a family where food is the love language.