From earliest childhood, Tim Swepston knew what he was born to be … or so he thought.
Deep in his bones, he believed he was destined to be a painter, and if you look at the strange, primal figures and fierce, blazing colors in his paintings today (“painting keeps me sane,” he says), you know that had he chosen to follow that road to the end he might have found fame and glory.
Swepston, always aware of food and cooking, thought Bodean’s market in Tulsa was cool when he was a little kid. (That’s where his mom shopped for party supplies.) But he never dreamed he’d be head chef there. Painting was his passion and, in the early 1990s, he often joined a raggedy gang of teenagers in back of artist Steve Liggett’s studio.
“Here’s a bunch of stuff,” Liggett would say while dragging out canvas and paint. “Do what you want.”
Young Swepston did.
He went to New Orleans to study art. He loved the rich colors of gouache and its link to the Italian Renaissance.
“I like tradition,” Swepston says. “The past is being forgotten. I want to preserve it. I appreciate classics; they are classic for a reason.”
When you go to Bodean and try his sea bass en papillote – a rigorously prepared classic French dish popular in bygone days when haute cuisine was served with pomp and ceremony – you see this side of him. When he invents an entree, Swepston takes a walk to empty his mind, then paints the dish to let shapes and colors inspire him to fashion new cooking techniques. Food is art, he says, and it has the same joy of creation.
In New Orleans, Swepston wanted to be an artist, “but I didn’t want to be a starving artist,” he says, “and I knew that people who worked in restaurants never starved.”
He began cooking to pay for art school “and somewhere in my early 20s, I realized I liked it,” he says. “One night it clicked and I thought, ‘Oh, this is what I am supposed to be doing.’”
He worked at his newfound craft, first at Delmonico’s, then with Lyon-born chef Gerald Crozier, from whom he learned discipline and classic French cuisine. As he improved, Swepston became head chef at two upscale eateries, Café Atchafalaya and Dick and Jenny’s.
“And I was always hustling,” he says. “Me and a couple of guys – we catered events; we did dinner parties; we had fun.”
He eventually returned to Tulsa and found work at Bodean. A few months ago, he was promoted to executive chef.
“I love it,” he says. “I fell in love with the family here, with every man and woman who helps make the glorious Bodean machine work, keeps the gears turning. They work hard, but they’re relaxed; they make it fun to come in in the morning.
“I love the creative freedom. I love stepping into the market first thing every morning” – the market that receives air shipments at least twice a day of the freshest fish from around the globe – “and think, ‘Oh, what fish do I get to use today?’ Sometimes we get a kind of fish I used to use in New Orleans and that triggers good memories.”
Later in the day, Swepston quietly observes the diners.
“If they taste the food and the whole table goes quiet, and then suddenly everyone’s talking, then I know they love it,” he says. “I know I’ve reached them and it’s like being at a family table.”
Grilled Jumbo Sea Scallops