Just as you enter Tulsa’s Prossimo Ristorante from Cherry Street, you’ll pass a lounge with pink, upholstered sofas and chairs. Before the dinner rush one afternoon, you might see a rugged and confident man sprawled in one of those chairs, taking a quick break on a long work day. The salmon order just came in, and he had to fillet it.
“I love the steak factor of wild salmon,” says Scott VanTuyl. “I’m hoping to get a different variety for each week it’s in season.”
This week, it’s sockeye from the glaciers and icefields of Alaska’s Prince William Sound. Along with fresh slices of local tomato and sprigs of thyme, it will be wrapped on paper and cooked for salmon en papillote, one of the five new entrees VanTuyl has designed in the few months since he came to Prossimo as executive chef.
After the salmon order comes the cheese. It’s time to start a new wheel for Prossimo’s beloved classic, il vero Alfredo, melted tableside with flaming brandy, mixed with butter and homemade fettuccine. The wheel is huge (75 pounds), hard (aged 18 months), imported from Italy and very costly ($1,100).
“You have to score the equator, jam a clam knife in all around the wheel, and wedge it apart. It’s like wrestling a bear,” he says. But it’s worth it. “If you come for a romantic dinner with your loved one and you see the server wheel the cheese over to your table and set it on fire, you’ll remember it for the rest of your life.”
Raised in a Tulsa family where mom, dad and all siblings loved to cook, VanTuyl spent much of his childhood over a stove.
“I was lucky enough to know by age 16 what I wanted to do with my life,” he says. “I loved to cook, and even more, I loved the restaurant business.”
After graduating from Memorial High School, VanTuyl went to the Culinary Institute of America. After that, he landed a series of jobs around Tulsa, including a stint at Mahogany, where he met his wife, Amy. He later worked at Polo Grill, French Hen, Mazzio’s and Savory Chef, where he ran the cafe and butcher shop and taught professional cooking classes.
Then, says VanTuyl, “I lucked into Lucky’s.”
The restaurant was just opening, and he became Matt Kelley’s first chef de cuisine. Everyone’s favorite entrée there, the Trimbach Riesling chicken, was a VanTuyl original – now on the menu at Prossimo under a more Italian name, vino Bianco chicken. After he left Lucky’s, he got a job as a culinary arts teacher at Northeast Tech high school in Pryor. While teaching there, he met up with two of his old high school buddies.
“I have a truck,” said one. Soon after, the iconic Mr. Nice Guys food truck was born.
When he came to Prossimo, VanTuyl was warned that the kitchen was rather small. But to him – coming from a food truck that was 110 degrees in summer – this kitchen was a veritable palace.
“I love learning about Italian cuisine in depth; I love the really cool, high-end pasta machines I get to work with; I love getting to cook braised pheasant, work with octopus … I love being back in fine dining,” he says.
It’s hard work, of course, and not all about fun.
“I must create a good work environment for both servers and line cooks, because in every great restaurant, everyone works together,” he says. “And I want to give the guests what they want, because everyone deserves a good meal.”
Il vero Alfredo