When you’re far from home, tiny memories become precious.
“My whole house looks like a jungle,” says Raqaun Bennett, executive chef at Bin 35 in Tulsa’s Brookside. “There’s a lemon tree in the living room, elephant ears, anything that reminds me of the tropics.”
Bennett grew up in Kingshill, a rural neighborhood in St. Croix, not far from the University of the Virgin Islands.
“My mom’s my inspiration, and she’s a brilliant home cook,” Bennett says. “Our neighbors were like family, and we’d all gather for dinner in someone’s house. One was from Antigua, another from Puerto Rico. We’d swap recipes and learn each other’s food traditions. Every big event in Kingshill revolves around food.”
At Bin 35, he re-creates his childhood food experiences. However, that doesn’t mean he cooks strictly Caribbean dishes.
“What does ‘Caribbean dishes’ mean anyway?” he says. “We use the same techniques as any cook. We use mother sauces and mirepoix. We just use different ingredients because we use what is local.”
Bennett is big on French cuisine. He uses classic sauces. A filet comes with espagnole sauce. Sometimes, it seems, he thinks in French. He uses the old French “brigade system” terms to refer to his co-workers: sous-chef … chef de partie. This may prompt you to think that his kitchen is a place of hierarchy and command. It’s not.
Bennett guides you through a door into a world of shiny, well-used steel and cramped aisles. It’s like being on a submarine. The chefs are big and bearded with head scarves. They’re happy to see him.
“It’s crowded, and it should be stressful cooking here,” Bennett says, “but these guys are really good at keeping their cool. Everyone has input; the dessert guy gives advice about the entrees. We pick each other’s brains. I learn a lot from them and hopefully they learn a lot from me.”
Heads nod enthusiastically at that. It’s like a Kingshill neighborhood kitchen.
As for the customers…
I never use that word,” says Bennett, thinking of them the same way he regards his Kingshill neighbors. “They are guests.
Although his dishes are labor-intensive and meticulously designed, they are not meant to be works of art.
“You’ve heard the phrase ‘too pretty to eat,’” he says. “I don’t cook like that. When I design a new dish, I try to visualize how it will look and taste to the guest.
“It’s all about relating to the guest, building bridges, having something in common. Food is the best bridge. I want my food to give comfort.”
And it does. That tender chicken and mushrooms in a savory white wine pan sauce; those long-simmered short ribs, bursting with flavor and served with brown butter carrots and mashed potatoes; the perfectly cooked sea bass served in a rich, complex broth that takes 12 hours to make – all of them have one element in common. Once you taste them, you cannot stop eating.
In his spare time, Bennett likes “learning new ways to cook. I dabble in all genres – pastry, bread, garde manger, charcuterie, garnishes. I still can’t make a perfect sourdough bread, though.