On June 13th, an Oklahoma mother-daughter duo will fly to Chicago to receive a highly coveted award that, until now, has never been claimed by an Oklahoma restaurant or chef. The James Beard Foundation Awards, often referred to as the “Academy Awards” of the food industry, honor the talent behind America’s culinary culture.
For 91-year-old Florence Jones, receiving word that one of the nation’s most prestigious culinary houses named the restaurant she opened 70 years ago a 2022 “America’s Classics” winner didn’t mean all that much at the moment. Oklahoma’s culinary scene has only begun to make national headlines in recent years. The notion that a 70-year-old restaurant specializing in yam fried chicken, biscuits and gravy, and chicken-fried steak would be honored at a black-tie event in Chicago seemed impossible. However, her daughter Victoria Kemp knew precisely what a big deal and such an impressive accomplishment for Oklahoma this was.
Kemp found herself slowly becoming a part of the business over the years, visiting on weekends to help her mother, who was still running the restaurant herself. Living in Texas at the time, she found her visits back to OKC were becoming longer and more frequent until it was clear that she was headed back for good. Today, she co-owns and manages the restaurant that Oklahomans have loved for seven decades – longer than she has been alive.
Jones, a native Oklahoman born in Boley in 1931, learned valuable lessons in her youth by raising her own food and turning it into what she now describes as “good country food for the soul.” She began to appreciate the fresh flavors of the farm at a young age, learning how to milk cows, churn butter and value the crops straight from the land. Today, she features “Boley Pinto Beans” on the menu, both in an homage to her roots … and just because they are delicious.
Those lessons and memories are a cherished part of the menu at Florence’s. While a few items may have come and gone, and others minimally evolved over the decades, the original soul of the restaurant remains the same.
Jones has been quoted many times saying that aside from the start-up money she had saved up as a server, all she had were “two chickens and a prayer.” While she turned those assets into a thriving business that has stood the test of time (and is now receiving national recognition), it is also apparent that she brought much more to the table: a legacy to carry on.
While many of the original patrons who helped Jones survive the always-volatile first few years of business may be gone, subsequent generations have learned why there is just something about a great chicken fried steak that can warm your soul. Younger Oklahomans who may not have had the privilege of picking fresh okra and tomatoes out of grandpa’s garden can appreciate the roots of true Oklahoma cooking at Florence’s.
It’s no surprise that Jones and Kemp are the recipients of this specific award, as according to the James Beard Foundation, their labor of love embodies everything the honor entails: “The America’s Classics Award is given to locally-owned restaurants that have timeless appeal and are beloved regionally for quality food that reflects the character of its community.”
Visitors to the area get an authentic Oklahoma culinary experience, and locals have a tried-and-true time machine back to their grandma’s Sunday dinner table. On June 13th, I will be in that audience in Chicago with my mother, cheering them on with Oklahoma pride.