Discerning diners would follow him anywhere. That's been the story since Chef Steven Oakley staked his culinary claim in Indianapolis at Something Different back in 1993.
Oakley, who hails originally from the Region in Northwest Indiana, graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York in 1990. He got his start working at The Cottage, a French restaurant in Calumet City that attained cult status in Chicagoland. From there, he went on to experience a variety of kitchens in New York and Chicago, including a couple of stints at the legendary Charlie Trotter's.
After working in Indianapolis at Benvenuti, Oakley was given a breakthrough opportunity to take the reins at Something Different, at that time located in a mini-strip along Keystone Ave. As the restaurant's name suggested, it didn't take long for people to recognize that Oakley's work was helping to sharpen Indy's culinary cutting edge.
Oakley's fans eventually followed Something Different to a new, more expansive location on 86th St.
And then, in 2003, their pilgrimage took them further west, for the opening of Oakley's Bistro, near the intersection of 86th and Ditch Rd. Almost immediately, in 2004, Bon Appetit magazine jumped on the bandwagon, citing Oakley's Bistro as one of America's hottest new restaurants.
Oakley and his eponymously named bistro have continued to win accolades, including The Hospitality Association's Neighborhood Award for Oakley's association with Second Helpings, the city's food rescue, hunger relief and job training nonprofit. Oakley not only contributes a portion of his restaurant's sales and products to Second Helpings, but also opens his kitchen to students in Second Helpings' culinary program.
On the morning that Chef Oakley sat down with NUVO, the Bistro was aglow with the arrival of new dark walnut, butcher block-style dining tables, a manifestation of Oakley's practice of continually upgrading his restaurant's look and feel.
NUVO: How would you characterize the changes in the Indianapolis restaurant scene over the last 20 years?
Oakley: A lot of ups and downs. There have been a lot of really good restaurants here that have moved on. There's been a big influence by chain restaurants that have come in and moved on. Now there are more independents and casual food options than the midscale and upper types of food we had more of 12 years ago.
NUVO: Could you define your terms? Casual and midscale remind me of cultural terms like pop and fine art.
Oakley: Chef-focused or chef-driven restaurants are midscale. It's not necessarily defined by a tablecloth. It's more about food and food style versus atmosphere and décor. People now are a little more casual in how they eat and dress. There's less time for putting on a tie and going out. When I worked at Benvenuti, it was jacket required. Those days have gone. It would nice if that was still around, but when you're all fighting for the same dining dollar, you have to make all aspects of food, price range and quality approachable.
NUVO: Does that limit what you can do as a chef?
Oakley: Not really. Our food is constantly evolving with the seasons and techniques that come into the food industry in terms of the way things are presented and the ways they are prepared. Technology has changed our approach in some ways. We've adopted some of the molecular gastronomy techniques that allow us to make a dish or a protein foolproof, which allows us to work on other elements of the dish instead of having to cook the perfect duck breast. We've taken a little bit of the guesswork out of it. When the duck breast cooks up, it cooks up moist and juicy and the same. This allows us to be more flexible with other things.
NUVO: What's been the impact of the Eat Local movement?
Oakley: There's a lot more availability of product, so more chefs are using it as much as they can. We try to use as much as we can, but being in a place that's busy, it's hard to rely per se on a small local farmer. You probably get 40 percent of what you need and the rest has to be filled in with other farmers or other places in the country. It's a nice idea, but there's not enough produced unless you're a 20-seat restaurant. You do what you do and try to make it better everyday.
NUVO: What principles govern your approach to the design of your menu?
Oakley: Much of it is based on being here 20 years and knowing the likes and dislikes of our clientele. It's having those comforting foods, listing something as simple as Meat Loaf, but making that different in every aspect of what you usually think of as Meat Loaf. If you come here with a group of people and some of them aren't as adventurous or well-traveled, there will still be things for them to pick out and enjoy. But we still do what we want in different areas, whether it's specials or wine dinners, where we let things go a little more. The main components evolve with the seasons. Then there will be items like buffalo, which is not something people necessarily expect to find. We'll offer that as a special and have fun with all things around it.
NUVO: Is there such a thing as Midwestern cuisine?
Oakley: It's gotten more eclectic in many ways. It's no longer just meat and potatoes, although those are things we culturally grew up with. How can we make them a little more interesting? Or find a different approach or technique? Everything has evolved into one big melting pot across the country. Even California cuisine is different than it was 10-12 years ago. We're in the middle of everything, some things being trendy – now everybody's trying to do a pizza or a hamburger. All that stuff has been here; it takes one chef with notoriety to go and do it. The next thing you know, everyone's trying to get their angle on it.
NUVO: As a diner, what do you expect from a restaurant?
Oakley: I don't dine out a whole lot. When I do, most of the time it's more ethnic food – sushi and things like that. You're seeing more interesting things – the taco trucks, for instance. It's good to see we're embracing that. I look for good, wholesome food, well-prepared. There are a lot of places that are doing that.
NUVO: What are you trying to impart to people at Oakley's?
Oakley: We're trying to show that we're not a pretentious type of place. We're trying to offer a simple approach, but with complex flavors. A pesto can be simple, but how is it layered into the food? I always say less is more. So we work with four or five things on a plate that can come together with a good feel. Sometimes I think people will look at the menu and think it's a little bizarre. But with a beef stew we might just, instead of having the carrots cooked in there, puree the carrots and use that as the base we build from. The onion part might be a fried element. Our potato part might be gnocchi. So we get all these different tastes and textures to your palate. It seems different, but it's still beef stew. I think of classical flavors and combinations and how we can take these flavors people are familiar with, separate them out and make them with another type of dish. That's the challenge for me. It's fun.