John Bennett, Oklahoma's chef emeritus, passes away
If the 405 diningsphere seems a little colorless today it's because chef John Bennett, a pioneer in the culinary arts in Oklahoma, passed away this afternoon. He was 77.
Bennett was chef of The Cellar at Hightower when it became the city’s first fine dining restaurant in 1964, and helped usher a new appreciation for food, dining and drink still felt today.
A lifelong friend of James Beard and Julia Child, Bennett passed away quietly surrounded by family and friends on Monday afternoon.
Bennett was born Nov. 25, 1941, in Ardmore and split growing up between Healdton and Norman, where he graduated from high school in 1959.
Bennett, known as Jake then, spent a year at the University of Oklahoma, but he liked to joke the only education that stuck came from afternoons spent in the Bizzell Library paging through the gourmet magazines. He soon left to join the fledgling Culinary Institute of America, then in New Haven, Conn., in 1961.
It was there he made the acquaintance of the country’s foremost authority on cooking, James Beard.
Beard consulted for a chef named Albert Stockli, who ran the kitchen at the Mermaid Tavern in Stratford, Conn. – about 25 miles down the Merritt Parkway from the CIA. Close enough for Bennett to take a job there as entrementier.
Bennett had his own cooking station at the end of the line, and he loved to brag that it was his acumen operating a flex-seal cooker that grabbed the attention of Stockli and Beard.
A friendship was struck, which emboldened Bennett to invite Beard to give a talk at the CIA. Beard agreed, though he never knew Bennett had extended the invitation without consulting with anyone at the school.
Bennett was able to secure an invitation for Beard, and a guest, after the fact. But Beard brought two guests with him to the CIA on April 19, 1962. The guests were a couple who’d recently returned from a spell living in France, Paul and Julia Child.
That day Bennett and his best friend and classmate Robert Dickson finagled an invitation from Julia Child to visit her in Cambridge, Mass. A few weeks later, Bennett and Dickson arrived ready to cook, which they did using galley copy pages from Julia’s new book, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.”
A friendship, documented in a volume of letters over the decades, emerged. He would go on to help cook for the wedding of Julia’s niece in California in the 1970s. A French fish mold he sent Child hung in the kitchen above the famous pegboard on her TV kitchen set, which later moved to The Smithsonian.
His relationship with Beard and Oklahoma roots helped him find a job soon after he finished at the CIA and a subsequent working tour of France he took with Dickson – helped by a letter of recommendation from Julia.
It was early 1964 when he began working for Frank Hightower at his Cellar Restaurant. Beard helped convert The Cellar form a tea room into Oklahoma City’s first restaurant foray into fine dining.
After leaving The Cellar, Bennett worked The Skirvin and Christopher’s before moving to San Francisco. He returned in 1975 and opened The Grand Boulevard restaurant on N. Western Avenue. He also served as chef at Nonna’s.
Bennett helped bring prominence to the culinary arts with his colorful and occasional outlandish approach to entertaining and dining. He often said, “Anything worth doing is worth overdoing.”
He loved telling the story of how he rented a circus elephant from a circus outfit on holiday in Hugo to make a grand entrance to the Mummers Theater Ball. He was a hit with the society pages, but not so much with his boss.
“Mr. Hightower had me up in his office first thing the next morning,” he told me more than once.
Together, Bennett and Hightower introduced not only cuisine never seen in Oklahoma but a style of dining previously never attempted. The Cellar was a lavish dining room, tables were covered in crystal and service was conveyed by waiters in formal red attire.
In the days of “liquor by the wink,” The Cellar kept personal storage lockers for guest wine and spirits. Bennett loved to the story of going to France at Hightower’s behest to bring back the best wines available. It was on that trip he struck a friendship with celebrated artist LeRoy Neiman.
He also brought back a lot of wine no one had ever heard of or could afford.
“So we drank it!” Bennett loved to reveal.
The late George Miskovsky Sr. was a noted lawyer but also bailli of Oklahoma City’s Chapter of the Chaine des Rotisseurs. JB loved to use one of Miskovky’s quotes whenever he could: “John, you could paint a masterpiece with a broom on a sheet hung on a wagon.”
Chef Rick Bayless credited Bennett as an early influence. When Bayless was 12, he took the bus from his home in Northwest Oklahoma City to downtown where he confidently walked into the Hightower Building, descended the stairs and approached the host and asked for a table for one. Bayless said by the time he’d finished chocolate mousse served in a silver bowl and adorned with flowers that he knew he wanted to be a chef.
He opened The Grand Boulevard in the space now home to Flip’s Wine Bar and Trattoria in 1976. It was only open five years, but it made an impression on a young Chris Lower, who now owns The Metro Wine Bar and Bistro, Big Truck Tacos, Pizzeria Gusto, and Back Door BBQ. Lower worked at the Grand Boulevard of and on during summers semesters of college and became a favorite of JB’s.
“He used to go in his office after service with his dog, Mr. Beau, and tell me to make him something to eat,” Lower said. “He would never tell me what he wanted, he would just say, ‘Make me something.’”
Bennett was a gifted storyteller and writer. He wrote a recipe column for The Oklahoman called In the Chef’s Manner during the 1960s. He was a host on PM magazine during the late 1970s and made numerous local television appearances.
JB was not only one of the all-time great storytellers, but the subject of so many people’s all-time favorite stories. We will record a special episode of “Community Table” this week to share some of them.
Bennett was preceded in death by his parents Louise Bennett Smith and Charles K. Bennett, his sister Barbara and nephew chef Chip Sears, who partnered with Bennett numerous ventures. Bennett leaves behind a sister, Kaye Sears, and nine nieces and nephews. He also leaves behind a furry, white dog named Riley, who was the love of his life.
Formal services are still being planned. The family said a celebration of JB’s life is planned for August.