You’ve Been Served: Kamala Gamble provides OKC with fresh, homegrown flavors
by Greg Elwell
Editor’s note: You’ve been served is an occasional feature spotlighting chefs, bartenders and others involved in making and serving food in Oklahoma City.
There are no tomatoes in June.
Well, there are grocery store tomatoes and maybe greenhouse tomatoes. But anyone looking for that fresh, ripe, just-off-the-vine tomato taste is usually out of luck until at least July, Kamala Gamble said.
As the head of Kam’s Kookery (a local catering company) and Guilford Gardens (a rambling 2-acre urban farm behind her northwest Oklahoma City home), Gamble and chef Barbara Mock look to the seasons for inspiration.
Planning a wedding reception often means peering into a crystal ball, sussing out what will (hopefully) be growing in six or 12 months. Seasonality is vital to flavor, Gamble said. The difference of a week or a month can mean fresh, fully ripened tomatoes and luscious, juicy melons.
“We get to introduce them [catering clients] to the best versions of foods,” she said.
Despite a veritable food revolution in Oklahoma, Gamble said many are still stuck in the past and expect produce shipped from halfway across the globe, regardless of flavor. Their business, however, is about marrying expectations with their expertise.
Mock was a convert as well. She didn’t even like tomatoes before she came to work at Kam’s. But when slicing ruby-red globes that are bursting with the sweet juice of the summer’s sun, it’s hard not to fall in love.
Gamble fell out of love with her first chosen career. After receiving a degree in finance from the University of Oklahoma, she went to work as a banker for 10 years. By 1997, she had enough and quit. Her next stop was culinary school, eventually working with famed chef and Oklahoma native Rick Bayless, an experience that shaped her philosophy.
Mock’s story is similar. After leaving a job working with numbers, she found her passion in cooking.
“I was tired of budgeting. I didn’t want to be stuck in an office for the rest of my life,” she said.
During Mock’s culinary training, her class visited Kam’s Kookery to see how a catering business was run. When Gamble was looking for help in the kitchen, she turned to Mock’s instructor, who suggested Barbara for the job.
“Kam said, ‘Can you fry okra?’ and I said, ‘Yes.’ And that was that,” Mock said.
In the kitchen, Gamble and Mock often move as if they’re one person in two bodies. Each understands her role and exactly how their shared work will come together. Watch them slicing side-by-side and you’ll see the long, graceful cut of skilled hands — nimble, but sure.
Yet if you ask them what they do best, they both say it’s when they do the least.
“Summer is my favorite time to cook,” Gamble said. “Everything is so perfect; the less done the better.”
Or as Mock likes to say, get really good ingredients and don’t screw them up. Their philosophy is flavor before all else. Presentation plays a part, but when cooking from the garden, flavor is everything. It’s evident in their work. Their panzanella salad — a catering favorite — includes beautiful bread chunks soaked in a lemon vinaigrette set off by a variety of fresh tomatoes, basil and cucumbers from the garden.
“Salads are an art form,” Gamble said. “You have to have good ingredients in a salad because that’s where you see them the most. You can’t make a great salad out of season.”
She said having access to Guilford Gardens has spoiled her on lettuce. She won’t eat lettuce she doesn’t grow herself.
Kam’s is just as passionate about cooking meats, focusing on local producers that raise great-tasting animals.
“Again, it’s all flavor,” Gamble said. “It’s about what the animals eat. Beef where the hooves hit the ground until they’re processed. Happy animals taste better.”
As she walks along rows of tomatoes, eggplants and herbs, Gamble said it’s hard to believe how much it has grown over the last 15 years. The impetus to start came from a simple need to get the best ingredients around.
Now Kam’s delivers CSA (community-supported agriculture) produce bags across the city, sharing whatever is fresh with home cooks and restaurants. In the spring, there’s lettuce and beets and pea shoots. Come fall, there will be squash, carrots, sweet potatoes and more.
Years after leaving their office jobs behind, the women of Kam’s Kookery still have passion for the dishes they create. Because it’s not just happy animals that make great food — it’s also happy chefs.
And while their cooking classes have lessened considerably, Gamble and Mock still want to share the joy of cooking locally grown produce.
Aug. 28, they’ll use produce from Guilford Gardens to prepare and serve a farm-to-table outdoor dinner as part of the Outdoor Dining Series at Myriad Botanical Gardens, 301 W. Reno Ave. The last day to register for the event is Friday.
For more information on Kam’s Kookery, visit kamskookery.com. Learn more about the Outdoor Dining Series at myriadgardens.org.