A culinary mastermind with a true love for giving back to his community.
I had a phone interview with Chef Justin Thompson in an hour. I had made my list of questions to ask him; I had my alarm set on my phone. I was possibly, comfortably prepared for this conversation. Except for one thing; I had no idea how I was going to go through with the call. Justin Thompson Restaurants are some of downtown Tulsa’s finest culinary experiences, and not only was his take on the latest dishes superb, his contribution to this community was extravagant. Who am I, a 30 year-old mother of two whose latest meal consisted of Chick-Fil-A and whose only culinary skill is making peanut butter sandwiches, going to interview this kitchen mastermind. However, my job depended on this conversation. I began very slowly dialing his phone number. I may have paused a few seconds before I got up the guts to hit “call.” It was ringing; or was that sound my own heartbeat I could hear pumping outside of my chest?
“Hi, Mr. Thompson, this is Casey Struttmann with Tulsa Lifestyle magazine…”
And half an hour later I was hanging up the phone pleasantly surprised. Mr. Thompson was a pleasant character, with a gentle confidence, and an expressive joy in using his art as a way to give back.
His love for cooking began at age 14 and would play a crucial role in helping him develop a positive relationship with his father, which had become stressed due to the recent divorce of his parents. Cooking together on Wednesday nights at Dad’s house became the inspiration for what would be a future career in the restaurant business.
A somewhat ‘celebrity’ in his own right, it did not surprise me that like so many artists before him, his first job at the age of 15 was as a dishwasher at Mazzio’s. After one month, he was moved to the kitchen to make pizzas, a job he says he thoroughly enjoyed.
His first job as chef was with Doris Matthews, owner of Ciao on Brookside. When he first entered the establishment, Thompson noticed it was still under construction. When he asked Doris when they planned to be finished he was given an answer and an opportunity he couldn’t refuse: He was going to help build, design and open Ciao, lessons that would spark his career in restaurant ownership down the road.
A year and a half later, he teamed up with Tim Baker to open up Brasserie, and the following year, Sonoma Bistro and Wine Bar. Three years later, they focused their attention on Bixby’s new plaza establishment and opened up Duke’s Southern Kitchen.
It was around 2011 that Chef Thompson decided on a new challenge: opening up his own restaurant from the ground up. Working with his father, they opened Juniper in October of that year in downtown Tulsa at 3rd and Elgin. Juniper’s menu was set up to change with the seasons, introducing Italian, French, Spanish and American influences throughout the year and included proteins, produce and dairy products locally sourced.
The next year, he opened up Prhyme Steakhouse located in the Brady District. He wanted to put a modern twist to the steakhouse, allowing his customers to experience how the feed and environment play a role in producing the best beef, whether that be grass or grain-fed.
In 2013 he wanted to bring Italy to Tulsa with the opening of Tavolo. Pastas made by hand, and an extensive wine list, make for a memorable experience. Currently, they are adding a coffee shop and market place that will provide pre-made products for those that would like a taste of fine-dining but maybe don’t have to time to experience one.
Combining all three, 624 Catering located in the ONG building located at 624 S. Boston Avenue was created by Chef Thompson and his team of culinary and service professionals, providing an elegant space for special events and private parties.
It was during these projects that Chef Thompson and his 12 investors created the Justin Thompson Restaurants (JTR) Group. Their hope was to consolidate and to create, in Chef Thompson’s words, “A strong brand and be the best we can be.” Their mission as stated on their website is “to serve to the delight of our guests, staff, and community…We feel community involvement and charity work are paramount to our success in the city.”
Giving back to his community has become a serious focal point in Chef Thompson’s life. Recently, Tulsa’s Child Abuse Network awarded the Chef with their Distinguished Citizenship Award after raising $15,000 dollars for the organization during one of his charity events. On average, the group will host one charitable event per month for several organizations across town.
Their Fall Harvest Festival is a popular, family-friendly charitable event to support Youth Services of Tulsa. This year the event will be held on Sunday, October 18. Families and friends can participate in an afternoon of fun contests such as the grape stomping competition, and enjoy various vendors across town from food trucks to the beer garden. He closes the evening with a large wine dinner.
Chef Thompson beamed as he shared his news that they had reached their 100+ employee mark.
“I’m really proud that we are able to help our employees pay bills and purchase Christmas presents for their children,” he says.
His food is renowned in the Tulsa community. His restaurants are known for their individual experiences they provide to each patron, but his excitement and true love for his charitable work is what shines through when you speak to Chef Thompson. He wants to give back to his community that has graciously welcomed him into their lives.
As human beings we have to eat, drink and, if able, be merry doing so. After my nerves had settled and I sat down to read over my notes, I can say that not only does he provide these crucial life musts, he does so by using it to bring people together for the common good.