Steven Oakley, chef/owner at Oakleys Bistro, debuted a new small-plates menu recently, one that features more than 20 items that range in price from $2 to $8. In addition to the regular menu, the new small-plates menu is available in the dining room Tuesday through Thursday and all week at the bar or in the restaurant’s new “Kitchen Nook” dining space.
The restaurant’s front door has been reoriented to turn an entryway into a dining nook that features a custom-made eight-seat table.
“We went searching for a table” for the space, Oakley said, “but we couldn’t find what we wanted.”
Topped with glass, the table’s well-worn boards feature markings to measure water depth and were used in the Ohio River. “I kind of like the shadowbox look,” he said.
But the chef, who opened his restaurant more than 10 years ago, is adding more than a new table and menu items. In April, Oakley will kick off his new Kitchen Nook series spotlighting local sous chefs, where twice a month he’ll invite young chefs to come cook in his restaurant.
I stopped in at the restaurant recently to talk with Oakley about the menu, his new Kitchen Nook and the future of fine dining. — Jolene Ketzenberger
Q: How did you come up with all the new items? What’s the inspiration?
A: After 11 years, we wanted to mix it up. Having worked at Snax, that’s kind of the starting point. I just look for things that I would enjoy eating. Some are components we’ve done before. I get people bringing me dishes all the time, and sometimes it’s the plate that inspires me to come up with something, believe it or not.
Q: What kind of food do you eat when you’re not at the restaurant?
A: I eat a lot of ethnic food. Sawasdee. Sakura. And I take my staff to Chicago. We’ll go to maybe 10 places. It gives them some inspiration.
Q: Would you ever go on a competitive cooking show?
A: The “Top Chef” thing, I don’t know. I never wanted to be in the spotlight. My focus is being here, back there cooking. I cook every night. I like being in the fire, seeing the flow.
Q: Do you get many young cooks who want to stage at Oakleys?
A: Not really. When I worked at Something Different, I would drive to Chicago on Sunday and Monday, my parents were there, and I’d work at different restaurants.
Q: What was it like when you took over at Something Different?
A: Everybody quit. It was me and the dishwasher. Friday and Saturday the owner helped me cook. The first two kids that applied, I hired. And those two worked for me for 12 years.
Q: Do young cooks coming out of culinary school have unrealistic expectations?
A: The shows have made it a little but tougher. They come out of school, and they want to be a chef.
Q: Your new Kitchen Nook series sounds like a great opportunity for up-and-coming chefs. You’re going to invite young chefs to cook in your restaurant and customers can try their dishes?
A: I’m going to be trying to do two Wednesdays a month, hopefully starting in April. You come up with four dishes, and you’re going to cook them too and get your name out there. We’ll start and see who’s interested.
Q:You worked at Charlie Trotter’s earlier in your career. What was that like?
A: It was a lot more cutthroat. But Trotter’s was interesting. I worked there a year and a half. It was a door opener. But you work all the time, 7:30 or 8 a.m. until 1 or 2 in the morning.
Q: You have kids…that sounds like it’d be pretty tough on family life.
A: Time with the family is really important. That’s why I moved here, for a lifestyle so I can have both.
Q:We hear a lot about restaurant service issues in Indianapolis. How do you deal with that?
A: It’s a challenge. I ask them [about the menu] every day. They’re tested on the menu. They’re tested on the wines.
Q: What about the concept of fine dining? Is it gone for good?
A: I think those days are gone. It’s nice to dress up and go out, but I think people are in a big hurry. You can’t force their hand. I don’t think anyone wants to be labeled as fine dining. [People think] you’re too expensive, I can’t eat there, I won’t like the food. We got rid of tablecloths eight years ago. Not to make it more casual, but to make people feel more comfortable.
Check out a video of some of Oakley’s new menu items here.