If you keep up with the Okie food scene, odds are you’ve by now heard of OKC’s foraging-focused supper club, Nani. Co-owners Andon Whitehorn and Collin Stringer have been delighting adventurous diners (and stirring up controversy) with their non-traditional model for the past year. Now, a lapse in their lease has them mobilizing for a handful of featured dinners and apprenticeships in select cities. Much to the delight of our eagerly awaiting foodies, Tulsa is one such town—Nani dinners debuted at Chimera the first weekend in May.
So what is Nani? It’s something of a ‘chicken and egg’ question when you consider that Nani means both what and fish in Japanese and Choctaw, respectively—the two cuisines Nani attempts to marry. The question itself is Nani’s essence: What fish will we serve this evening? What flavor will best balance it out? What food will keep us closest to Oklahoma in this dinner? These are just a few of the considerations that fuel Nani’s local sensibilities and shape its commitment to intentional eating.
A Nani meal is essentially a hybrid between a supper club and a chef’s tasting dinner. Each dinner serves about 20 and features small plates created from whatever foods its chefs were able to procure in the days (sometimes hours) before the dinner. The dinners have taken place at their DIY space in OKC and at guest venues.
The menu for the omnivore dinner at Chimera featured Okie offerings like locally grown cauliflower, wild chives, rhubarb, purple carrots, mustard seed, sorel and strawberries. Twenty to thirty percent of an average Nani dinner consists of ingredients collected from the Oklahoma landscape, and local and seasonal foods are used when possible.
"Every part of the Nani experience, from the music to the aesthetic, is carefully curated and always will be," Whitehorn said.
Nani is about community dining. Although the food is front and center, the conversations unfolding around the table are equally important.
"Eating is a very social thing, whether or not people realize it," Whitehorn said. "We meet over drinks, we have discussions at dinner, we talk about how our days and lives are going. Mealtime used to fulfill two very important needs: the need to nourish yourself, and the need to interact socially. Somewhere along the way, that latter bit has gotten somewhat lost, and we want to help bring that back."
For the past few months, Nani reservations have been hard to come by. They’ve received a swell of press resulting from their public back-and-forth with the Oklahoma City County Health Department, and it seemed like those who hadn’t yet tasted Nani’s delicacies might never get to.
In February, the Oklahoma City County Health Department issued Nani a cease-and-desist order on grounds Nani was a restaurant operating without a license. Nani’s owners have since argued they’re not a restaurant but instead are private chefs. No regulation exists for home chefs operating in Oklahoma. After receiving no explanation as to why they should be treated differently from other private chefs, they continued to host dinners at their location (the bottom floor of the house Stringer rented) until the lease ran out. The case is ongoing but has no recent developments.
"The OCCHD is overreaching their jurisdiction," Whitehorn said. "If they want to inspect us, then they would have to inspect all personal/private chefs operating in this state, meaning that they would have to inspect every kitchen that they set foot in. … If this goes to trial, and the court decides against us then that either means that all personal/private chef operations must be inspected as they insist (and they’ve only insisted with us, it seems,) or it sets a double standard within the system whereby we are subject to inspection but other personal/private chefs are not; the OCCHD cannot have it both ways."
"We are certified Food Safety Managers, registered with the State and the National Registry of Food Safety Professionals, that operate by the same standards as other dining experiences," Whitehorn said. "We follow proper labeling and dating for inventory rotation, proper hot and cold holding temps, proper sanitation, avoidance of cross-contamination, etc. Since there are no regulations for personal/private chefs we technically don’t have to do this, but we do, because we care about the well-being of our guests and our clients."
Many have read the end of new reservations at Nani proper as a bad sign, but the owners are quick to correct this notion. Whitehorn explains it as a move that was "planned long before the cease-and-desist in order for us to grow and progress in related areas." With that in mind, the traveling Nani roadshow begins to look more like a strategic choice.
"We are actively looking and seeking outside investment for potential future endeavors," Whitehorn said.
It seems like Tulsa might have just what they need.
"We’re proud of the citizens of Oklahoma City, and we’re proud of what we’ve done here, but Tulsa as a city feels more ready for a concept like Nani," Whitehorn said. "We love, love, love the people of Oklahoma City, but Tulsa as a venue has its head in the right place." a
For more information, visit naniokc.com.