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Local chef bids adieu to Tulsa with special two-night dinner

Valerie Grant

Michelle Donaldson—who has won numerous chef competitions, was chosen to be the Oklahoma ambassador for President Obama’s Healthy Kids Initiative, and received a special food-related fellowship with the University of Tulsa—got her start at a Taco Bueno in Sand Springs, Oklahoma.

“They do make everything from scratch, so I learned a lot,” said Donaldson. “I also learned what it looks like when taxes are taken out of your paycheck. I only had to pay my car insurance, but I really wanted to buy that Cure T-shirt, too.” 

She continued working at various restaurants, both front and back of house, until landing a position in the cheese department of the now-defunct Wild Oats grocery store. She totally revamped their fromage department and the store saw a huge increase in profits. For her work, Donaldson received a 23-cent raise. 

“Basically, I gave them the middle finger and decided to go to culinary school,” said Donaldson. “Funny enough, they kept me on and transferred me to Las Vegas to reshape their department there.” 

Donaldson started culinary school in Vegas while working at Wild Oats, but she longed to work in a real kitchen. A friend and mentor secured her a summer position at André’s, a Michelin restaurant. She parlayed this experience into a position at Wynn Las Vegas, where she learned everything from baking bread to butchering meats in a high-volume, high-class hotel chain. After two years, she and her newly-wed husband moved back to Tulsa in 2008.

Donaldson learned how to prepare Thai cuisine working at KEO and high-end steaks and classic dishes while at Polo Grill. But it was her experience at SMOKE with Executive Chef Erik Reynolds that Donaldson came into her own.

“I really matured in [Reynold’s] kitchen—found my own voice and my own palate. I learned how to translate what was in my head onto a plate,” said Donaldson.

It wasn’t long until she was approached for another adventure—opening Tallgrass Prairie Table, a restaurant focused on sourcing local ingredients.

“I really fought with myself over that decision. I felt like I had a good following in Tulsa that would support the food I wanted to do, but I also wanted to remain loyal the person who helped me discover the person I had become.” 

Ultimately, she went with her gut. 

“There are a lot of things we did right, a lot we did wrong,” she said. “But that’s anyone who opens a restaurant for the first time. But I also got to explore food in a way that I didn’t know I could and when Tulsa supported it in a very vibrant and outspoken way, it was very encouraging.” 

Though working overtime at the new restaurant, she also devoted a lot of her time to nonprofit organizations, like Youth Services, Meals on Wheels, Women in Recovery, and the Mental Health Association. 

“It was instilled in me by my mentors that giving back to the community is a big part of being a chef,” said Donaldson. 

Her involvement with Tallgrass and other organizations opened a lot of doors for her career. She turned down Food Network, twice. 

“Various cooking shows. That’s about all I can say,” she said.

Last year, Donaldson’s life was punctuated by personal loss: the death of a good friend, the passing of a dear aunt, and the near-death of her father.

“Unfortunately, I decided to take that stress and deal with it in a bottle,” said Donaldson. “After a short period of time, I realized this is not at all what I want to do—this was affecting my job, my family. I knew this is not who I wanted to be. So, I got sober.” 

The decision was pivotal and Donaldson and her husband decided to make another move—to Detroit to be closer to family. 

“Tulsa has such a huge feeling of family, inclusiveness, progression … especially in the chef community. I have no idea what to expect in Detroit. But, I’ve got to go with my gut on this one, again.”

She plans to move at the end of May, but won’t be leaving without giving Tulsa a delicious parting gift.

On April 23 and 24, Donaldson will host Seven Moles and Seven Memories, a two-night event at Test Kitchen. Donaldson will incorporate Mexican moles into dishes that signify important parts of her life. 

A set number of people will be randomly chosen to attend Seven Moles and Seven Memories. To be placed in the lottery, sign up on the Test Kitchen website. Tickets are $125 and include seven courses and seven cocktail or wine pairings.

For more from Angela, read her article on how Rub Food is fighting hunger in Tulsa.


Upcoming food events for good causes

Dustin Saied paints at Empty Bowls 2016Empty Bowls 2017
The Oklahoma Community Food Bank provides meals to thousands of Eastern Oklahomans who would otherwise go hungry. With Tulsa’s vibrant food culture, it is hard to believe that so many of our men, women, and children don’t know where they’ll get their next meal. The Empty Bowls fundraiser is a hunger awareness event meant to highlight the needs of so many who fight food insecurity daily. The concept is simple. A keepsake bowl designed by a local artist is given to each guest. It is a symbol of both emptiness and the potential for fullness. The event is set for April 25 at the Cox Business Center starting at 5:30 p.m. A single ticket of $75 will provide an estimated 300 meals to people in need. The ticket price includes a soup and salad dinner, cocktail hour, wine, raffles, and more. For tickets or more information, visit okfoodbank.org.

Dining Out for Life
One of Tulsa’s most popular eat-for-a-cause campaigns is the Health Outreach Prevention Education (H.O.P.E.) annual Dining Out for Life. On Thursday, April 27, Over 30 restaurants will donate proceeds to H.O.P.E. to continue their mission of providing safe, anonymous testing for HIV/AIDS and other STDs, counseling, prevention education and more to 26 counties in Northeast Oklahoma. Restaurants prepare special breakfast, lunch, or dinner menus and donate anywhere from 25–100 percent of the funds raised. The stellar line-up of participating restaurants is listed below. 

Shades of Brown

Blue Moon Café

Blue Moon Café
Caz’s Chowhouse
Dilly Diner
India Palace
KEO Brookside, KEO South
Old School Bagel Brookside
Trenchers Delicatessen

Baxter’s Interurban Grill
​Café Olé
Elgin Park
El Guapo’s Cantina
El Guapo’s Cantina South
​Elote Cafe
Hey Mambo
Mainline Art Bar 
McNellie’s Public House
McNellie’s Public House South
​MixCo Bar and Restaurant
Mod’s Coffee & Crepes
Ol’ Vine 
The Tavern
The Vault
Yokozuna South