The Wright stuff
Contest winner Chef Jimmy Sanabria breathes new life into a Bartlesville landmark
Chef Jimmy Sanabria
The grits have eyes.
Order the shrimp and grits at Copper Restaurant and Bar, on the 15th floor of the famed Price Tower in Bartlesville, and it looks back at you. A jumbo shrimp, head and all, is charred and perched atop a bowl of creamy grits made from ground rice and smoked gouda, then finished with shaved garlic, micro cilantro and a scampi sauce. Created by Copper Chef Jimmy Sanabria, the dish is bold yet familiar: a fitting representation of what the restaurant has become. For those familiar with the history of Copper—marked by a series of identity crises ranging from fine dining to basic concession stand food and, most recently, standard three-star hotel fare like burgers—Sanabria’s vision is a welcome change.
“Everybody comes for the shrimp and grits. People have found my personal phone number and texted and called to ask for the recipe,” Puerto Rico-born Sanabria said. “There’s a little bit of my Spanish influence, and the scampi sauce is Latin, from my country.”
Sanabria won “The Wright Chef,” a competition named after the building’s architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, in October. After beating 170 applicants, his prizes for the year-long artist-in-residence position include an apartment in the Tower and control over the restaurant’s menu and decor. The annual program is designed to both showcase culinary artistry and help an up-and-comer learn how to operate an entire restaurant.
“As part of the education component of our programming, we wanted to be able to celebrate a new artist,” said Angelina Boungou, director of advancement at Price Tower. “How many restaurants have you been to where you think, ‘This is amazing,’ and they go out of business because they’re great in a kitchen but they don’t know how to run a business? This allows a chef to express themselves creatively but also teaches business aspects.”
Sanabria grew up spending time in the kitchen with his grandmother, then attended vocational foodservice training followed by culinary school. He’s worked for Wyndham Hotels and Resorts and Hyatt, and he was a chef de partie at the Four Seasons in Dallas when he applied for the Wright Chef contest on a whim.
“There was an ad on a cooking site, and I clicked on it,” Sanabria said. “I sent my resume and some pictures. I didn’t think they were going to pick me, then a couple months later they called and said, ‘You’re one of the finalists.’”
Sanabria and five other chefs from across the country traveled to Pawhuska for dinner at the Pioneer Woman Mercantile, managed by program mentor chef Kurtess Mortensen. This leisurely dinner was followed by an intense, two-day showdown that included on-the-fly menu creation and a timed grocery trip. The chefs, each paired with a culinary student from Tri-County Technical Institute, then underwent a marathon prep and cooking session for a panel of 12 judges.
Boungolou notes Sanabria led the pack not only in the flavor department—“I can still taste one of the dishes he made during the competition,” she said—but also in concept. He thoughtfully incorporated elements reminiscent of the Tower, such as high, narrow plating.
After winning in October, Sanabria relocated to Bartlesville in November and spent two months planning Copper’s reopening. His menu shakes up recognizable dishes with unexpected flourishes: An innocent Brussels sprouts and kale salad is turned decadent by frying the greens until rich and crispy. Pork and beans goes high-end with a smoked pork chop (from McFerron Quality Meats in Nowata) paired with black eyed peas and escabeche, a Latin sweet-and-sour sauce.
A springy cheesecake dessert is deconstructed into tiny towers on the plate, topped with blueberries and colorful chocolate leaves.
Sanabria, who admitted he’d never spent time in Oklahoma outside of WinStar before the competition, said he was tentative about making sweeping changes.
“I was scared when I started designing the menu. The food I make, there’s not too much like it here,” Sanabria said. “I said I’d give it a couple of months, and if people didn’t like it, then we could change. But people came in with open minds.”
Before he leaves, Sanabria hopes to update the menu as his staff (including previous Copper head chef Sidney Wiley and Christopher Myers, Sanabria’s assistant from the competition, whom he hired upon winning) learns new skills. Pushing that education on the house staff is just one way Sanabria hopes to leave his mark at Price Tower.
“Before I did all this, my plan was to stay at the Four Seasons a little bit and then open my own restaurant,” Sanabria said. “I still want to do that, but I’ve told Scott [Ambler, Price Tower executive director] that I want to come and do events here to help the Tower. I’ve fallen in love with it.”