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Tulsa chef Justin Thompson has something new cooking

Justin Thompson

Valerie Grant

At some point in a chef’s career, a cookbook feels like a rite of passage: the next point in a progression from student to line cook to chef to owner. It’s where the accumulated recipes and experience of a lifetime of cooking finally come together to be appreciated, evaluated, and replicated. Justin Thompson—owner of Juniper, Prhyme, and other local concepts—said he wrote his cookbook because “it was time to try something new.”

As a chef, owner, and consultant, Thompson understands restaurants from more angles than most people in the business, but food is always at the heart of what he does.

“It’s still fun to get into the kitchen and cook,” he said. “Having a four-year-old daughter around means I cook a lot, and I still do some professional work, like charity functions, wine dinners, and menu changes.”

While tinkering in the kitchen earlier this year, Thompson found himself working through some of his old recipes, all the way back to his first executive chef gig at Ciao, and even to the childhood meal that shaped his career. The stories of those recipes, among others, are told in his new book, “Trial & Error,” due out in October.

The book was self-published by Justin Thompson Restaurants. Evan Wei-Haas was the book’s creative director, and Jeremy Luther was the designer. All of Thompson’s concepts will use their various media platforms and physical space to sell “Trial and Error,” which will see a first run of 1,500 copies as a way to gauge interest.

“I thought I’d do a chronological approach to the book,” Thompson said, “but the more I looked at my current work, the more I realized I had evolved past the recipes of my youth.”

In the book, Thompson frankly admits that his younger self tweaked recipes just to be different, an approach that amounts to equal parts interesting and no thanks. The beauty of “Trial & Error,” in addition to the recipes and Valerie Grant’s photos, is Thompson’s ability to talk about himself in ways that are deeply honest, personal, and reflective. He’s not hiding anything. He’s just telling the story of where the food comes from.

Early in the book, Thompson tells readers about the meal that started it all. He was looking for a connection to his father at age 14, when cooking a simple chicken marsala dish taught him a valuable lesson that still guides his philosophy as a chef: Food brings people together. You can still find that chicken marsala on a menu in one of his restaurants. As Thompson puts it, “At Tavolo, we crust the chicken in panko break crumbs and deep fry it, along with a much better sauce.”

That evolution shapes the structure of  “Trial & Error.” The hardest part about writing a cookbook is choosing the recipes and deciding on the organization of the material. Does the writer organize by style? Proteins? Appetizers, salads, sides, mains, and desserts? For Thompson, the answer was more complicated. He chose to include recipes that are from “benchmark moments” in his career, and because he has gotten older and wiser and better since his early days in the kitchen, Thompson has left behind the compulsion to tweak things just because.

If something can be made more interesting, then it should be. If not, moving back toward the authenticity of the simpler version is the proper course. Thompson does both in “Trial & Error,” and it works, setting up the reader and home cook to use the book in their own evolution.

“Some of these recipes are really easy,” he said. “Some are really difficult, and some have a lot of steps. The chocolate pie, for example, takes a great deal of time and care. These recipes are suitable for professional kitchens, but they will also work for home cooks at different places in their own development. I want people to grow in their own skills as they work through the book.”

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