By Angela Evans / Photography By Sarah Allen | June 25, 2018
I arrive at the home of Shannon Smith, known around the Tulsa food scene as a top-notch culinary teacher—a chef ‘s chef, really—who travels the world seeking out gastronomic techniques and flavors. Tonight’s dinner is hosted by Test Kitchen Tulsa, a sort of Fight Club for foodies where members are invited to a secret location to sample the food from the finest gourmands in Tulsa. Tonight, Smith is combining her role as chef and instructor with that of world traveler, as she takes us on an around-the-world epicurean affair.
Our first stop is Morocco, featuring a heavenly Moroccan minced meat pie called briwat. The outer dough is the delicate cousin of fry bread, with a golden façade that houses a decadent filling. The heaviness of the briwat is counteracted by the second passed hors d’oeuvres: a delicate Peruvian ceviche with a hint of coconut creaminess.
After the first cocktails are sipped and the passed apps are devoured, Smith welcomes us to her home and introduces herself. Though she feigns nervousness, you can see it’s actually exhilaration shining through those sparkling blue eyes. As the sun dips down, the sound of champagne corks popping becomes the opening salvo to an evening that will take our taste buds on an adventure from the Caribbean to Italy, with a pit stop in India, then onward to Greece, and finally landing in England.
But before this night—long before Smith was serving cuisine from around the world for 50+ strangers in her own backyard—she was just a small-town gal from Tuttle, Oklahoma.
Smith grew up on a ranch where her mother was a homemaker who passed to her daughter the knack for sewing. When Smith arrived in her first home economics class her freshman year, not only was she the star pupil with her already-honed seamstress capabilities, she was enamored with everything about the class and her teacher.
“My home ec teacher was my role model in life,” says Smith. “I wanted to be Miss Craig. I wanted to please her so much and I wanted to learn everything home ec I could learn. And, yeah, I could cook, but I didn’t love cooking as much as I loved sewing.”
She would go on to earn a degree in home economics from Oklahoma Christian University in Edmond. To become a teacher, though, one must earn a minor in education, and as part of Smith’s student practicum she was sent to a seventh-grade home economics class. The experience was … terrible.
“It was nothing like the home ec I knew,” says Smith. “The kids were mean to the teacher and the teacher was mean to the kids. This was not what I signed up for. So, I changed my major to business and went to OSU for a graduate degree in functional clothing design.”
She completed all the classes and was lacking only her thesis to complete her degree—but love and marriage took precedence. The marriage brought her to Tulsa 29 years ago, and also brought a son and daughter. Though she didn’t earn her graduate degree, she began running her own full-blown sewing business. “I would sew 16 hours a day,” she says. “I’ve probably sewn 500 bridesmaid dresses in my life.”
After 12 years as a seamstress, life circumstances pushed her to explore new ways to support her two very young children as a single mother.
Her home economics background led her to a nonprofit, where she was tapped to teach cooking and life skills to underprivileged children. After a few years, she began teaching women how to cook at the Madonna House once a month.
“They were required to take my class, so some weren’t that motivated,” says Smith. “But one thing I’ve noticed in all my teaching is that a student may walk in rolling their eyes, but by the end of the class, they are sitting up straight and enjoying themselves. And that’s what brings me pleasure: to watch someone actually enjoy the process of cooking and what they made.”
Though she was teaching often, she felt she needed to hone her own cooking skills. She discovered 10-week professional chef courses offered by The Savory Chef. After she “took practically every class they offered,” owners Don and Leslie Jones—who currently own Café Olé and Ol’ Vine—offered Smith a new opportunity that would lay the groundwork a new future.
“The Savory Chef changed my life,” says Smith. “They hired me to teach at night. More than the job, it meant so much to me that they had confidence in me that I could teach. They let me teach as many classes as I wanted for six years.”
During this time, she remarried and began traveling extensively with her husband. Growing tired of just sight-seeing, she began to dig deeper into the cultures and food of the countries she visited.
“I was already traveling with my husband for fun, but I felt like I need to get smarter. I needed to do something more with this.” She began doing research on food tours, cooking lessons, even reaching out to chefs at restaurants where she would be traveling.
“I would email restaurants and tell them I was a chef in Tulsa, and asked if I could cook with their chef for a couple of hours to learn something from their culture,” says Smith. “I have done this several times around the world. I have never been turned down, and I’ve also made many, many friends.”
Smith has been to 38 countries, and is planning to add six more countries to her passport by the end of 2018. She often travels alone, but she’s also traveled to many locations with her husband to implement microfinance programs for people in impoverished countries.
“The concept of microfinancing is that banks give small loans to people so they can open a business. It may be a $50 loan to a woman who wants to buy a cow so she can sell milk, or a sewing machine to do alterations, or for seeds to plant a garden and sell the produce.”
At this point, Smith’s children were fullgrown, and she was ready to give back. She offered to donate money to buy sewing machines, but what was really needed was someone who could teach. “I told them ‘I don’t teach sewing. I teach cooking.’ They said, ‘Well, good. You can do both!’”
One of her first assignments was in a small village in the Dominican Republic.
“For a week, I taught cooking in the morning and sewing in the afternoon. We had no electricity, no running water. We had an interpreter, but I spoke no Spanish, they spoke no English,” says Smith. “These women were so flattered that I would come do this for them. It was the most rewarding experience for me.”
Since then, she has been to Rwanda three times, where she taught women there how to add variety to the preparation of ingredients. “They were only boiling pumpkins, boiling the carrots, boiling everything, all the time.”
Smith taught them how to purée the pumpkin and make pumpkin bread, and how to take herbs and make pesto. She taught them how to make the most of their ample supply of eggs, and how to mash bananas for banana pancakes.
“They took pride taking something they’ve grown and turning it into something delicious,” says Smith. “I think women [everywhere] want to feed their families and they want to make people happy. I know how much I love seeing people happy after they eat my food.”
Though Smith set out all those years ago to teach home economics in a classroom, it seems her life has come full circle. With grit, enthusiasm and a passion for learning and teaching, she has found herself in front of the students who needed her most.
“I was really disappointed when I learned I wasn’t going to be a teacher. It’s what I always thought I was going to do,” says Smith. “Then I went through this 12-year phase of a different career and I think, now, I have the best job ever. I’m not only a teacher, but I’m teaching people who want to learn. I think it was worth the wait to be able to do that.”
On her website, beadsandbasil.com, Smith shares a collection of recipes, stories from her travels and her passion for jewelry-making. Smith also hosts a series of cooking classes, where she teaches the recipes and techniques she’s brought back from her time globetrotting. The indefatigable Shannon Smith is always hatching new plans, and her latest focus is on writing a cookbook filled with her favorite recipes and the stories that inspired them.