A Creative Trio of Talents
The butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker
Photos by Charlie Neuenschwander
► The Butcher
Rhett Lake refers to himself as a “steak-cutter” rather than butcher, and it’s a job he has had since 1981. Lake graduated Norman High School in 1977, and he took a waiter job at the old Indian Hills Steakhouse in 1980. One year later, he was promoted to manager, a position he held until 2002. While at Indian Hills, he was responsible for cutting all the steaks, so he tells his customers he “got lots of practice.”
“When I hit 40, I got tired of the restaurant business,” Lake says. “Eighty-hour work weeks weren’t as fun as they used to be.”
Cusack Meats closed its retail shops in November 2005, and Lake, who had gone to work for Cusack after leaving the restaurant business, took over the North May location, converting it into Rhett’s Meat Market. This is his 12th year in business, and Lake calls it the best decision he ever made.
“The only drawback to this business is taking vacations,” he says. “That’s a hazard of running your own business, but the positives totally outweigh that.”
When he does have time for vacation or stay-cation, he’s an avid sports fan and lover of “old time rock ‘n’ roll music.”
“My wife Sherry and I catch a couple of Thunder games live every season,” he says, “and we watch them faithfully on TV.”
Lake’s primary product is steak, and he specializes in three cuts: New York strip, rib eye and filet. He only serves USDA-certified Prime beef, and all steaks are aged 28 days – a process that’s critical for texture, not so much flavor.
“The aging process breaks down the enzymes, which is a natural tenderizer,” he explains. “You can have a really good prime piece of beef, but if it’s not aged beef, it will be chewy. Likewise you can have an aged piece of meat, but without the added marbling, it won’t have the flavor.” For his three most popular cuts, that means the filet is often tender enough to cut with a fork, but the strip and rib eye will have more flavor because of the fat content. As for other cuts … Lake is not a big fan, and he’s very straightforward about it.
“There aren’t any good cheaper cuts, in my opinion,” he says. “The sirloin is still a good cut and a little cheaper. It’s what I call your ‘healthy steak.’ It is tender and has flavor, but not as much as the other three. In the past few years, there has been quite a bit of marketing for flat iron and hanger steaks; both of those should be ground into hamburger.”
Lake concedes that the two cuts are more tender than what is typically ground for hamburger meat, but they are not the quality he prefers to sell at Rhett’s. “I only deal with the upscale cuts,” he says. “You get what you pay for, as the old saying goes.”
What you don’t pay for at Rhett’s are the house seasoning blend that comes on every steak and his housemade mashed potatoes, which he makes one 50-pound pot at a time. In fact, not only does he not sell the potatoes, you have to buy a steak to get them. As for the rub, Lake estimates that 85 percent of his customers ask for it on their steaks.
One of those customers is chef and restaurateur Jimmy Mays, owner of Cafe 7. He’s a regular now, but he described his first trip to Rhett’s as one filled with uncertainty.
“Rhett offered to season my steak with his house blend seasoning,” Mays remembers. “Being a self-described beef snob, I immediately thought to myself, ‘No way! I want nothing more than salt and pepper!’ I restrain myself and allow him to season my two-inch-thick, beautifully marbled NY strip. Later, as I unwrap the beef from the butcher paper, I can tell some magic happened. Allowing the seasoning to sit on the beef for an extended period of time allowed all the goodness to soak in. Initially, the salt in the seasoning would draw all the moisture out of the beef, but then it sat in all those juices and soaked them back up. The result? An insanely juicy and flavorful piece of meat.”
Mays speaks for many of Lake’s customers, and he has plenty these days. Lake said they’re busy year-round, and some years Christmas sees sales triple. In addition to the steaks, some customers know about Rhett’s burgers – and again, we’ll let a chef describe the benefits.
Mays says, “The next time I returned, I was after his prime rib burgers (at least I think that’s what they are called). My understanding is that he takes the trim off rib loins, grinds them down and forms them into burger patties. Needless to say, a really freaking good, flavorful burger. We did nothing but add salt and pepper on the grill. Perfection.”
► The Baker
For Ashleigh Barnett, owner of Crimson & Whipped Cream, baking is part of a family tradition that she has rolled into her business.
“My mom has always made the best chocolate chip cookies,” Barnett smiles. “We actually sell her recipe at Crimson & Whipped Cream. She comes in to make them most of the time! My maternal grandmother, Nanny, made jam tarts at Christmas, a tradition that my mom and I continue. My paternal grandmother, Granny, made many things that I now make at Crimson: pumpkin bread, applesauce cake. I think my grandmothers cultivated most of my love for food.”
Barnett was teaching Pilates in New York City when she decided to give culinary school a try. She enrolled in the Institute of Culinary Education, mainly to become a better cook, but she said that in spite of all she learned, she never thought she could make a career of it. After the first program, though, she took a pastry and baking section, and fell in love with baking. That led her to enroll in a full pastry program with the intention of working in the industry after graduation.
Crimson & Whipped Cream opened on Campus Corner in 2010, and it’s a popular coffee bar and bakery for OU students and Norman residents. Cookies are Barnett’s favorite product to make, but the bakery offers a full menu of baked goods, and even some breakfast sandwiches.
“I really love to make cookies,” she says. “I don’t know why. Maybe because that’s what I love to eat! I also really love to make pineapple upside-down cake; it’s my mom’s favorite thing that I make. I also love to make pumpkin pie, because it’s my favorite dessert to eat and take to gatherings. Anything can become a celebration if someone shows up with treats.”
Barnett said the Oklahoma humidity is often a challenge for bakers, both amateur and professional, because baking is a specific process with little room for error, and humidity negatively impacts the process. In fact, she lists troubleshooting the weather as her biggest challenge as a baker. She offered other suggestions to make life easier for home bakers, too.
“Weight measurements, cleaning as you go, quality ingredients and reading through a recipe before starting. Weighing ingredients will give you better consistency in your baking. If a recipe is simple, like a chocolate chip cookie, using the best quality chocolate chips will make the recipe even better. I always read through a new recipe completely before starting to bake.”
For essential bake-at-home equipment, she recommends a bench scraper for cutting butter and scraping surfaces, offset metal spatula for spreading batter or icing, a Thermapen for checking temperatures, a scale for weighing ingredients and a bowl scraper for getting every bit of batter from the mixing bowl.
Because continuing education is important for home bakers, Barnett has a short list of books she recommends. The long list is her whole collection, which she calls “an embarrassing number of cookbooks.”
“My favorite chef books are Yes, Chef by Marcus Samuelsson and Blood, Bones & Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton. I also love In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto by Michael Pollan. I love Paul Hollywood’s books, too, and I’m obsessed with expanding my British baking knowledge right now; my maternal grandmother was from England.”
Working alongside Barnett is Taylor Gronlund, a Norman native who attended OU for a degree in entrepreneurship, then saved money to attend the International Culinary Center in New York City.
“When I was around 12 years old, I started watching cooking and baking shows on the Food Network,” Gronlund says. “After that, I started baking and experimenting in my own kitchen. It’s been my passion ever since.”
It took her two years to save the necessary money to move to New York. Once there, she enrolled immediately, and started with cookies. The program starts with very basic principles and then works students through cookies, tarts, pies, bread and cakes, including a little cake decorating. It was the section on dough that she most loved, and now sticky buns, brioche, danishes and croissants are her favorite things to bake.
Gronlund is a fan of structure, and she reluctantly conceded – after a couple minutes of questioning – that she was good at math and chemistry, both essentials for professional bakers.
“If you want to bake well, you really have to follow the ingredient measurements and procedure exactly,” she says. “If your measurement is a little over or you do not follow the recipe procedures closely, you can end up with a product completely different from what you intended. It’s so precise, and I love that if you do everything the same way every time, you get the same results.”
Like Barnett, baking is family tradition for Gronlund. Her paternal grandfather managed a commercial bakery, and his wife was an avid baker who passed her recipes to Gronlund before she died. The degree in entrepreneurship was done with an eye to the future. She hopes to continue the family tradition of baking professionally in her own place one day, but for now, she said she’s “getting her footing” in the industry.
Her advice for home bakers begins with using the best ingredients. “It really makes a difference in the final product, and unless otherwise indicated in the recipe, always use room temperature ingredients: milk, butter, etc.”
For essential equipment, Gronlund recommends a KitchenAid stand mixer, which she says she uses at home for everything. “I can’t imagine baking without it!”
As for the continuing education component, she recommends books, too. “Honestly, I could go on forever about cookbooks that I love. I have quite a collection that covers a wide array of baking techniques. The cookbooks I have found to be the best for novice bakers are the King Arthur Flour cookbooks or anything by Dorie Greenspan. Many of the recipes in these books are simple and easy to achieve at home.”
► The Candlestick Maker
Sara Catlett is from a town that no longer exists. The candle maker grew up in Holcomb, N.Y., which was apparently so small that it could not sustain itself, and was later absorbed into a larger community. When she was six years old, the family relocated to Bowling Green, Ken., where her family still owns a horse farm.
The recent resident of Edmond started making candles after her daughter was diagnosed with “nondescript allergies” at age one.
“The pediatrician recommended she take allergy medication every day,” Catlett says. “I didn’t feel comfortable with that prognosis, so I began researching it on my own. I discovered that many of the common household and personal products we used contained chemicals that were harmful and irritating, especially to children.”
Catlett said she assessed all the products in their home, and if they weren’t natural products, she replaced them, or she learned to make them herself. According to Catlett, the move solved 90 percent of her daughter’s health issues. However, she likes candles and wasn’t sure how to replace products that are mostly made with paraffin and synthetic (chemical) fragrances.
After doing a bit of research, she noticed that the Oklahoma Food Cooperative sold beeswax from Honey Hill Farm in Edmond. Shortly after, Catlett ordered her first block of unfiltered beeswax.
“Beeswax burns much longer than paraffin, despite all the chemicals added to paraffin candles to slow the burn down,” Catlett says. “Other benefits include a clean burn with very little soot, and because I only use pure beeswax and cotton wick, I can safely compost any remaining bits of the candle, so it is a zero-waste product.”
In addition to those benefits, Catlett learned that beeswax is produced in every state in the U.S., and buying beeswax candles from local producers is the most sustainable way to purchase candles in the entire country. Still, that doesn’t mean the makers are easy to find. In fact, she believes she is the only candle maker in Oklahoma who makes hand-dipped tapers – and even birthday candles – via the same techniques artisans used for centuries before mass production.
The process is labor-intensive, starting with the first step: “The most difficult part of making beeswax candles, in the beginning, was filtering the wax,” Catlett recalls. “The farmers filter out the excess honey, but there is still a lot of debris that must be removed. In fact, I learned over the years that even pollen, which is too small to see with the naked eye, can clog the wick and prevent the candle from burning correctly. To make matters worse, there was very little information available when I started, so much of the first year was trial and error.”
That led to a point of frustration so profound that Catlett actually took her box of tools to Goodwill. She reconsidered, and rededicated herself to learning the craft. She has since become so skilled at the filtering process that her wax meets medical and cosmetic standards. There are still frustrations – it’s a complex process, after all – but she loves the variability and the challenge.
“I love that there are so many variables with candle making that it is never a routine process,” she said. “The temperature of wax, the temperature of the air and the humidity all play a role in how the candles take shape. Are they cooling quickly or slowly? Is your wax staying hot, or is it losing heat rapidly? When I make candles, I forget everything else and just focus on the process. Also, there’s an inner resolution that comes from perfecting a skill, regardless of what it is. It’s a skill that belongs to you, and no one can ever take it away. I find that very gratifying.”
Catlett never intended for her candle making to become a business; it was just going to be something she did for herself and her family. But by 2013, it was apparent that there was a demand for what she did, so she launched Pioneer Candles, which can be found on Etsy, and she is very happy to take orders by phone or email. The family has moved to Muskogee, where she spends her free time working on their 1940 Colonial home, foraging, fermenting and her new hobby, winemaking.
She gets more orders than you’d expect for beeswax birthday candles, and she can even make scented candles from beeswax.
“It doesn’t quite have the same potency as chemically enhanced candles, though,” she explains. “I only use essential oils in my candles. I’ve discovered that you need to add more than you’d expect, because some of the oils burn off. It’s only the oils warmed in the surrounding beeswax that actually produce scent. On the other hand, unscented beeswax candles produce a lovely natural honey scent that is incredibly soothing. Personally, I prefer the unscented.”
For anyone interested in trying their hand at the craft, Catlett recommends The Candlemaker’s Companion: A Complete Guide to Rolling, Pouring, Dipping, and Decorating Your Own Candles, by Betty Oppenheimer, and Basic Candle Making: All the Skills and Tools You Need to Get Started, by Eric Ebeling.