Florence Jones, owner of the iconic Florence’s Restaurant, is Oklahoma’s first James Beard Award winner. Jones, now 90, opened the first iteration of her soul food destination in 1952, and moved to her current location on NE 23rd in 1969. The James Beard Foundation released their American Classics award winners today, February 16, and in their press release wrote:
“Florence Jones Kemp was born in 1931 in Boley, Oklahoma, a town that was founded in the 19th century by Black pioneers. From her mother, she learned strength and grit, as well as how to plant and harvest tomatoes, onions, and okra, how to milk a cow and churn butter, and how much better farm-fresh food tastes. In 1952, she had saved enough money as a server to open her own restaurant in Oklahoma City. All she had was ‘two chickens and a prayer’…Today, the restaurant is nearly 70 years old, and Florence Kemp is still proudly working—along with her daughter Victoria—serving the same recipes her mother taught her, with a few new ones sprinkled in, and all of it what she calls “good country food for the soul.”
Jones said in a reaction video sent to the media that she “could never believe a little girl like me from Boley, Oklahoma, could ever receive this kind of award.” She notes in the video that she “could not have done it without” her daughter Victoria Kemp, who has for several years been the operating partner, overseeing a recent expansion that includes a full bar and patio. Kemp gave her mother the credit for the award, saying, “You did the heavy lifting; I just picked up the baton and started running.”
Per the foundation website, “The America’s Classics Award is given to locally owned restaurants that have timeless appeal and are beloved regionally for quality food that reflects the character of its community.” Growing up in Boley, Jones learned to cook from her mother, and Kemp notes today that the first recipe she learned – the gravy used on the chicken-fried steak – came from her maternal grandmother, too.
Kemp said that Florence’s has always made and always will make “country food,” the same food the family made in Boley, and while there have been tweaks over the years, and dishes added and subtracted, the heart of the menu is based on the family’s old recipes. Guy Fieri featured Florence’s on his Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives in 2021 in an episode that focused on yam-fried chicken and fried ribs. Other favorites include meat loaf, fried chicken, pork neckbones, cornbread and greens.
Florence’s now joins the list of just over 100 American restaurants to receive the Classics award since it was introduced in 1998. Kemp said she plans to attend the awards ceremony on June 13 at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.