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Jacques' Last Meal PDF Print E-mail
Written by Steve Lackmeyer   
Thursday, 09 July 2009 03:30


After a quarter century as one of Oklahoma City's most notable chefs, Jacques Orenstein was understandably bitter as he ended his career as a restaurateur. It was January, 1988, and the oil bust had taken its toll on many restaurants citywide. Orenstein had opened up his latest concept, Jacques Restaurant, in the Spring Creek Shopping Center at NW 122 and May Avenue just six months earlier.


He had spent two months trying to raise funds to keep the venture going, but time ran out.


"I have had it in Oklahoma City as far as going back in business," Orenstein said. "Hopefully, I will work for someone else. We appreciate our loyal customers' support over the past 25 years. There were just not enough of you."





Orenstein had gone all out with the 6,500-square-foot restaurant, employing 50 people and featuring the American Nouvelle cuisine that had made him famous the previous two decades. But the space itself had a troubled history, having already been home to two other failed restaurants, Platters and Dakotas. Orenstein was clearly upset at the proliferation of fast food and chain restaurants, and even more pained by the failure that year of the Oklahoma Symphony Orchestra and Oklahoma Theater Center.


"My feeling is that the city can't support the symphony, they can't support theater, and they certainly, not in the 25 years I've been in this business, have I seen them support better restaurants. It's unfortunate because we have the reputation of being the fast-food capital of the world, and I'm afraid we will continue with that reputation ... For some reason, people don't know how to support better restaurants."


Orenstein, however, had built a career and reputation building up a following who loved his upscale cuisine.Born in West Virginia, Orenstein grew up in Cleveland, and then moved to New Orleans, where his taste palate grew to include foods from around the world. He credited much of his success as a chef to his mother, who he boasted was "a wonderful cook," as were relatives on his father's side of the family.


"My father's family was from Vienna and were both French and Austrian," Orenstein said. "My mother's family was from Germany and Hungary. So I grew up with good food. We weren't wealthy or anything like that, but it was just they all cooked well and I learned something about good food when I was young."


Orenstein never claimed to have formal training as a chef, but that didn't stop him from buying the Redbud Restraurant in 1961 and turning it into Jacques Internationale. His love for gourmet dining caught on with patrons. Orenstein told friends and family he learned from other chefs he employed, and then promoted their craft on weekly segments on "Dannysday" on WKY-TV from 1962 to 1971.


"The fare in Oklahoma City in 1963 was fried chicken, chicken fried steak and then came steak - that was it," Orenstein said. "There might have been, in the entire city, three Chinese restaurants and one Mexican restaurant. There just weren't many restaurants and we introduced this kind of food continental food."


The Dannysday segments certainly helped.


"When you're starving to death trying to get a restaurant off the ground and we were really scratching because Oklahoma City wasn't ready for us yet I agreed to the show," Orenstein said. "You couldn't buy that kind of publicity."


5201 N Shartel - former home of Jacques Internationale, later Golden Dragon restaurant, now office space.


Jacques Internationale closed in 1971. He also operated Jacques' Sign of the Ram at the Sheraton Airport Inn at Will Rogers World Airport from 1968 to 1974. He then led a group of investors to start The French Revolution at Northwest Expressway and May. The restaurant, which emphasized French crepes, lasted from 1974 to 1976. In 1976, joining with son Jon, the pair opened Creative Cookery.


Creative Cookery represented something totally different for a city steeped in meals consisting of meat and potatoes. The stores sold an assortment of kitchen gadgetry not found elsewhere, food to go for gourmet dining at home, and also offered cooking classes and catering. Orenstein and chefs such as John Bennett changed the quality and variety of menus across town as the oil boom created millionaires throughout Oklahoma City. Orenstein and Bennett were in demand at fund-raising receptions, club outings and private parties. Rates went as high as $30 to $40 a guest.


Classes were taught by Orenstein himself, for what he called "the price of a good dinner." Each session ended with students enjoying their meal, and hopefully, some purchases to add to their kitchens.


The collapse of the oil boom hurt, but Creative Cookery had built a clientele that bought both kitchen merchandise as well as the expensive but quality foods Orenstein offered. Sales were well over $1 million a year, Creative Cookery expanded into baking breads and pastries, fresh pastas and prepared entrees for takeout while continuing their merchandise and reinforcing its identity through Jacques' school of cooking.



The oil bust hit in 1983, but business remained steady through 1984. Then the bottom fell out, with losses mounting at the start of 1985. Orenstein struggled to stay current with loans taken out at Wilshire Bank. During the good years Orenstein had expanded to multiple locations, By September 1985 he had no choice but to liquidate to pay of a $150,000 loan; the entire operation was sold at auction.


Orenstein and his son Jon didn't stay out of work for long. By November they were taking over restaurant operations at the Skirvin Hotel. But the hotel was facing its own life and death struggle as downtown turned into a ghost town.


In early 1987 Orenstein saw the vacant restaurant space at NW 122 and May, across from Northpark Mall, and decided it would be the perfect spot to take another shot at operating his own restaurant. Orenstein's final years consisted of jumping from one venture to another. He declared bankruptcy in 1988. Two years later he was running classes at the Consumers IGA at Northwest Expressway and Rockwell. He then turned to doing cooking demonstrations to help sell gas ranges for homes. In 1994, with the economy on the mend, Orenstein turned to teaching couples to cook at their homes.


In numerous interviews Orenstein talked of his dream to expand dining choices and teach residents the difference between "mediocre" and fine dining.


"Everyone talks about why can't we have more and better restaurants in Oklahoma City. We've got a lot of restaurants and 99 percent of them are lousy. I hate to say it, but they are. They're mediocre. They serve food. That's all. What I would like to see is a restaurant in which ownership plays an important part, not a distant relationship. I'd like to see an owner who could be in the kitchen as much as he's out front and could pay attention to what's going on and could strive to serve really good food. And who could really be involved. That's the problem. They don't want to become involved today. The owners want to work eight hours a day, five days a week."


"You can go to most places around town. The owners aren't there on a Friday or Saturday night. They aren't there most nights. They aren't in the kitchen. They aren't on the floor. Go to New York City, go to Chicago, go to Los Angeles and look at the fine restaurants. The ownership is there. They're either in the kitchen or they're out on the floor or both. I could show you some of the best restaurants in the country and the owners are the chef and the maitre d'. The maitre d' is in the front and the chef's in the back. I guarantee you they don't take off. When they take off, it's because the restaurant is closed. Otherwise, they're there. And we just don't have that here in Oklahoma City .... That's what I would like to see, but I just don't think we will ever see it here."


Orenstein died on June 17, 2000 at age 81.


- Jacques Orenstein, TV chef, dies at 81 Restaurant owner had segment on WKY-TV, The Oklahoman, June 19, 2000

- City Chef to Open Northside Restaurant, The Oklahoman, May 9, 1987

- City Restauranteur Joins Skirvin Hotel, The Oklahoman, November 24, 1985

- Shop Items on the Block, The Oklahoman, November 13, 1985

- Creative Cookery Pushed Out of Kitchen by Sluggish Sales, by Glen Bayless, The Oklahoman, September 1, 1985

- Creative Cookery Owners Will Sell Both City Stores, by Robert E. Lee, The Oklahoman, August 30, 1985

- Jacques Orenstein: A Friend to Food Fanciers, by Sharon Dowell, The Oklahoman, February 20, 1985

- Orenstein's French Bistro Scheduled to Open Tuesday, The Journal Record, June 27, 1987


And now.... a sampling of Jacques' recipes, circa 1967:




Last Updated on Thursday, 03 February 2011 03:21