Words by Megan Shepherd • Photography by Brooke Allen
Catching up (and trying to keep up) with Chef Teri Fermo
“That’s their punishment: mixing the raw meat. It’s real cold, so nobody wants to touch it.”
She’s better known by Tulsa as Chef Teri Fermo, owner and executive chef of Bohemia Moveable Feast and Jezebel food truck. But to these burgeoning chefs, she’s simply Aunt Teri.
The kitchen buzzes with energy as Chef Teri’s nieces and nephews, ages 9–11, nudge their ways into spots at the table. Today’s lesson is Lumpia rolling, and the children are giddy with anticipation. Someone leaves a splattered trail of egg wash across the work space in haste to get started, but nobody seems too concerned.
“I think I’m just excited,” admits Chef Teri’s niece, Isabella. “I couldn’t sleep last night,”
Chef Teri hosts the kids every week to learn about cooking and, in many ways, life. These classes aren’t for the general public but for passing on family traditions, spending quality family time together and, of course, enjoying Chef Teri’s fabulous eats. Each student is required to make a list of 10 things they learned during their cooking sessions, and their insights are both hilarious and inspiringly earnest. You can get eggshell out with more eggshell sits right alongside Potatoes can be purple, and other wonderfully fantastical findings–the kind we tend to stop noticing once we surpass childhood. The kids squeal under the give of the raw meat oozing through their fingers, but it’s obvious they love it. Playing with food has never looked more enticing.
“Mom’s rule was,” Chef Teri says with a wink, “when you cook egg rolls, you get to eat as many as you want. And when we cook, we have fun.”
YOU ARE MY FAMILY TREE
Cooking with kids or not, family is at the heart of Chef Teri’s culinary experience. Her deep Filipino roots have shaped and spiced her kitchen sensibilities, all the way back to childhood when a young Teri Fermo first learned the intricacies of well-rolled Lumpia Shanghai from her mother–a dish that still sits prominently on Bohemia’s menu (and probably won’t ever leave). Other family favorites are also present, albeit fine-tuned and refreshed with Chef Teri’s own updates.
“Heck, I’ve been making that toffee since I was 15,” she says.
Chef Teri grew up in a Filipino family, with two psychiatrist parents and a host of siblings. In between hosting Mahjong parties and well-attended dinners, Chef Teri’s mother found time to pass on the family’s love language: food. A portrait of both her parents hangs on the wall at Bohemia Moveable Feast kitchen, and I am instantly struck by the uncanny resemblance. It’s as if Chef Teri herself climbed back in time and into the portrait.
Yet it is not 1950, and Chef Teri is in front of me now, darting and straining and cleaning in her own kitchen. With her big curls tied back with some feathered, technicolor handkerchief, and a fashionable, threadbare cape billowing behind her, she looks more like an art eccentric or 1950s housewife than an overworked chef. But maybe that’s the point.
Chef Teri’s mother passed a few years back, but her presence is still evident. The joy of cooking is just one of the many things Chef Teri’s mother passed on to her. A deep respect for learning and innovation is another. She always said to me, “This is your inheritance: your education.”
A longtime writer, her love of language and unique voice rears its gorgeous head often in the descriptions of her food. This love of learning is also what pushed Chef Teri to pursue degrees from both the Culinary Institute of America and Le Cordon Bleu in London and Paris, and to have most of the bill footed on the basis of academic merit.
“It was hard–I mean, I tried for 30 scholarships and probably got eight, but I was proud. It made me feel good every time I called home and told my mama. I mean, that’s who you call when something good happens. At least, is for me. She never saw the truck, you know. That’s my biggest regret.”
Chef Teri’s aptly named “Brother Love Lasagna” grab ‘n’ go dish is another family favorite and is the absolute best lasagna I’ve ever had. Maybe it’s a product of my disbelief that reheated food could ever taste this good, but realistically, it’s probably the tangy balsamic onions. But she says it’s the meat. “I don’t cut it with beef, or veal. I want it clean. I don’t want it muddy.”
“I think it’s really important to create clean food. Take chicken, for example: We don’t use chicken that has steroids or animal by-products or any kind of needles put in them. You kind of have to wonder: If those chickens are tortured, then you’re kind of eating something tortured, aren’t you?”
Clean is queen when it comes to Chef Teri’s kitchen, where even the most complex, classic dishes retain a sharp edge of freshness. Flavors are straightforward and ingredients are handpicked for their seasonality and bounty, and that sense of abundance registers well when feasting the eyes on one of Chef Teri’s plates. “Our cooking is simple, clean. You taste what you’re supposed to taste. When you order from us, you’re not just going to get one fast thing we pulled out of the Crock-Pot. Our menu is very sauté-driven and a la minute.”
There’s an obvious connection between her attention to composition and presentation and her insistence on using locally sourced ingredients. Spend some time around her operation, and you’ll begin to understand that it stems from a deep respect for the roots of something.
“It matters where it comes from. We use classical techniques for a reason: because it should please your eyes and your nose first.”
You can see it in the farmers she works with, the ingredients she selects and the way she walks new patrons though her atypical menu, intent on helping them find something that matches their palate and preferences. Everything is carefully created and curated with consideration for the hands that grew it, and the mouth welcoming it.
“I want you to have good food, something you like! I tell people, ‘If you don’t like it, bring it back and let me make you something you do like.’ And I’ve never had anyone bring anything back.”
A FORCE OF NATURE
Sitting down for an interview with Chef Teri Fermo is like sitting down for an interview with a fortune cookie: It seems graspable enough on the exterior but, once you crack it open, advice, insight–and yes, even a few predictions–unfold out of the shell. She takes a sip of whiskey and tousles her hair while dispelling wisdom about the future of hydroponics, the way hard work and help have paved her way over the past 10 years and about how preparing food is merely a vehicle for loving others.
With temperatures high in the summer, it’s more important than ever to be conservative with energy. In the truck, Chef Teri is surrounded by a team of dedicated women who feel Bohemia’s successes and failures just as deeply as she does, and she says she wouldn’t have it any other way–or be able to do it without them.
“It’s not the Teri Fermo show. It’s all these people putting their energy into a set of common goals. Angie Shaw, my sous-chef, she is my right arm, my heart. And she makes the best damn tamales in the world.”
Their mystical workingwoman triad has a certain groove to it. Meg Sutherland takes orders, Angie handles the grill, Teri cooks and buzzes about whatever space she’s working in at the time, occupying it with a frazzled sense of purpose and yet the grace of a short-order matriarch. It’s close quarters, but it’s worth it to bring a bit of magic to the plates of their patrons. After all, Chef Teri says that’s what food should really be about.
“There’s a whole philosophy with service,” Chef Teri explains. “The best know what you want before you want it.”
And Chef Teri makes it her business to know.
THE FARMERS MARKET FAMILY
Chef Teri has been a pioneer of the farm-to-truck concept in Tulsa for the past decade. Her dishes always involve a collection of hyper- local ingredients, and her relationships with her chosen sources span years. Greenwood Farms eggs, Farrell Family breads, Yer Moua Farm, Christine Farm, Creekside Plants and Produce, Fisher’s Farms, C&S Produce, Shawnee Mills, Tria Yang Farm and McClain Farms are all regular players in her production, but menu ingredients really depend on the haul for the week. Still, Chef Teri looks to her local farmer friends first for provisions; it’s the kind of loyalty that great partnerships and flavors are made of. And although she sometimes gets flak for not plating all organic, Chef Teri is fine with keeping the emphasis on local.
“For me, I’m not going to exclude all those farmers I’ve had these relationships with just because they don’t do it a certain way. I have a friend who brings me stuff that’s hydroponic. I think it’s cool. He’s regenerating.”
But Chef Teri says that despite the usability factor of the food, some cooks and growers might disagree with the merits of the practice.
“They want it old school. They want it from the ground. They want it tilled. I don’t know if they think it’s cheating? I don’t. You know, being able to take a carrot top and regrow it–it’s really cool. I think it’s the wave of the future, to continue something growing over and over again.”
The open-air market setting caters surprisingly well to Chef Teri’s style of service. When you order a dish from the eccentric Jezebel truck, you’ll get a great meal, as well as an intentional, personalized experience. When serving, Chef Teri is omni-present, guiding patrons through the corners and nuances of her menu, making sure all is understood, and nothing is missed. It’s not an act, but an authentic effort to bring service to the food truck experience, just as you’d enjoy when sharing a meal at home or in a restaurant with friends and family.
“As far as the farmers’ market goes, you know, it’s a family.”
HER NEXT MEAL
So what’s next for Bohemia? If Chef Teri didn’t already have enough plans, you can go ahead and add a cookbook, grab ‘n go holiday mignardises candy samplers (gluten-free and traditional) and national cooking competitions to that list. Think “The Taste,” “Great Food Truck Race” and “Chopped.”
“I want to beat me some Bobby Flay!” she bemoans.
“I think so much of cooking and being a good human being is keeping your ego in check. I think a lot of people get off on notoriety. For me, I think my greatest joy is the babies running across the pavement to see me at the farmers’ market.
“Still, I’m my mother’s daughter– tell me I can’t do something, and I’ll prove you wrong.”
Additionally, she’s planning to keep up the recently launched Food Truck Tuesdays at Platt College, continue to cater events–including service from the Jezebel truck (which Teri says is “the prettiest truck in Tulsa,”) offer more prix fixe chef ‘s table tasting dinners in the Bohemia kitchen, and finally get around to putting her grab ‘n’ go items in grocery stores.
No matter the setting, you can count on at least one consistency: Any dish from Chef Teri will be clean and delicious, whether she’s handing it to you out the window of a truck or you’re reheating it at home per her meticulous instructions.
“We want things to be fresh and right and local, and you know, I think people are really embracing that now . . . it’s not a trend–it’s what people want.
“And I mean, I want to be as healthy as possible,” Chef Teri says with a wink between sips of whiskey. It’s a hilarious picture, and all too telling who Chef Teri is: an artist who makes her own rules, and knows when and how to break them. Jokes aside, it is perhaps the most important ingredient in the recipe for a chef ‘s success.
“I don’t eat to live. I’m more along the line of live to eat. You know, it’s a simple pleasure, something we have to do. Why can’t it be beautiful and memorable? That, to me, is what food is about.”