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‘Chef Buster’ develops his culinary career at Reba’s Place

Alongside Chef Buster, who is of the Hominy District, Brandon Lookout of the Pawhuska District also works in the kitchen as a sauté cook, preparing up to one thousand meals a day during the spring and summer season.

Chef Charles Leo Reese, aka “Chef Buster,” is hard at work day in, day out at Reba’s Place, a Southern foods restaurant by Reba McEntire in her own hometown of Atoka, Okla. The New York Times recently visited and named their chicken-fried steak one of the best dishes in the country.

Alongside Chef Buster, who is of the Hominy District, Brandon Lookout of the Pawhuska District also works in the kitchen as a sauté cook, preparing up to one thousand meals a day during the spring and summer season.  

In the relative calm of a January weekday, when the dining room held a dozen or so at the tail end of the lunch rush, Chef Buster stepped out of the kitchen and took a moment to reflect on his career in food, which he began eight years ago in Pawhuska.

He started at the Pioneer Woman’s Mercantile as a dishwasher. Since beginning at the “Merc” he’s worked his way up, advancing to prep cook, then to line cook at P-Town Pizza, where his boss gave him the opportunity to come to Atoka to become a sous chef.

Reba’s Place exterior shot on Jan 29, 2024, in Atoka, Okla. ECHO REED/Osage News

The move wasn’t a hard decision for Buster, who would miss participating in the Inlonshka and being near family, but nonetheless felt a drive to advance himself as a cook. As an Osage, and also holding tribal affiliations with the Kiowa, Apache, Cherokee and Acoma Pueblo, he runs the kitchen with a sense of humility.

“I learned so much from these guys,” he says of his supervisor. “It’s really about keeping good habits, keeping things clean, and being efficient,” he said. He still feels he has a great deal to learn, and spends his day off cooking for himself at home, working on his skills.

In the kitchen, besides Buster and Brandon there are two Kiowas and a Mexican of Indigenous descent all working together alongside non-Natives. “I honestly love it so much,” said Buster, who nonetheless said he longs for the busy season, when adrenaline flows and seven hundred plates a day is considered on the slower side.

The Choctaw Nation sources the beef for the restaurant, and along with the vegetables and daily-made bread, the overall freshness and quality of ingredients is remarkable for the genre of Southern-style food. The chicken-fried steak, at $30 is expensive but high-quality. Chef Buster prepared the dish and a host of foods for Osage News staff who made the trip from Pawhuska to taste the cuisine. Starting with the thin, crispy and gently seasoned chicken-fried steak which the NY Times called “brilliant in its unfanciness.”

A meatloaf dish had a softer, more succulent texture than the typical ground beef and breading dish, and a mustard flavor drove the sauce. Quail poppers sported bacon wrapping that had a juicy, hearty bite bursting with savory. The corn-meal encrusted catfish was a newsroom favorite, and the chef sent out a pureed squash soup which was velvety, well-spiced and simple.

Reba McEntire herself did not appear but has been known to visit and perform on the stage in the center of the first floor of the dining room, which is surrounded, balcony-like with a second floor of dining overlooking the stage. “Fancy” dresses stand in glass cases on the first and second floor, across the room from framed records received upon the singer’s albums going platinum. Chef Buster has met Reba three times, and said she has been unfailingly kind, and an impressive singer in her performances.

Beside the stage is a 125-year-old bar that was brought into the space from Texas. On the third floor of the restaurant, there is a gift shop, as well as a small library of books once owned by Reba’s mother. Although the restaurant is in Choctaw country, Buster commented that he thought there would be more Native people. To be fair, he says he doesn’t get out much, given the grueling schedule of a chef. The television series The Bear, which depicts a professional kitchen with its “hot-headed chefs,” as Buster said, mirrors his reality fairly well, he said.

“That’s what I love most about it, when we get busy, just the all-around challenge of it. When I started at the Merc as a dishwasher, just hearing the chefs going crazy in there, going crazy, if it don’t break you, it’ll make you,” he said. Buster says that becoming a professional in the food industry has changed him. He grew up running around Hominy’s Indian Camp, and went through a rough time in his younger years, but cooking gave him focus and a goal that still motivates him.

Osage Chef Buster takes time out for a picture in the kitchen of Reba’s Place in Atoka, Okla., on Jan. 29, 2024. ECHO REED/Osage News

His name “Buster” is a nickname his aunts bestowed upon him when he was a baby. Being away from his own children has been hard, but he is reticent to take off from work. His mentor and boss, Jordan Perry, also a chef, is very dedicated and his work ethic has inspired Buster. When he was a prep cook, he said that he felt he was fast with the knife, but, “then this chef came down and he hung with me … this guy, his work ethic is just through the roof,” he said of Perry.

“He’s the most dedicated person you’ve ever met, he’s taught me a lot, he keeps me in line,” said Buster. “As of now, I have no [plans to leave,] … I’m not going anywhere, I’m going to be with these guys until I feel like I’m good enough. These guys, in my eyes, they’re great at what they do … they’ve worked in some of the greatest kitchens. Once I feel like I’ve learned what I can from these guys, I’ll venture out.”

“As far as my dreams, this is it. I’m living, I’m doing what I want, I love coming here. I work anywhere from 12 to 16 hours a day. I love it, the whole atmosphere, the chaos.”

Chef Buster is on track to become an executive chef one day, and while he said there are a lot of risks in opening his own place, the idea is conceivable to him—eventually. “If I ever get good enough,” he said. “I’m just trying to work my way up.”

Being open-minded, willing to learn and taking on the spirit of dedication have been the keys to his success thus far, Buster said. “I’ve always had that attitude, [and] I always loved cooking, even growing up. First thing I learned how to cook, my older cousin taught me how to cook French toast, my cousin Betty Joe,” he said.

“I’m really close to my family back there. It’s what, like a three-and-a-half-hour drive?” he said, noting that the distance from loved ones is the only relative heartache his career has brought him. He’s able to distract himself by keeping busy, from learning the process of baking fresh bread to pickling vegetables.

Chef Buster and Brandon Lookout take time out for a picture in the kitchen of Reba’s Place in Atoka, Okla., on Jan. 29, 2024. ECHO REED/Osage News

“They make all of their bread here daily, it’s a very tedious process it’s got to be right on point, or it just won’t come out right. We make our own pickles, habanero, okra, green beans, we literally pickle every produce we have. … I grew up on more common food,” he said, but he’s been changing his palate and trying new things.

For those wanting to support Chef Buster and try the food at Reba’s Place, a new seasonal menu came out on March 1 featuring buffalo wings with a special sauce developed by the executive chef, and a new platter with three appetizers.

“A part of that [new menu] is the chicken wings, fried pickles, and quail poppers,” he said. “It’s really good, we make a lemon herb cream cheese, [too.] We make everything from scratch. The cuts [of Choctaw Beef] are really high quality, these chefs refuse to use anything else, they take pride in what they use.”


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Chelsea T. Hicks
Chelsea T. Hickshttps://osagenews.org
Title: Staff Reporter
Email: chelsea.hicks@osagenation-nsn.gov
Languages spoken: English
Chelsea T. Hicks’ past reporting includes work for Indian Country Today, SF Weekly, the DCist, the Alexandria Gazette-Packet, Connection Newspapers, Aviation Today, Runway Girl Network, and elsewhere. She has also written for literary outlets such as the Paris Review, Poetry, and World Literature Today. She is Wahzhazhe, of Pawhuska District, belonging to the Tsizho Washtake, and is a descendant of Ogeese Captain, Cyprian Tayrien, Rosalie Captain Chouteau, Chief Pawhuska I, and her iko Betty Elsey Hicks. Her first book, A Calm & Normal Heart, won the 5 Under 35 Award from the National Book Foundation. She holds an MA from the University of California, Davis, and an MFA from the Institute of American Indian Arts.

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