By Michael Kinney
One look at the menu for the Signature Grill, and it’s easy to see why it’s one of the top fine dining restaurants in Edmond. With succulent dishes such as the bacon and mushroom risotto, the jumbo blue lump crab cake, the pan-seared Chilean Sea Bass and the Black Angus ribeye, the establishment has gained a cult-like following.
However, co-owner and head chef Clay Falkner says that while his flavor-packed meals are crowd pleasers, they are not the only aspect that makes the Signature Grill special. It’s all the hard work that goes into it.
“The Signature Grill is me and Jess. It’s us,” Falkner said of himself and his wife, Jessica. “It’s what we do. It’s what’s back there working in the kitchen. I’m here all the time. I’m not cruising on vacations five times a year, you know what I mean? I’m here working. So that’s what Signature Grill is. You’re going to get me every time you come here.”
After 15 years of working at other people’s restaurants, Falkner opened the Signature Grill (1317 E. Danforth Road) in 2008. It’s a small, intimate bistro that isn’t beholden to one style of food. In fact, Falkner calls it freestyle.
“There are a lot of layers and flavors with the stuff that we do,” Falkner said.
Falkner was born and raised in Bethany. He said even as a child he was partial to being around the food atmosphere, but it was when he was 13 years old that he made the decision that being a culinary chef was the path he was destined to take. And it was all due to his mother. “I just loved cooking with her,” Falkner said. “I loved cooking when I was a kid, I loved cooking with my mom and it was just, ‘I like this. I like what we’re doing.’”
The dish that floods him with the most intense memories from his childhood is his mother’s potato bread. While it’s something he has not incorporated into his current menu, the memories of it have not lost their hold on him. “It is different. I had it when I was a kid,” Falkner said. “Just the process of the dough rising and the flavor and everything like that – it was just homemade food. To me, it’s still a craft. Everybody does it. Some people do it better than others.”
Being able to create those types of memories with food is something Falkner has been doing at the Signature Grill. He takes each dish on personally and strives for his meal to be a highlight of each diner’s day.
“It’s pleasing people. You don’t really know who you’re cooking for and that’s what I tell my guys,” Falkner said. “You don’t know who you’re cooking for. You don’t know what they’re dealing with. You don’t know if they’re going through a loss or something. So you just got to ‘Do what you can do’ for everybody.”
Falkner said he knew going in that it would take be long hours, hard work and stressful situations to make the Signature Grill a success. “I work all the time. It’s because that’s the way the restaurant business is,” Falkner said. “You get deliveries, you get orders, you’ve got to prep stuff and you get sidetracked doing other stuff and this and that. But that’s the restaurant business.”
While much of the business can be taxing, the actual cooking and making his Signature Grill (signaturegrilledmond.com) customers happy are what gets Falkner up every morning and back at work by 9 a.m.
“Customers know what kind of work I put in and they work hard too, so at the end of their day they want to get off and come and eat and relax and enjoy themselves and eat good food,” Falkner said. “That’s what I do for them. That’s what I do for everybody.”