It's easy to think of the dinner club Nani like a band. They spent part of May touring in Tulsa and then headed to Texas, swinging through San Antonio before an evening in Austin, serving alongside the crew at Barley Swine. Frontmen (technically, co-owners and chefs) Colin Stringer and Andon Whitehorn don't have a hierarchy in their Oklahoma City kitchen and like to riff off each other while cooking. They met at a bar a year and a half ago, and now talk easily about the evolution of the group, quitting their jobs to focus full-time with Nani, and showcasing their native cuisine.
Both Stringer and Whitehorn got their start in kitchens as teenagers, working in places like Subway and Waffle House, before beginning to think about making food their career. Stringer went more the cafe/diner route, before landing a job in one of Matthew Kenney's Oklahoma City outposts. Whitehorn gravitated toward sushi, and started considering the similarities between Japanese and Native American cuisines (he's part Choctaw), as they were 150-200 years ago.
"I looked in a Choctaw-English dictionary one day and saw that the word for fish was "nani," he says. "I knew that was Japanese for the question "what" and decided that would be a fun play on words. We started doing pop-up dinners a couple years ago...."
When Stringer and Whitehorn met, they discovered a shared interest in cooking (or, in the case of raw dishes, preparing) the same types of foods, which wasn't a common experience for them in Oklahoma City.
"We really hit it off," Stringer says. "I got to join Nani during its pop-up phase, and we started talking more seriously, we signed the lease on the house and quit our jobs. We've been at it for a year full-time."
A lot of people focus on the Japanese-Native American thing, but now we just consider it good, Oklahoman food
Initially, they were doing eight-course dinners, with pairings that reflected Whitehorn's Native American-meets-Japanese idea. It was BYOB (as the menu reads, "libations thankfully provided by diners like you"), with dishes like namuza roe ("cured catfish roe, wilted beet greens, kombu corn butter, semi-dehydrated plum). They had nights with as few as two diners and times when people called to see if 16 could be squeezed into the space. Because they were based out of a house, they were using a residential kitchen, complete with an electric stove with broken burners.
Within a year, Nani dinners had expanded to 20 courses and were being hosted four nights a week. Reservations were booked up six to eight weeks out. But the changes were more than just logistical. Their style was less of a merging and more of a singular expression of their home. "A lot of people focus on the Japanese-Native American thing, which is fair, because that's how we started, but now we're considering it just good, Oklahoman food," says Whitehorn. "It's been a natural progression."
And then the plug was pulled on what the chefs call "Nani proper." The Oklahoma City-County Health Department insisted they cease service at the home.
"We have that DIY mentality"
Instead of tossing in their aprons, which Whitehorn washes after each service, they took to the road. What began as pop-up and came into its own as a supper club has morphed into a series of guest dinners in Oklahoma City, Tulsa and perhaps further afield. ("Wherever we can make it work, really," Whitehorn says.) They're currently searching for a more permanent solution, and seem confident that Nani will persist in some iteration. In some ways, it all comes back to the music.
"Colin and I have both been in bands," Whitehorn says. "We have that DIY mentality that you put your heart into something, you work hard and you go out there and you showcase it."