Stella Modern Italian Cuisine

A Q&A with Lori Burson, the Owner of a Heritage Hills Favorite

Lori Burson, the owner of Stella Modern Italian cuisine, wakes up every day loving what she does. For her, that is the definition of success. 

Lori credits that success to the incredible family she has built in her staff.

Todd Davis, the general manager, is the quiet strength behind the scenes keeping everything running smoothly. Kayla Jones, the assistant manager, has worked for the restaurant since day one. Few restaurants open this long can boast such longevity with their staff. Executive chef Melissa Aust brings a passion for food and wine that equals Lori's, prompting Lori to call Melissa the most talented chef she has worked with during her career.

"She [executive chef Melissa Aust] is originally from California, and OKC is lucky to have her talent here." –Lori Burson 

When did you first know that you wanted to be in the restaurant industry? 
I started in the hospitality industry with my first job in high school. I worked in a famous health spa called the GreenHouse, which was very exclusive, only for women and at the time owned by Neiman Marcus. My job included delivering room service to their rooms and serving a formal dinner nightly. My first boss intimidated me on the first day, but by the time she retired, I was crying that I would no longer be working with her. I learned a lot from her about taking care of guests rather than customers and also learned a lot about food. I think that job and my experience as a waiter during college led me to know that I wanted to be in the restaurant industry as a career. It resulted in leading me to my passion, which is the food and wine business. 

Tell us why you love the cuisine of Italy so much. 
While attending the University of Dallas, a small, Catholic liberal arts school, I had the privilege of spending one semester at their campus in Rome. Italian food has been my favorite since I was a child, but after actually living in Italy for a semester, I realized that most of the Italian food I had experienced up to that point was not authentic Italian food. I love the whole approach that Italians have to food: always fresh, always seasonal and food always bringing people together.

What is your current favorite dish on the menu? 
It depends on the day. If I want something on the lighter side, I love our beet and citrus salad. We always have a beet salad on our menu each spring and summer, but we make changes to it from year to year. This year in addition to the beets and haricot vert, it also has oranges, grapefruit and toasted sunflower seeds. If I want something more substantial, I love our wild boar bolognese as well as our lamb shank. 

How has your Midtown neighborhood changed since you opened the restaurant? 
When I opened, it was just a few of us in the area. Café do Brazil took the gamble on the area first, then a few of us followed. I remember when the Ambassador Hotel and Restaurant were opening, and I had customers ask me if I was worried about them taking business away from me. I explained that I thought a hotel would be a giant positive for the area and bring more people to Midtown. It was true. The addition of great locally owned retail stores and the Ambassador has made Midtown a neighborhood that is both walkable for neighbors and a destination for people from all over the city. I love that Stella has regulars who dine with us several times each week. They joke that we are their kitchen. We have one family that walks from their house in Heritage Hills with their two young sons, and after enjoying brunch or dinner with us, they will stop by Commonplace Books.*

What are your plans for the future? 
I can't tell you all my secrets.

My lack of patience aside, I can respect that. Are there any special events coming up this summer that we can't miss?
I'm always trying to keep evolving ... keeping our guest favorites on the menu and while maintaining our standard of service while still progressing. This summer, we are offering our first Yoga Brunch Club. I'm excited. I think yoga will be fun. Our first session was Sunday, June 2. For $25, it includes the yoga class, brunch and a mimosa. We host wine events every Thursday evening on the patio in the summer. It is different every Thursday. Stop by! Also new this year is our Sunday schedule. I decided to add Sunday evenings so now you can enjoy brunch on Sunday mornings or our dinner menu from 5–9 p.m. 

Who inspired your love of beautiful food? 
My mother, grandmother and my aunt, who are all amazing cooks. My family celebrates everything with food.

That's my kind of family. To make Stella part of yours, visit them and see why so many Midtown residents can't get enough. 

*Check out our feature on the Busey family in our Open House feature. 

Stella Modern Italian Cuisine 
1201 N. Walker Ave., Oklahoma City
405.235.2200, Stella-OKC.com

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