Finding Inspiration in Every Turn
A culinary collaboration with cultural overtones has opened in historic Fort Towson, Oklahoma. Cherokee Visionary Cathie Carothers and Choctaw Chef Judy Fuhrhop combine business savvy with great cooking skills to bring fine dining to Choctaw County with the opening of the Fort Towson Depot Steakhouse. When their relatives walked the Trail of Tears, they were unlikely to imagine that almost 200 years later their Cherokee and Choctaw great-granddaughters would establish one of the first women-owned, Indian-owned steakhouses in Indian Territory, but that’s what has happened.
The Depot Steakhouse features a white table cloth setting with cook to order steaks, creative appetizers, fine wines, and homemade desserts. Customers have the opportunity to experience high-end cuisine without having to drive to Dallas or Oklahoma City.
The steakhouse was the brainchild of Cathie Carothers, who relocated to the shores of Lake Raymond Gary in 2013. Both of her maternal grandparents are original enrollees on the Dawes’ Rolls and she is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. After obtaining her Master's in Education at Northeastern State College in Tahlequah, Cathie spent her professional years working in Washington, DC for the Bureau of Indian Affairs and then as the Director of Indian Education for the US Department of Education, serving under seven different Presidents before retiring from Federal service in 2010. She then served as an Assistant State Superintendent in the District of Columbia and a Deputy State Superintendent for Indian Policy and Education in New Mexico before relocating to Oklahoma. She traveled extensively in her job and had the chance to sample outstanding dining locations all across the United States. Her post-retirement plan was to have a restaurant of her own.
Her first restaurant project in Fort Towson was the R.G. Trading Post Cafe, located on the grounds of the abandoned Texaco station in the middle of town. However, she soon noticed that the Fort Towson Depot building was empty and in need of repairs that the town did not have the ability to finance. She imagined using that space to create a destination steakhouse to serve both the local market and the increasing number of travelers headed to and from the ever-expanding Hochatown area. After extensive renovations, including a complete reimagining of what had been designed as the lobby and passenger waiting areas of the Depot, the space now sports crystal chandeliers, classically patterned wall paper, and custom drapery.
“I wanted a fine dining spot to eat,” Cathie explains. “The Raymond Gary Lake attracts people from all over who enjoy its quiet, scenic beauty. Ending an idyllic day with a relaxing meal makes the experience even more special.” Cathie’s vision for the restaurant is apparent from the color choices for the fabric chair covers to the custom drink names to the laser inscribed boxes for delivering the check at the end of the meal. The dining room and the menu would be equally at home in any urban center, but it provides a culinary treat for the local food customers.
The restaurant was supposed to open in the fall of 2020, but COVID intervened. The custom grill was back ordered because of supply chain problems. The table ware was stuck on a ship in harbor in California. Everything she needed to get the steakhouse from concept to execution fell victim to the COVID disruption. However, all the pieces finally came together and she was able to open for business in late August of 2022. That inconvenient delay had a silver lining. During the delay, Cathie became acquainted with another recent resident of Fort Towson, Judy Fuhrhop, or Chef Judy, as she is now known.
Judy grew up “just up the road” in Durant, Oklahoma, but her Choctaw County roots extend back to the arrival of her Choctaw ancestors from their ancestral lands in Mississippi on the Trail of Tears. In fact, her Choctaw grandfather is buried in the Historic Grant Cemetery. When it came time to retire, Judy and her husband Steve wanted to come home to the Choctaw part of Oklahoma. They were on a weekend drive when they found a picturesque home for sale on the shore of Lake Raymond Gary and knew they had found their place to call home. “We fell in love with that view of the lake and put in an offer that same day,” she explains.
“After my husband and I had our first dinner at the Depot Steakhouse, I approached Cathie and asked if I could join her in the kitchen,” Judy says. “I immediately saw the potential for the restaurant and realized I could get back into the food industry.”
The Depot Steakhouse is not her first restaurant experience. Judy ran a successful sandwich shop and catering business in Sabine Pass, Texas for three years. She then relocated to the Fort Worth area where she ran a kitchen design and remodeling business. For 11 years, she was also the organizer and coordinator of the annual food show, Zestfest, in Dallas-Fort Worth. However, while those activities kept her near a kitchen, she always dreamed of returning to a restaurant kitchen and cooking for customers again. She made do with cooking custom desserts for family and friends, with her classic buttermilk pie becoming a neighborhood favorite.
Judy says, “I grew up with my grandmother and learned to cook in her kitchen; then honed my skills under the tutelage of Mrs. Winona Boatner, who was an icon of Home Economics education at Southeastern Oklahoma State University,” she says. In other words, Chef Judy says, “I am Grandma trained, not culinary school trained.”
Grandma training puts culinary training to shame in Judy’s creative menu specials, custom steak-rub, and homemade desserts.
Within a few months after that first discussion, Cathie’s vision for a steakhouse and Judy’s dream of stepping back into the kitchen combined to put the two of them in charge of a business that is gathering steam with each passing week. The steakhouse is open on Thursday, Friday night and Saturday night for menu service, plus Sunday for an all-you-can-eat brunch buffet, complete with the ability to order the always-necessary mimosa. During the week, they host special events and business meetings in the Depot. They also provide custom catering. Ever mindful of their connection to the community, they collaborate with the local Volunteer Fire Department to provide Sunday meals to some of the elderly residents in Fort Towson, donate to the local school activities, and participate in local charity events.