His eyes smiled genuinely as he turned to walk away and I was reminded of Ben Harper's wailing moments in Amen Omen, the song Lance Fegen had sung just moments ago. While restaurant warriors get a little bit of a "hot mess" reputation, somewhere along the way, Fegen was able to find peace. I couldn't help but think, good for you brother.
Though he rocks the same board shorts to charge local Galveston sets, the person wearing them today is much different than say, a year ago. His presence is relaxing and unassumed, and to think, he's spent 28 years tumbling around the washing machine that is this business.
Fegen lives on the Galveston seawall and commutes daily to Houston as the culinary director for F.E.E.D. TX Restaurant Group (The Liberty Kitchen restaurants). He has re-discovered his love for teaching, and other than mentoring those who work for him he volunteers with a local Galveston High School entrepreneurship program.
Oh, and he also helps nurse sick dolphins back to health for the Texas Marine Mammal Stranding Network. Not to make this sound like a pitch for The Bachelor, but… how's it working for you?
The Houston Press caught up with Chef Lance Fegen for a casual conversation as they lounged on those big relaxing chairs outside of Whole Foods Market on Post Oak.
HP: How did your spirituality find you?
LF: Recently? Or ever?
LF: Umm. Not in a great way. I mean do you want to get heavy?
HP: Up to you.
LF: If it didn't find me I was probably going to be dead. I was chasing some things in my life (pauses)… Whatever spirituality I had before was nothing compared to what I've had in the past year. I have a deep practice in Buddhism now and that has changed my life considerably. Not only in my spiritual practice, but in my physical practice. My general behavior with other people, my fundamental beliefs as a business man… it's changed my cooking style. I'm a 92 percent vegan and the other percent I taste the food that our customers are having, but I don't nourish my body with anything but vegetables. People have said I am a completely different person than I used to be. Some humble things happened to me, I had to do some soul searching. I'm glad I did because I was not going to survive much longer.
LF: I was surfing 25-foot waves knowing there is a 90 percent chance that I don't come out of those. A couple times I almost didn't.
HP: How long were you held under?
LF: Well, time is relative under water. A minute seems like a long time, but 30 seconds is an eternity when you're getting tossed and pummeled into a reef. I thought it was romantic that I would somehow go out that way. But I have a lot of people that care about me, and a lot of people I care for. It was pointed out to me that what I was doing was selfish behavior. And not by a human being, someone else.
I was hit by a car about two years ago and killed. I was dead for a minute.
LF: Yep, yep, and another time someone brought me back to life on the seawall in Galveston. Also, I was surfing in Mexico last year and was either going to take the front end of a bus or go off a cliff. I went off the cliff. I somehow survived a 150-foot roll with not a mark on me. That was something else going, "dude, it's time." I wasn't spiritual that way until I was lying in a river bed thinking, "how the f did I survive that." I'm running out of nine lives, put it that way. So, there you go (laughs.)
HP: Do you feel like the kitchen can be a yang place?
HP: Did you feed off that for a while?
LF: I went back and forth for a long time. It got to the point where it was always about money. I forgot what I was doing as a chef. The way I treated my younger chefs, the servers, the managers was so demanding. Not remotely ethical, or fair, or authentic. That was one of the things I didn't like about myself anymore. But I couldn't admit that, because that shows weakness, and you can't show weakness when you're the boss.
What's switched around with the yin and the yang is that I have gotten back to the things that are at my core. Authentic behavior, my real self. I'm not trying to hide under my old masks that Lance would use, which I am well known for.
When I started finding myself more spiritually, I found myself enjoying time with my cooks. You teach them nuances, and they open up. You begin to see them blossom, which gives you more inspiration to give them more. Instead of going, "it's my way or the highway," I'm more like, "let's talk about that." I forgot I was a good teacher. I wasn't that great of a demanding jerky-boss. I've worked with some of those people and I don't know where that happened but I turned into one… and I regret that. A lot.
Now I walk in the stores and there is happiness. I don't put pressure on them to deliver me perfection. They try to be perfect on their own accord and when they don't I give them a hug anyway.
I will say this, and it's something I apologize to my partners for, several times a day. I was the face and name of this company for a long time and I thought that's all that mattered. Then something else changed my perception of who I really am in the scope of this world, which is nothing. It freed me up to realize that, really, what we are trying to deliver to our customers is something good for them.
I took a lot of the blame for what was happening to our company very personally. It was very difficult for me to see the way we were suffering and not look in the mirror and say, "shit, you're a big reason for this."
In these last months I have found a different gear to myself. And what's happened is our sales and profit have increased, our turnover has reduced to single digit numbers. Our ownership meetings are so much shorter and happier. There is a lot more hugging going on, and that wasn't true for the last two to three years of this company. If I hadn't seen those results I wouldn't be here talking with you right now. I'd either be too angry or resentful, but those things are gone now. We are looking to the future.
HP: You have a lot of courage.
TF: I didn't have a lot of courage for a while. It was my ego. People point out to me all of the time, "you're one of the oldest chefs in town that still carries weight. It's you and Charles [Clark] and Robert [Del Grande.]"
I look at Charles Clark and Robert Del Grande as my secret mentors. Twenty-eight years I've been cooking in this town professionally. I look back and think about how I've survived that… I don't know. The way I ran. The things I did. The way I behaved for a roller-coaster of years. I don't know how I'm still here. I think my courage comes from the fact that I don't need to be the Lance of Zula and Glass Wall, BRC, anymore. I can just be Lance. I can be a father, a friend, and a boss.
HP: How have things changed since when you were coming up in the business?
TL: The pressure of food critics, the social media, the viciousness of people. I don't know how a young person can cope. I wasn't grown in that. My twenties and thirties, I was at the Houstonian Hotel. In the last ten years it's gotten a little out of control, and it affects us emotionally.
HP: It does.
LF: I don't think people realize how hurtful the things we say are. How these 25 to 28-year-old chefs are not remotely capable of handling that kind of shit thrown at them. They turn to drugs, alcohol, sex, late-night, bad behaviors. This business is brutal for that. And I grew up in that whole pirate ship, clown-circus.
I have so much empathy for them and the ones that make it through into their thirties, God bless em'. My commitment to [my staff] is I will not put that kind of pressure on them. When something goes wrong, I will take the blame for it, because I am a 48-year-old man and I can handle it… where before maybe I wasn't always that way.
Often times this business will turn you into a complete raving jackass or someone who sucks it all in.
LF: Yes, implode. Like I said I don't know how I made it all this time.
HP: In a country of utter abundance how have we not figured out how to feed everybody?
LF: How have I not figured out?
HP: How have we not figured out?
LF: Well, oh man. As a Buddhist. You want the Buddhist answer on that one?
LF: I will tell you that we all internally struggle with self-centeredness. We generally put our things in front of everyone else. And that's why we haven't taken it seriously. I think that's why we are going to have a hard time figuring that out. Our human-ness struggles greatly with wanting. It's not my practice to point that out but I can only look inward.
HP: Favorite meal on the beach?
LF: I haven't done this in a while, but what I would love to do after we would go surfing is get a pile of steamed crabs from Benno's and sit on the beach. Those are my favorite meals. I miss them, but I can't take the life of a crab like that anymore. Another one, was my trips to Bali, they do barbecue whole pork on the beach.
HP: What size board do you ride?
LF: I'm older now, I ride like a nine or a ten [foot.] If I'm in bigger waves I'll right an 8.5. I'm a pretty big guy for a surfer so I need a little more volume.
HP: What would you consider your home break?
LF: I would call Tillman's Pleasure Pier my home break, although where I live now on 13th street, that's becoming my alone break. Nobody surfs there but me. It's my peace and quiet place. That break was not there prior to the hurricane last year. The ocean puts stuff where it needs to be, moves things around. The good part about surfing Tillman's pier, is that they have live music playing 30 feet above you.
HP: Truth or Dare?
LF: (laughs) Is that a question? Uhh. I told you a lot of truth so I guess it's a dare.
HP: Sing the chorus of your favorite song.
LF: Sing the chorus of my favorite song. Wow. Um. (long pause.) The chorus. (laughs.) Well. Man. Let's see. Should I do a Chris Stapleton one or a Ben Harper one? I guess I could do… (begins singing) "Hey man, oh man."
HP: Such a good song.
LF: "When I see your face again."
LF: Is that it? I think it's better than Whiskey and You.
HP: Want to hear what the truth question was going to be?
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HP: Do you think that sometimes, maybe, when you go swimming in the ocean it counts as a shower?
LF: That's a fact. That's a hundred percent fact.