If Bourbon had a voice, it would sound a lot like Travis Lenig. And not because he drinks Bourbon, he drinks gin, but because the articulation of his voice is strong, laidback, everyday practical, and just a little bit sweet. Lenig's first restaurant as executive chef and owner, Field & Tides, has seen favorable write-ups, not to mention most nights an overflowing dining room. Interestingly, it's located less than a football field away from Liberty Kitchen, the restaurant he broke out into the culinary scene with.
Lenig has worked around the block and around the clock to reach the distinction of chef owner. The same stature line cooks fantasize about as they wrap up their station after a battle-heavy service. Like them, he sweat through the same nights and earned his titles the old-fashioned way. Prior to opening Field & Tides, he's held sous and executive chef positons for Claire Smith at Shade, Charles Clark at Ibiza, Mark Cox at Mark's and the F.E.E.D. TX Restaurant Group's Liberty Kitchens.
On a Saturday afternoon, in between lunch and dinner service, The Houston Press sat down with chef Travis Lenig in a corner booth at Field & Tides. They both drank tall ice waters…
HP: You have a knack for creating comfort foods in comfortable environments, what restaurant in town does this for you?
TL: Dolce Vita. That's my comfort food. Italian food.
HP: Do you ever incorporate Italian into your cooking?
TL: No. Italian food for me is really,(sighs) I don't know. I like mine a certain way and I still haven't gotten it the way I want it. I don't want to mess that up. It's nostalgic for me. I [don't] knock Italian food, I can cook it, but I like to keep that for me (laughs.) I like it to be made for me.
HP: Can you think of a moment when you thought what am I going to do while opening a restaurant?
TL: Oh, yeah. When we opened River Oaks (Liberty Kitchen & Oysterette) our power went out the very first service. It was chaos. All of our hoods went off. Everything crashed. We had 150 people in the dining room and we kept cooking. When the power came back on the tickets from 5 o'clock were shooting out. We kept making all this food and I was thinking, where is it all going? We didn't realize the tickets were from 5 o'clock, and by then it was 8 o'clock. I remember looking at them and being like, "ya'll better fix this."
HP: How long did it take to get fixed?
TL: Hold on one second. (Gets up to check on something in the kitchen.)
Two minutes later…
TL: Ow, my flipping knee. (Hits his knee sliding back into the booth.)
HP: Are you okay? Short term or long term injury?
TL: Short term. The cooler was just iced over so I shut it off so it would melt.
HP: What are you building out back?
TL: On the side? That's our bar and lounge. It will have 26 seats and six bar stools. It's a place where we will be able to do private dining, but also [for guest] overflow. The idea is, you can get appetizers and drinks if you need to wait for your table.
HP: That's a good idea. You've been open for a little over a year and have received a lot of praise and as well as business...
TL: We've been fortunate. I am happy that we've been popular. I think the new addition will make us more popular and help our business.
HP: You must be here all the time…
TL: You know, I'm not here all the time. With Liberty [Kitchen] I didn't get that opportunity. I missed out on a lot of time with my girls and my wife. I'm trying to make up for it [now] and take time when I can. Sometimes I get heat for that, but at the same time I never had that opportunity in this business. I leave it in the hands of my guys and I really couldn't do this business without the team that I have.
We're not all perfect. When I'm here there's going to be mistakes, when I'm not here there's going to be mistakes. You're not going to please 100 percent of people.
HP: That's a seasoned approach.
TL: I just think you're going to burn yourself out trying to be a perfectionist. All you can do is learn from your mistakes… and take it. Like, you know, "I messed up." And if you mess up really bad (laughs), you're going to get scolded for it, but I [try to] look at it as if it were an accident.
HP: It happens.
TL: It happens. Just move on.
HP: When you were coming up, what did it take to get a management spot in the kitchen?
TL: Aww man, I mean you know, our culinary pasts are very similar. I think nowadays the kitchen has been glamorized. Everyone wants to do it. When we were coming up, you had to sit there and take your time on the line. You had to learn all that stuff. Back then it was 12 to 15 hour days. If you wanted to get your station ready sometimes you had to go in early and go off the clock, because they would whine at your for having overtime. But if you never went in early you wouldn't be ready. Your mise was never going to be right.
It took that extra "I'll come in." If you got that phone call you cancelled your plans. That's what it took. Sacrifice. A lot of sacrifice. No holidays, no birthdays, no Valentine's Day. This is the first year I had a Valentine's Day.
HP: Field & Tides is a great size…
TL: I wanted 60 seats. The bigger you are the harder it is to connect with your guest. The harder it is for your guys to make plates that are correct. I have a three-man line. I didn't want to sacrifice speed for preparation. I'm not in this business to get rich. I'm in it to make a living. Anybody that thinks they're going to get rich off their first restaurant is surely fucking mistaken. I want my girls to have the life I had, I'm not in this to buy a jet suit or a hundred-thousand dollar sports car. Some people I know have been able to do that, and good for them, they've had that success. I just wanted to do something I enjoyed.
HP: You have two little girls…
TL: I do too. They're so great.
HP: Are they just like daddy, daddy, daddy all the time…
TL: Ava is the princess and Parker is the flower child.
HP: What's your favorite movie to watch with Ava and Parker?
TL: Trolls or Moana.
TL: Yes. Trolls especially. You ever watched it?
HP: No, but my Netflix has definitely recommended it.
TL: It's hilarious. It's really good. It's creative. Now with kids movies they add all these adult inside jokes that only the parents will get. They cater to the adult taking their child to the movie. Old Disney movies didn't really have that.
HP: What is your ideal napping scenario?
TL: (laughs) It all depends on where I am. When I'm at work, I rarely leave. If I have to stay here I'll nap in my car or on the office floor. I'll turn the car on, lean the seat back and close my eyes for about an hour. If I'm at home, I'll typically nap and [my wife will] watch a show. I love it when my kids have nap time because that means I have nap time.
HP: What do your little girls ask you to make for them all the time?
TL: Mac and cheese or chicken fingers. I trick them into eating fish sticks. If I tell them it's fish they won't eat it. That's how I get them to try new things.
HP: By telling them that everything is chicken fingers...
TL: Kind of. My youngest daughter Parker is very adventurous, she's like me, she'll eat anything. Ava will not. Ava is like chicken fingers, fruit, mac and cheese, sweets, quesadillas. But Parker… I made venison chili the other day and she was chowing down.
HP: What's a typical date night look like for you and Stacey?
TL: If we get out, with no kids, we always go to our date night spot, Dolce Vita. We know the menu, we know what we're going to get, we love the wine they have. We start off with cocktails and then we get a bottle of wine, four or five appetizers, a pizza and split an entrée.
TL: And then dessert. That's our spot, we love that spot. If we're cooking at home I try to lean towards more healthy fare because in the restaurant business you know how bad our eating habits are. It's tough to eat healthy. When I cook for her and I, it's real clean, simple food.
HP: Boat on a lake or boat on an ocean?
TL: Both? I like fishing on the ocean and like doing water activities on a lake.
HP: I saw on your Facebook two speedboats carrying a kayaker between them on the wake… have you ever done anything like that?
TL: No. But I want to.
HP: Right. What do you order when you go to Southwell's?
TL: (laughs and pauses.) Cheeseburger with bacon, waffle fries and ranch.
HP: Their ranch is the shit.
TL: It is the bomb. Like the best.
HP: There's so much flavor, but it's so thin.
TL: Yes. I can't figure it out…
HP: I know, someone needs to infiltrate, like a culinary school intern.
TL: It's like when you go to Texadelphia, you get that mustard sauce. I always wanted to know what's in that mustard sauce?! And I had friends that worked there, but they have to sign a…
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HP: No way.
TL: Yeah. Some of them aren't even allowed to see how the mustard is made. It's crazy. I'll bet you at Southwell's it's the same thing.
HP: If we knew that recipe, we'd all be knocking that off.
TL: I could bathe in that stuff.