Chef Chat, Part 1: Travis Lenig of Liberty Kitchen, on Leaving Fine Dining for Comfort Food, and Eating Foods with Lots of Heat

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This is the first part of a three-part chef chat series. Come back to read parts two and three in this same space Thursday and Friday.

Every single time I've been to Liberty Kitchen in the Heights, it's packed. There's something about the space -- the decor, the layout, the smooth, sleek lines of the booths and tabletops, the pop-culture-ish photos of Houston on the walls -- that's immediately inviting. It's a place to gather with friends or to go by yourself and just hang out, noshing on food that is comfortable yet just decadent enough that you end up craving more.

In the open kitchen, you might see salmon smoking on a cedar plank, or a whole pig roasting, as on the night I was there. And then there's chef de cuisine Travis Lenig, doing the kitchen dance with his team, deftly churning out hundreds of covers a night.

Last week, we sat down for a great chat with the kitchen's maestro, who is gearing up to take over a new location of Liberty Kitchen, which is set to open in the next couple of months.

EOW: How long have you been here?

TL: A year and four months. The restaurant's been open for a year and seven months.

EOW: Okay, so you didn't open. Where did you come from?

TL: I came from Mark's American Cuisine. I was there for right under three years.

EOW: Wow. So were you ready for a change?

TL: I was ready to get out of the super fine dining. I wanted to come back into a comfort zone where it wasn't 20 or 30 things on a plate -- which was great, don't get me wrong -- Mark's food is one of a kind, it's fantastic, but it was just starting to do a little more wear on me. There's a lot more involvement.

EOW: What's 20 or 30 things on a plate?

TL: Well, Mark likes several different components that once you put them all together marry very well together, which is great. But I wanted to step back and focus more on a couple of items rather than a myriad of things.

EOW: What was your role there?

TL: I was the sous chef. Prior to that, I was the executive sous chef to Charles Clark at Ibiza.

EOW: Interesting! Very interesting. Okay, so tell me a little about yourself. Did you go to culinary school?

TL: I grew up here in Houston, born and raised. Growing up, my mom had her own catering business, and so I would help her out doing stuff. In high school, I started working for restaurants, and then once I got out of high school, I stayed in Houston because I didn't know what I wanted to do. I kind of wanted to take a year off, but my parents were like, "No, you gotta figure out what you want to do." (Laughs.) So I started working for my friend Dominic Mandola, who owns Ragin' Cajun. I was just working in front as a cashier.

EOW: And this was straight out of high school.

TL: This was in high school and straight out of high school. And I watched Dom, and he looked like he was having fun cooking, and I asked him one day if I could go back there with him and cook with him. And I just never looked back. As I started cooking for him more, I decided that I wanted to go to culinary school. My parents were skeptical about it. They were like, "Are you sure this is what you want to do? It's a lot of money. We don't want you to go to culinary school and then a year later, say, 'I'm sick of this.'"

EOW: Which is what a lot of people do.

TL: A lot of people do. I would say, 80 percent of my graduating class -- maybe even 90 percent, are not into cooking anymore. They got into real estate or buying booze, or something like that.

EOW: Your mom had a catering business but you never helped her?

TL: She retired when I got into high school. It was at a younger age that I would help her out, but once I was in high school, she was a stay-at-home mom, and she would cook for us -- me and my three siblings -- breakfast, lunch and dinner.

EOW: Classic American family. That's pretty awesome.

TL: So I enjoyed doing it. And whenever my friends would come over, I'd cook for them. So it just made sense to go and do that.

EOW: Where did you go to culinary school?

TL: Art Institute of Houston. Right out of culinary school, I was still working for Dominic, but I wanted to move on and see where I could go with it.

EOW: Well, okay, culinary school is like basics and things. What were you really good at immediately? What did you really like doing?

TL: You know, I liked the cooking aspect, just taking simple ingredients and creating something that was really, really good.

EOW: And did they provide recipes for that?

TL: They did, but the majority of the time, I would look at a recipe and I wouldn't really follow it. Because recipes are just the ground rules. If you take a basic recipe and you follow it to the tee, it won't really taste right. Because you actually have to add flavorings to it. It may say, "Add a teaspoon of salt," but adding a teaspoon of salt is never enough. You have to season and taste again, season and taste again, etc. Or you may want to add a little twist to it, you may want to add something that is a little off the beaten path to give it that extra profile, that next level of flavor.

EOW: Let's say you're making a dish. Do you have a go-to thing? Some people like sweetbreads, others like fennel. What is a must-have in your pantry?

TL: In my pantry? A must-have is spicy salsas. Anything from sambal, Sriracha sauce, Tabasco, Cholula -- anything spicy. I like a lot of heat. In some of the dishes that we do here, I tone it back, because people can't really grasp that flavor, but I really enjoy a lot of spicy stuff, and I'm willing to try anything once even if it's gonna hurt.

EOW: What is the spiciest you've had, the one you couldn't handle?

TL: There was a Thai restaurant that I went to when I was living in Utah, of all places. And I got pad Thai, and I said, "I want you to make it the way that you guys eat it." They added these chiles to it, it blew my socks off and I was like, "Oh my God."

EOW: So for people who can't handle heat, what is the magic formula for chilling the burn or working through it? Because for me, if I eat spicy, I eat a lot less, because I can't handle it.

TL: That's another reason why I eat it, too, because it's an appetite suppressant. Spicy food keeps you from overeating.

EOW: Is it an appetite suppressant? It is for me -- I'll eat three bites and then I can't go on.

TL: You know, the cure for me is beer.

EOW: Beer? Because people always tell me that water exacerbates the heat.

TL: Water does, but alcohol doesn't.

EOW: So, wine too?

TL: I really wouldn't recommend wine with spice, but beer is my go-to thing. I'm a beer guy in general. I really enjoy a refreshing beer. After a long day at work, Saint Arnold Lawnmower is what I would go to. I think it's great. It matches with almost everything we do here. If you don't drink alcohol, anything with dairy -- cheese, milk, yogurt -- will cut out the spice. Like if you take a spicy dish, and you take a little dollop of yogurt, it's not going to affect the flavoring, it'll tone the heat down a lot.

EOW: Okay, so the top three dishes in Houston that are spicy, that you love.

TL: I would say, not overly spicy, but just enough -- the tasso cream gravy at Ibiza has the perfect amount of spice. It's not too hot, it has just enough kick to let you know it's there. Ragin' Cajun's crawfish. Perfect amount of spice, and if you want more heat, they'll add to it. If you ask for it spicy, they'll take it from the bottom of the barrel and scrape some of the spices out and toss the crawfish with that -- it'll hit you hard, it's really, really good. One more, um...

EOW: What do you crave?

TL: What do I crave? Pizza. I love pizza. I love cheese pizza. You know, Pink's Pizza, they have a really good combination of flavors, but when I get it, I'll always add tabasco on it or something, so that it heats it up.

Check back with us tomorrow as we continue our conversation with Travis Lenig.

Liberty Kitchen 1050 Studewood St Tel: 713-802-0533 http://libertykitchenoysterbar.com/

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