Chef Chat, Part 2: Travis Lenig of Liberty Kitchen, on Making Customers Feel Special and His Fried Chicken Wednesdays

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This is Part 2 of a three part Chef Chat series. You can read Part 1 here and Part 3 in this same space Friday.

Yesterday, our chat with Travis Lenig of Liberty Kitchen revealed a bit about his background as a chef and how he loves eating spicy food. Today, our conversation moves to the work he's doing at Liberty Kitchen, including his famous fried chicken.

EOW: Let's talk about your menu here at Liberty Kitchen. I know it's a collaborative effort between you and Lance Fegan, isn't it? You came a bit after the fact. Was most of it here?

TL: Most of it was here, but what we did was we fine-tuned the dishes. We went over and redid them a little bit, made them to where it was a little bit easier for the guys to understand, plate it up and do things correctly. The way that it was here when I got here, there were people that weren't understanding, and you kind of have to babysit and teach them, and go through step-by-step on how you want something done. It was taught to them -- I just do think they understood it, so went over it again and fine-tuned it and got it to where it was a machine that kept rolling so we could get as many customers in and out as possible, but also have a great dish at the same time.

EOW: Let's talk about these in-and-out customers, because every time I come here, it's literally packed. Do you think it's the environment or the food, and how many people do you seat?

TL: We seat 85 people. We do three or four turns a night. Lunch we'll do about two and a half turns, especially on a busy day like a Wednesday when it's fried chicken night. I think what keeps people coming back is the good, honest food. It's value, it's man portions. They're getting a lot on their plate.

EOW: And then there's the bacon jam.

TL: There is the bacon jam -- that's another thing that they keep coming back for, which is a credit to Lance because he came up with a fantastic thing. I think it's also the people that work here. It's the fact that somebody comes in, this is their neighborhood place, we know your name if you've been here a few times.

EOW: Do you really? Do you actually take notes?

TL: Yeah. I've got that memory where if I talk to them a couple of times, I'll remember their name. It's something that I think is a value in this business. People really appreciate the fact that you remember them. For instance, there's this gentleman that comes here Saturdays and Sundays. His name is Rick. When he walks through the door, we know he's going to sit at the bar, and we know what he wants. He wants orange juice, he wants coffee, he wants water. When he sits down at the bar, he's got all three of those sitting down, he's got his menu, he's got everything. We know exactly what he's going to order, but we put a menu in front of him just in case he wants to change it. People enjoy that. They know that they are gonna come here and we're gonna know exactly what they want. "Hey, how are your kids doing?" "How is your business doin'?" "How's this?" They like that -- it's their home away from home, is what I would say.

EOW: Well, I was going to say -- with the decor and everything, to me, it's almost more of a destination, but you're saying it's a neighborhood place.

TL: I would say 60 percent of our customers are regulars. We have customers that will come here anywhere from twice a week to another customer that comes here four times a week. There was another couple -- the Fitzpatricks -- they came here six times in one week, and two of those times they visited, they ordered breakfast, lunch and dinner.

EOW: Do they order the same stuff?

TL: No, they change it up every time. It's big enough to where, like if you were to come here once a week, you could get something different each time.

EOW: So what's your favorite thing on the menu?

TL: My fried chicken!

EOW: Your fried chicken -- but it's only on Wednesdays. Why?

TL: It took a lot of time in making it. It took me three months to really perfect it to where it is now.

EOW: Describe it.

TL: [Fervently] It's juicy. It's succulent. It's crispy. It's got enough spice. And then you add the gravy and the hot sauce to it and the fries -- it's a meal. It's filling. It's homely. It makes you feel like you're in a Southern kitchen and you're sitting at the dinner table with your family, and you're right there.

EOW: How many chicken dishes are you selling, because you say you sell out?

TL: We do 100. Fifty in the afternoon and 50 in the evening, and we sell out every single time. You get half a fried chicken. So you get a leg, a wing, a breast and a thigh. And then you get fries and coleslaw, hot sauce syrup and bacon cream gravy. We just changed that, actually; we were playing with it. In the beginning we were just doing a butter and flour mixture for the gravy, and then we changed it to bacon fat just to give it that one more flavor profile. Because bacon makes the world go round.

EOW: Okay, so there's a bit of irreverence in terms of calorie counting here...

TL: Well, that's the thing, 'cause you can come in and people may be afraid that they're going to get fatty food, but we've got food that's healthy for you. Our smoked salmon salad with spinach, mushrooms, onions, bacon -- it may have bacon in it, but it's just for that flavor profile -- it's healthy for you. Our ahi tuna poke is just fresh ahi tuna that's been marinated with sesame and soy and white onions. Ceviche, simply grilled fish -- you can't get much less fattening than that. So we do cater to the women who are watching their figure.

EOW: Do the women actually order that, though? 'Cause I'd come here and I'd order the fried chicken!

TL: They do. A majority of the women that are here for lunch or dinner will order the salmon salad. We do a cedar plank salmon. We marinate it in-house, and then we smoke it in-house. We have a special area built on our grill to smoke our salmon.

EOW: So, a little bit about Houston. You never left Houston...

TL: I left Houston once. I was working for Massa's Seafood, then I went to work for Philippe Schmit at Bistro Moderne, and then I was offered a job to be the executive sous chef at a resort and spa in Moab, Utah. So I went to Utah for two and half years.

EOW: Where is Moab, Utah? And what kind of food were you doing there?

TL: It's in the Southeast corner, on the border of Colorado. It was basically country kitchen. You were on a ranch, so it's ranch food. We would do a lot of wild game. When we could get seafood, we'd do that, but a majority of the time it was wild game, steaks, chops, stuff like that.

EOW: So what brought you back to Houston?

TL: My wife and I, we were in Utah -- she was my girlfriend at the time and I'd asked her to marry me -- and we wanted to come back to Houston 'cause she wanted to go back to grad school to get her master's. And we thought about staying in Utah or even going to Colorado, but then ultimately we came back to Houston because we wanted to be with our family. Three weeks after I got back, I started working for Charles at Ibiza, and since then, I've just been going forward and forward and forward in my life.

EOW: Okay, so last question. If you were to have a last meal, what would it be and who would make it?

TL: It would be my mom, and it would be meat lasagna. I just remember it as a child, but my mom just makes great lasagna. It was one of my favorite meals as a kid.

Check back with us tomorrow as we taste some of Lenig's food at Liberty Kitchen.

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

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