Chef's Corner: Kurt Fleischfresser, Director of Operations, Vast; Owner, The Coach House; and Co-Founder, Western Concepts in Oklahoma City

Kurt Fleischfresser started cooking in the cafeteria kitchen of Oklahoma State University while attending college. He went on to become a widely renowned chef and restaurateur for 30 years. His resume reads like a history novel, with years of accolades after first training under fine-dining French master Chef Bernard Cretier at Le Vichyssois outside of Chicago as a young chef, and then working in various restaurants in Scottsdale, Dallas and Oklahoma City. He joined The Coach House in 1987 as head chef, taking ownership of the restaurant in 2004 and continuing its legacy, which will celebrate 30 years next month.

Kurt Fleischfresser, Director of Operations, Vast; Owner, The Coach House; and Co-Founder, Western Concepts in Oklahoma CityThroughout his tenure, Fleischfresser helped transform Oklahoma City, co-founding Western Concepts, a restaurant group with — at one point — 28 concepts throughout the city, including Sushi Neko, Musashi's, Wills Café, Will Rogers Theater and the Lobby Bar. He also regularly mentors up-and-coming chefs, many of whom have gone on to open their own trendy restaurants in this fast-growing and dynamic culinary destination. Fleischfresser was awarded by L'academie de Gastronomie Brillat-Savarin in 2009 for his contributions to the culinary arts. Now, as director of operations of Vast in the skyscraping Devon Tower, Fleischfresser helped develop the menu, train the staff and bring this newcomer to the next level, highlighting seasonal cuisine to showcase the best local and regional specialties just like he has for years at The Coach House and his other restaurants.

FE&S: You have so much going on with Vast, The Coach House, Western Concepts and regular travel — how do you balance it all?

KF: We have a wonderful team in place at all of our concepts so I knew taking the job at Vast was the right thing to do. My son is one of the managers at The Coach House and our chef de cuisine is David Henry, who has been my right-hand man for over 15 years. My daughter is the event coordinator at Will Rogers Theater, and I get together with my partner and director of operations for Western Concepts regularly. Tuesday afternoon we meet with most of the restaurant managers and Friday I meet with The Coach House crew, but will pop in and out, so I try to stay involved.

FE&S: The Coach House has had a long run. Are you planning any changes?

KF: We will be celebrating the 30th anniversary in November, so we are planning some changes to keep things interesting and exciting. Those are still in development.

FE&S: How did you get involved with Vast?

KF: Our management company heard about the Vast concept and we were interested in being a part of the project. There is a hotel located on the ground floor of the building next door called The Colcord, which is managed by Ambassador Hotel Collection, so they were awarded the management contract. But they liked our ideas and asked if I could come on as director of operations to help them open the restaurant.

FE&S: How would you describe the new restaurant?

KF: When I took it over a year ago it was called something else and more focused on global cuisines, so we took a different direction and just decided to focus on regional food from all over our area and the South. We also added a lot of new artwork and new tables and modernized the bar, converting one of the private dining rooms into a lounge. One floor is all banquets and catering.

FE&S: What are some of the more popular dishes?

KF: People like our rack of lamb — we cut the bones off and cure and smoke the bones and then roast the loin to order, using the bones as garnish. We also have a shrimp with smoked paprika butter over polenta, but instead of butter and cheese we use roasted sweet potatoes to add the creamy texture with a subtle sweetness to balance the shrimp. This has become a really popular dish — decadent but also healthier.

FE&S: How do you balance regional and local sourcing with the high volume demand at Vast?

KF: You have to balance a lot more — you have to bring the best food to the table and still be creative and have thoughtful presentation. Vast is a $5 million or $6 million a year operation so this is definitely a challenge. I have always loved sourcing food locally, but given our volume (we are big) we knew we had to expand our parameters. That is why we decided to take a more regional approach. Oklahoma has a very short growing season. It can be 100 degrees F for 60 days or freezing one morning and hot in the evening. This year we were lucky with strawberries and for two weeks a year we get great watermelon. But it's very unpredictable so we still source foods from outside the state but within the region. We get our seafood from the Gulf Coast. I have also been working with the Southern United States Trade Associations (SUSTA), traveling around the country and to South America, Paris and Hong Kong, and soon I will go to Germany to represent Southern U.S. foods so the focus on that area just made sense for us.

FE&S: You're known for mastering fine dining — is this the same approach you wanted for Vast?

KF: When we first opened, the owners wanted to be the finest dining restaurant in the city but with 160 seats we were afraid it would come off as too pretentious. We wanted to take that edge off so we warmed things up — both with design [and] with our service. We want the mechanics to be great but the service to be a little more friendly and approachable.

FE&S: What is your favorite equipment in the kitchen?

KF: I like the simpler equipment that's more straightforward — like a strong convection oven.

FE&S: How has the Oklahoma City dining scene/culture changed in recent years?

KF: We have had a great neighborhood and restaurant resurgence here. It is amazing to see the number of high quality restaurants popping up everywhere. It's exploding, actually. Oklahoma City has become more like a big city where you can walk a block, find a few good restaurants, walk to some more, and we even have a whole food truck area. Many of the graduates from The Coach House apprentice program — probably a dozen or so — have gone on to work at great restaurants here or open their own. They are my competition now.

FE&S: Not like you have time, but are you doing anything outside work?

KF: I have been traveling a lot, but we just sold our house that was 45 miles away and moved closer to downtown now that our kids are grown. We have 5 acres and just built the house so we are spending a lot of time there now. It's the best of both worlds — we have space but we're also closer to downtown.

 

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