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August 24th, 2010 - Heide Brandes

Metro-area chefs blend the kitchen with the office

For those who have made it big, their recipe for success goes beyond quality dishes and cooking talent. It\'s a mix of skill, business savvy and smart marketing.

At The Tasting Room, a lovely and thoroughly modern kitchen-style playground of chef Kurt Fleischfresser, eggplants are sweating. Sliced as thick as stone coasters, drenched in salt and restacked, the vegetables are leaking liquid as bitter as vinegar. By the end of the hour, the pan is filled with their acrid tears.

Here, Fleischfresser is teaching the foodies - both experts and beginners - the finer points of Mediterranean cooking in one of his series of classes, which are all sold-out, especially this one. As one of Oklahoma City's most revered and respected chefs, he fills a dining room as fast as a celebrity.

But there are many talented chefs gracing locally owned restaurants in the metro. Some become successful, while others fade into the shadows of kitchens or - worse - into bankruptcy. For those who have made it big, their recipe for success goes beyond quality dishes and cooking talent. It's a mix of skill, business savvy and smart marketing.

Just knowing how to cook doesn't cut the mustard anymore.

"Not every good cook is a good chef," says Fleischfresser. "A chef means a lot of different things, and a true mark of a chef isn't how good the food is, but how good it is when the chef is not in the house. If you want to stay in business, you have to balance marketing and public relations and the bottom line. In this business, the bottom line can get away from you pretty fast."

He discovered his love of cooking while at Oklahoma State University, where he took a part-time job cooking to support his education. He left school for Chicago and the kitchens of Bernard Cretier, who accepted Fleischfresser as an apprentice.

Almost 30 years later, Fleischfresser heads up some of Oklahoma City's finest restaurants, most notably, The Coach House. In 2009, he partnered with Carl Milam and Western Concepts Restaurant Group, which includes The Lobby Bar, Will Rogers Theatre, Sushi Neko, Will's Coffee and Espresso, Musashi's, the aforementioned The Coach House and The Tasting Room.

Yet, his first restaurant, with partner and restaurateur Chris Lower, is where Fleischfresser learned the importance of business talent.

"Running a restaurant is a different business: You have taxes, insurance and inventory. Cooking is what I love to do, and sitting in front of a computer having to take care of all the business is like bamboo under the fingernails for me, but you have to know the business side of it," Fleischfresser says.

Even now, his apprenticeship program exposes students to the business side of being a chef, not just the cooking side.

"The No. 1 thing is to get lean and get clean," he says. "Even down to the menu. If you have items that don't move, get rid of it and work on the items that do move. Interact with the people."

Chefs Robert Black and Christine Dowd agree.

Dowd, with Trattoria Il Centro and Aunt Pittypat's Catering, mentored under Phillipe Boulot. He preached that a good chef not only must learn every station, but learn how the dollar applies to every single thing.

"He was right," says Dowd. "You have to manage every penny, and sometimes it comes down to pennies. (Eating out) is the first expense to get cut off in an economy like this one. When we test through specials, we know how much each dish costs down to the tee."

Dowd says marketing, especially social media, will also play a big role in chefs' futures.

"You need to tap that audience. It's a great tool," she says.

Black serves as executive chef for A Good Egg Dining Group, an assembly of seven restaurants ranging from Iron Starr and Pops to Cheever's and Republic Gastropub. He believes Central Oklahoma has only a handful of "successful chefs."

Not to say the city is lacking in talent. He thinks many of the chefs who grace the metro's eateries are astonishingly creative. To him, being successful goes beyond the kitchen.

"It's true that a great chef needs a good palate, but what makes a great chef is a combination of things," Black says.

His idea of a successful chef reads like a recipe: one part talent, a cup of leadership, a dash of organization and a big heaping of business acumen.

"Really great chefs also understand the business we're in. Numbers are important in the business side, but so many forget the fact that this is a service industry," he says. "We serve the customer and give them what they want."

Having moved from Oklahoma City to New York to attend Cornell University, he took a job in a pizza joint to help support his engineering studies.

There, in the midst of Italian neighborhoods and open-air pizza parlors, he learned to throw the dough, wheeling the crust in the air like a juggler and flinging it like a baton. He can roll a pizza across his shoulder and spin it like a swing dancer.

Returning to Oklahoma, Black took his first line-chef job at The Metro Wine Bar & Bistro under the late chef Chip Sears. He rose to sous chef and spent two years in apprenticeship with Fleischfresser.

Black then became executive chef and eventual partner at Museum Cafe, where he learned about the flip side of cooking: the business side. That led him to a partnership position with A Good Egg Dining Group.

"I think it's different for me than most chefs in the business. The business side is what I choose to do most of the time," he says.

Black is responsible for coming up with the concepts that make the company successful. That means research, travel, planning and problem-solving. He says he spends 25% of the time in the kitchen and 75% up to his elbows in business. He even writes the software to help the restaurants move smoothly.

"I've got chefs who work for me who get ideas all the time and come up with specials that blow me away," he says. "When we open a new restaurant, like Republic, I'm in the kitchen training them."

But chefs who spend all their time over the stove instead of over the books are doomed to remain cooks, he says. They may be amazing cooks, but just cooks nonetheless.

"It's really that combination that makes a great chef," he says.
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