Houston Chefs To Know: Lance Fegen At Liberty Kitchen
“It’s not hard to become a chef but it’s really freakin’ hard to stay one,” says Lance Fegen, the culinary director and a managing partner of F.E.E.D. TX restaurant group. With that perspective, it’s remarkable that he has maintained a career spanning 27 years.
His early days in the Houston restaurant business includes work at Brennan’s of Houston and The Houstonian. Later, Fegen started Zula and then Glass Wall, a partnership with Houston restaurateur and wine expert Shepard Ross who first worked with Fegen as beverage director at Zula. Later, Fegen joined F.E.E.D. TX Group where he still is today. The company founded BRC (now closed) and currently runs Liberty Kitchen & Oyster Bar, Liberty Kitchen & Oysterette, and Liberty Kitchen at The Treehouse.
Fegen is a practicing vegan, avid surfer and volunteers for a dolphin rescue group based in Galveston. Read on to learn more about this native of Seabrook, Texas and his approach to life and cooking.
Where did you get your culinary education?
The Culinary Institute Hyde Park and an extended internship at Brennan’s of Houston.
At what point did you know that you wanted to stay in the restaurant industry and make it a career?
I didn’t know there was a path. I was working at a sub shop while in college and between the seasons was doing some catering and my boss there encouraged me to attend the CIA [Culinary Institute of America]. I got there and immediately felt like I could lead. I’m not sure I thought I was going to be good at this job until I started working at The Houstonian at the age of 23. I was the private chef for the club at 23 and by age 25 I had a staff of 130 people. That said, the creativity never really came until I was given a restaurant of my own.
What drives the food concept at Liberty Kitchen?
Seafood — oysters — was the main thing and then from there we were able to step out because seafood offers every cuisine generally speaking. I can take these ingredients and mold them into pretty much the entire coastal United States including Alaska and Hawaii. When I started surfing, I started understanding that it was better to go surfing in places where there were not expensive hotels. I got out of the comfort zone and started eating on dirt floors and outside taco stands [for lack of a better word]. It exposed me to a different culture [and] I would bring dishes back. There are probably 15 dishes on our menu that are based on some sort of surfing trip that I did. My old boss Jim Mills told me “Forget the recipes, Lance. Get to the part where the culture influenced the dish. Then you’re going to get authentic flavors and food.” I think you find that here [at Liberty Kitchen].
You’re currently a vegan chef and say a prayer of thanks when you take an animal’s life for cooking (such as lobster). How does this philosophy influence your current approach to running restaurants?
I had struggled with the part about being a vegan and owning a restaurant and killing multiple animals to essentially feed my family. I was given a pass by my Chinese medicine guy in Bali. He said, “Look, you can’t give up everything because you would hurt banks, vendors [and] employees. They need you—they should have you. Just don’t nourish yourself. And then when you have to take an animal yourself you need to do all the proper work.”
I don’t have guilt about it. I just don’t nourish my body with it. I do have to taste it but I sit with that and I ask for forgiveness. I don’t put it on anybody. I just feel better health-wise and in my spirit and soul a little bit. I put a vegan dish on the menu so I’d have something to eat. The last part about being a vegan, I found, is you have to really want to cook and you have to cook at home. I fell in love with simple cooking again. So, I touched on a newer part of myself I hadn’t seen in several years. I have fallen in love again with how food should taste like. I think my cooks are a little irritated because I’m more fine with my salt and things like that. Any flavor now for me is very sharp and I can pinpoint almost everything again. Like, I can tell if it’s a white shrimp or a brown shrimp now [just by flavor].
Would you recommend other chefs go vegan and then come back to cooking regularly because of this heightened sense of taste?
I think it’s an amazing thing to do. There’s no way you can be in this business this long and not start looking at a bowl of shrimp the same way and you’re only left with a couple of things. Does it have enough spice and is it cooked properly? I’ve found several different people cooking the same recipe and now I can see variations.
What do you suggest first time visitors order at Liberty Kitchen?
Hot smoked salmon, because I’ve been doing that since 1995 and I’ve got that one nailed down. We hang it on boards by the grill and let the residual heat and smoke cook the fish. It also works as a demonstrative tool through the open kitchens. No one does it in Houston in that context and it’s our signature dish. My favorite thing right now is our dry-aged prime beef program and any of our fish off the wood grill.
I still think our gumbo is the most unique in town. We are one of the few who use whole crab in the broth process. Our roux is dark, and we fry our oysters and okra separately. We serve it with potato salad on the side instead of rice like they do in Lafayette. I still think our poke is great. I’ve been serving poke since I was surfing the North Shore of Hawaii in 2000. Our Dixie Fried Chicken is one of the best in town because it takes three days to make it.
What are your personal favorite dishes here before and after becoming vegan?
Currently, the Shojin Ryori (one bowl each of a rice, noodle or grain, soup or stew, and a salad or vegetable) and the Persian salad without the chicken cutlet (I probably eat about two a day) [are my favorites]. It’s all the ingredients you’d see in a Persian dish including peppers, chickpea, radish, tomato, cucumber, olive, and a lot of torn fresh herbs like basil, mint and parsley, along with Za’atar, which is a mixture of sesame, sumac and salt. It’s based on a salad that the ambassador of Iran’s wife would make when I was his private chef at The Houstonian.
After becoming vegan, the ones I crave the most when I see them are the cheeseburger, especially the Eddie Would Go, and I miss really nicely grilled shrimp with a ton of butter. I miss the clean part of a really beautiful piece of fish and a salad. I miss handfuls of jumbo lump crabmeat—no sauce. I miss the purity of the protein, particularly the seafood.
What’s the best part of being a chef?
I think the most important part for me is about teaching. You continue to master your craft and you change as you need to change. You don’t fight the system. You have discipline but you still create, then you get results. Sometimes the results become a quality of life that you find more fulfilling—and that’s probably more about my opinion at this age.
What’s the worst part about being a chef?
One, having to carry some regret about missing things in my life like milestones and special events. I probably injured some people along the way. Maybe I was a little reckless with people. I wish I had handled myself better because this job, in a very negative way, can put you in a really bad spot. Your ego—we’ll just say that. Two, chefs today expose themselves to unlimited amounts of criticism. My advice is to let people complain; take the criticism and let it go because there’s another day.
If there is such thing as an “average” day as a chef at Libery Kitchen, what would that entail?
An average day for me is walking in, giving a couple guys a hug, making them laugh, tasting some food, offering constructive criticism, offering some ideas, taking some ideas and having fun cooking with them for a while. Eating their food that they cook for me and enjoying it is probably the best part. Surfing everyday has become an average thing for me and I don’t take that for granted. It is the thing that washes me in the morning, often washes me at night and changes my mindset from start to finish.
What’s your favorite way to unwind after a shift?
Surfing — it’s my office. I create there. I don’t think about anything out there. It’s a place I can sit with a friend and not talk for four hours. It brings me to tears, it brings me joy, it reminds me of where I came from as a human being. There’s an energy in that ecosystem, that chemical system. There’s no sex, drug or alcohol relationship that’s more important than that. It’s given me a new life and also provided a life for a lot of people, including my employees.
I think people would be interested to hear about the volunteer work you do with the Texas Marine Mammal Stranding Network. How did that start and how does it connect to your work as a chef?
It came from my love of the ocean but it really from the struggle I had as a restaurateur with the hundreds of calls we get per year requesting donations. It didn’t seem right to send small amounts to many places, so I thought let’s just pick one or two. Somehow, the name of this organization came up so we donated a dollar from select dishes.
Since I am the chef—and as such have the loudest voice in the company—and since we take from the ocean, it only makes perfect sense that we give immediately back to the ocean.
Now, I volunteer time instead of sending money (apart from Gumbo Week). I find that focused energy to one place brings some relief. We are making a difference. I can see it. I can walk into the facility, get into the water with the animal and see that I am helping. When I volunteer, I spend midnight to 4 a.m. carrying around a sick dolphin in 65 degree water in a therapy pool.