BY KELLEY CHAMBERS
After a stint at Cafe 501, he was hired as executive chef of Viceroy Grille, the restaurant in the new Ambassador Hotel Midtown.
Novak runs an efficient kitchen; everyone pitches in. He cooks, does prep work and even washes dishes when required.
As the newest boutique hotel in town, the Ambassador is drawing a mix of business and leisure travelers who, when they want a good meal, need only head downstairs to Viceroy Grille.
So, have you met Leo Novak?
After three years at The Red Cup, what led you to the apprentice program at The Coach House under Chef Kurt Fleischfresser? I wanted to learn how to cook. I went down there and walked in the back door, and a guy was standing on a board with his head in the ceiling and I asked to speak with the chef. He bent his head down and said, “Yeah, that’s me.” We talked about food for about two hours. He told me about his apprenticeship program and how I would learn to cook in a French kitchen. They were remodeling the restaurant and adding a pastry room. He said it was really bizarre but I came on the right day because he had a spot in the program, but I would need to decide quickly.
How long did it take you to decide to accept the offer? Before I even got home, I made up my mind that I was going to work at The Coach House, and I was there for three years.
What brought you back to Oklahoma? I have a four-year-old daughter. I realized that my first job in life is being a great father. I have lots of family in Oklahoma City. It just made sense to move back. I also had a network in Oklahoma City, and I wanted to further my career. I came back and worked at Cafe 501 on Classen Curve.
Did you apply at the Viceroy and start the next day? No. It was a four-month interview process.
What can diners expect at Viceroy? We’re crafting an experience that is very thoughtful and personal. It’s fooddriven. You’ll find me out in the dining room a lot. I like to interact with my customers. I come from a large family that sat down to dinner together every night at 5 p.m. In this dining room, it’s a very comfortable atmosphere.
You helped open The Red Cup almost 20 years ago. Was that your first experience in a restaurant? I had worked in one restaurant as a waiter, but The Red Cup was such a cool concept. I was the first employee, and I was self-taught. I learned to cook and bake there, and it taught me not to get stressed out. If we ran out of bowls, we’d use coffee cups, or pots or whatever we had available.
Where did you go after you graduated from the program? Kurt talked me into being the executive chef at Deep Fork Grill.
And then you headed to Texas and then Colorado? Yes. I actually got out of the business for a couple of years. I remodeled and designed home kitchens, but something was missing: I wasn’t cooking. In Austin, I got back into it and worked at Whole Foods Market as head baker. Then I moved to Crested Butte.
Is cooking your passion, or is it your job? I’m passionate about cooking, but I’m really passionate about bread-making. I’m first and foremost an artisan breadmaker. When you’re at home alone and just cooking for yourself, what do you like to make? It’s so funny, but I really love a good frozen pizza or those little pizza rolls. I can eat a whole bag.