Chef Kurt Fleischfresser’s curiosity helped establish city’s love of localized menus

(Ashley Parks)

(Ashley Parks)

If you haven’t noticed already, Oklahoma Gazette celebrates its 35th birthday this month, and oh, how times have changed.

In 1979, this alt-weekly was in its infancy and chain restaurants ruled the landscape. Inventive, local fare was scarce.

Thirty years ago, Kurt Fleischfresser was a work-study scholarship student at Oklahoma State University, working part-time in its cafeteria. So began a culinary adventure that transformed not only what Oklahomans eat but how they think about food.

Today, chef Fleischfresser and his many apprentices, along with countless men and women who also adhere to his fondness for regionally sourced menus, embody a dining revolution that has provided this city with hundreds of locally owned eateries.

We talked with him about his career and the changes in OKC food culture.

MORE 35TH ANNIVERSARY COVERAGE: •  OKC, OKG grew together as paper chronicled city’s revival. •  Timeline: A brief history of Oklahoma Gazette. •  Reader response: What you love most about OKG. •  Leaders share Gazette memories. •  OKG Eat: Practice makes perfect! •  Chef Kurt Fleischfresser’s curiosity helped establish city’s love of localized menus. •  OKG arts groups have persisted, prospered for decades. •  As OKG grew, so did OKC's performing arts scene. •  Oklahoma music scene is still a work in progress.

Oklahoma Gazette: Is it fair to say that you transformed how Oklahoma City dines? Kurt Fleischfresser: I’m not sure I would go that far, but I think I have had a positive influence.

OKG: What was it like to dine out in OKC 35 years ago? Even 10 years ago? KF: Thirty-five years ago, I was 19 and I had a great meal at The Great American Railroad. It was a grilled steak and huge shrimp grilled in-shell, [and] that was as fancy as I would eat back then. Shortly after that, I started on the path to be a chef myself. I trained around the country, and then I moved back to Oklahoma for a position [here] … It was so hard to buy fresh fish or interesting veggies [and] anything that wasn’t steak.

OKG: You trained at Le Vichyssois in Illinois, among other places, but you returned in 1988. What prompted your return? KF: Oklahoma had just passed liquor-by-the-drink, Remington Park was being built; a lot of exciting things were happening. I wanted to take my training and use Oklahoma products to come up with a regional cuisine that was truly our own.

click to enlarge Kurt Fleischfresser’s lamb chops with seasonal asparagus, potatoes, turnips and spinach at Vast, located atop Devon Tower. (Shannon Cornman)
Shannon Cornman
Kurt Fleischfresser’s lamb chops with seasonal asparagus, potatoes, turnips and spinach at Vast, located atop Devon Tower.

OKG: What did you find most surprising about restaurant-goers during this time? KF: The thing I noticed the most is that Oklahomans loved to travel and eat at crazy restaurants out of town, but when they were here, they liked to eat a little more feet-on-the-ground style. It wasn’t that they didn’t have seasoned palates; it was just that there were different expectations.

OKG: How did locals respond to your ideas about seasonal menus and local ingredients? KF: The first four menus I did completely changed with each season — it was too much. When guests liked a dish, they expected to come back and order it again, [and] that’s when I learned to have a base of solid menu items and a variety of seasonal specials. The farmers and ranchers thought I was a little weird when I went and approached them [directly] for products for the restaurants; there was a big learning curve. Now, you have producers that will come and approach you, which is fantastic.

OKG: Have you been tempted to leave again? KF: I’ve always had great faith in Oklahoma. I really enjoy living here and the people that are here. Luckily, I’ve been able to travel a lot, but it’s always great to come home.

OKG: One consistent comment from Gazette readers is the impact it has on their dining choices. What impact do you feel it has had on readers? How well has it kept up with culinary trends and traditions? KF: I think the Gazette has done a great job of being a part of the local dining scene. It always emphasizes the positive while acknowledging what could improve. It has been great watching the food and drink section develop to where it is now. It touches on a lot of places, people and things each week, especially the great ethnic places in OKC.

OKG: You’ve met and worked with many top chefs. Who has inspired you? KF: John Bennett, Jacques Pépin, Roland Passot, David Chang and Daniel Boulud, just to name a few.

OKG: Who do you consider your peers? KF:Everybody in the independent restaurant community. There are too many to mention, but I am constantly learning just by observing what’s going on around me.

OKG: How have you most changed in three decades, and how has OKC most changed? KF: Personally, I am more confident and comfortable with my abilities. As for OKC, I love that there are now so many options [that] we are no longer a second-rate dining city.

(Ashley Parks)

(Ashley Parks)

Print headline: Eat it up, Over 30 years, chef Kurt Fleischfresser’s curiosity helped establish our city’s love of localized menus.

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