Crown Room

Last Updated: May 13, 2024By

When an origin story begins with the late Aubrey McClendon and Chef Kurt Fleischfresser – as The Crown Room’s does – you make time to hear the whole story, even at dinner. Or maybe especially at dinner. To quote Fleischfresser, his protege Chef Eric Smith, founder of The Crown Room, “…is part of the show.” 

“The show” is a private dinner in Smith’s tucked-in dining room inside Pachinko on Western. With the sale of the building that houses VZDs, Smith had to find a new home for his passion project, so he utilized what could easily have been a simple private dining room, transforming it into a venue – or theatre, if you will – for his multi-sensory dining experiences that began in 2015. 

For 26 years, Fleischfresser operated an apprenticeship program at The Coach House for would-be chefs. Forty-five chefs graduated, including Smith, who was the fifth to finish the program. It could have gone very differently, and very badly, because, per Smith’s own estimation, he had a “massive drinking problem.”

The Velma, Oklahoma, native grew up on a family farm and ranch, and attended school in Duncan. In addition to farming and ranching, his father also worked for a New Mexico oil company; his mother is a nutritionist, and per Smith, an excellent cook. He and his father, who passed away 20 years ago, enjoyed hunting quail and grilling. (To this day, Smith has quail-hunting regulars who bring him birds to cook for them.)

“I grew up with quail – my dad trained bird dogs – catfish, food from the family garden, and our own beef,” Smith said. “I started cooking when I was about ten, and a lot of my cooking was just me experimenting with different ingredients.”

When he finished high school, he enrolled in the hotel-restaurant management program at Oklahoma State University, and his time in a fraternity there exacerbated what was already a nascent drinking problem. He never finished the program. “I’d been in Payne County Jail so many times, I just needed to get out of Stillwater,” he said. 

During school, he had worked as a weekend chef at a sorority house, and he hoped to continue cooking. The plan was to enroll in Scottsdale Culinary Institute, so he took a job at Portobello, a long-closed restaurant owned by Fleischfresser and Chris Lower, which Deep Fork eventually used as their eponymous, flagship restaurant. 

“Someone told Kurt about this kid who loves to cook working front of house,” Smith said. “Kurt told me he’d been a chef in Scottsdale, and he was familiar with the program I was considering. He said he could do a better job of training me if I joined the apprenticeship program. I’m pretty sure we jumped in the car right then and drove to The Coach House. It was lust at first sight, and in five days, the entire trajectory of my life changed.” 

Fleischfresser remembers the 1993 Smith as a kid with “a lot of passion but who could be his own worst enemy.

I wanted to help him get across the finish line, so to speak,” Fleischfresser said. “Now, if anyone I know in the industry is trying to get sober and stay sober, I refer them to Eric. It’s so common in the industry, and I’m not the best guy to talk to about it, but Eric is.”

The other contributor to Smith’s story is Aubrey McClendon, and while many people don’t know what a huge contributor McClendon was to OKC’s culinary growth, The Crown Room would have had a more difficult genesis but for his generosity.

“Aubrey’s assistant for 17 years was my cousin, and his legal counsel, Martin Stringer, was my father’s fraternity brother,” Smith said. “I was looking for a place to open The Crown Room in Plaza District, when Stringer called to tell me VZDs was coming open, and Aubrey wanted to help.” 

They called Fanny Bolen to help with the design, and McClendon purchased the zinc-inlaid table with oil derricks for a base that is central to a Crown Room experience. Fleischfresser remember that Smith was always obsessed with aromas, even in the early days, and now the multisensory approach includes a spritz of citrus, herbal or floral notes, and every dinner ends with Smith circling the table with a boxful of Cuban cigar smoke, which he lets slowly escape so the result is aromatic, not offensive. 

Music is part of every dinner, and the selections are based on the age and preferences of the average diner in the party or the guest of honor. Smith is an unapologetic music nerd, but he said he learned early that people like what is familiar, exciting and comforting – doses of pure nostalgia, mostly – rather than deep cuts of the kind preferred by introverts who frequent vinyl shops. 

Every experience is a team effort, and Smith is quick to praise his cousin and sous chef Avery Cannon, his “cocktail chefs” (his words) Dylan Peacock and Michael Raiden, and his full-time sous chef at Pachinko, Shannon Sinard. “Everyone gets input,” Smith said. “Sometimes it’s just tweaks or suggestions, but sometimes they come up with brilliant cocktails or dishes, too. I don’t believe anything is at its best with only one person driving it.”

The approach is refreshing in an industry rife with micromanagers and control freaks. In spite of his sobriety, Smith estimates he handles 95-percent of the beverage pairings, and he credits longtime wine professional Clayton Bahr – now of Premium Brands – for helping him over the years. He begins with mocktails, which he can sample, and then trusts Peacock and Raiden to choose spirits that don’t interfere with the flavor profile. 

Unlike a menu tasting restaurant, the portions are large enough that no one leaves hungry, but similar to the other model, diners don’t have to make choices. They report allergies, dietary restrictions, etc., and then enjoy Smith’s creativity, humor and skill. Smith is part of the show. He learned young that diners like to be made fun of – just a little bit – or featured in a schtick, something every experienced female bartender knows.

“They want to be included, to be part of the experience, and I’m really good at two things: being funny and cooking.” About both those things, he is correct, and The Crown Room is Smith’s externalized, but now mostly tamed, id on display for our benefit.  

First Published in Luxiere

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