As Chef Paul Langer tells it, before he was a cook, he was a server … if by that you mean a toddler fake-scribbling family orders for “chocolate or frozen” dessert.
“Frozen what was anyone’s guess,” Langer says. “My paternal grandmother let me set up a toy kitchen in her kitchen, and on one of those occasions, she asked me to make chocolate mousse for her. I distinctly remember telling her she needed to catch a moose first.”
From that inauspicious beginning, Langer has risen to co-executive chef at Vast, one of Oklahoma City’s most visible culinary jobs. He left the toy kitchen behind and began to experiment with actual cooking – scrambled eggs were first. The family ate around the table most evenings, even though both parents worked. “My mother was and is a great cook, who somehow made time to cook for us while being a working mother,” Langer says.
An Oklahoma native, Langer was raised eating in some of OKC’s iconic spots: Queen Anne Cafeteria, Lady Classen Cafeteria, Nomad, Allen’s Onion Burgers and Cattlemen’s. His maternal grandparents loved dining out, and his grandfather was always decked out in suit and tie. Langer said it’s how he learned to love the “pomp and circumstance of dining out,” something that comes in handy as the chef of Vast.
As it has for so many young cooks, a trip to Louisiana changed Langer’s culinary perspective. After experiencing the food and food culture there, he returned to Oklahoma to find nothing comparable.
“That inspired me to find those recipes and recreate the gumbos, the meat pies, the greens, and the red beans and rice,” he says.
After a year at OU, he was seriously considering the Culinary Institute of America in New York, but they required six months of experience.
“At the time, my uncle and I had been frequenting Saturn Grill for our lunches, so why not learn how to make the food at a place I enjoyed and respected,” he said. “Luckily for me, Brian Ward and Joseph Royer, both graduates of the Coach House apprentice program, gave me a job learning the salad station. They told me about Kurt and his program, walked me through the pros and cons of culinary school, and it became pretty clear that the Coach House should be my goal.”
He completed the training in 2013, working with Chef David Henry and a who’s who of OKC chefs: Kurt Fleischfresser, Josh Valentine, Beth Lyon and Vuong Nguyen, as well as Kevin Lee, whom he succeeded at Vast.
“Coming to Vast has been more of a family reunion than a new job,” Langer says. He hopes with Lee’s departure from Vast that Kurt Fleischfresser will name him the new golf partner – after the weather warms up, of course. In the meantime, he’s glad to share a winter recipe for savory Natchitoches Meat Pies.
Natchitoches Meat Pies
For the dough
5 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups water, or thereabouts
2 tsp salt
Combine all ingredients by hand, or with the dough hook attachment of your stand mixer, and knead until a smooth cohesive dough has formed, about five minutes. Depending on the humidity, you may find you have to use a little more water to bring the dough together. Let the dough rest, wrapped in plastic wrap, for a minimum of one hour. You can let it rest, refrigerated, overnight also.
For the filling
8 ounces ground beef
8 ounces ground pork
1 small yellow onion, finely diced
1 red bell pepper, finely diced
2 large ribs of celery, finely diced
6 cloves of garlic, finely minced
3 green onions, thinly sliced
2 tsp paprika
1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1/2 tsp dried thyme
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper (optional if heat tolerance is an issue)
1 cup beef stock
2 Tbsp Worcestershire sauce
2 Tbsp all purpose flour
Salt to taste
Oil for frying, peanut oil is preferred, but any neutral flavored oil will work.
• Heat a large skillet on high. When hot, add the beef and the pork and brown, making an effort to break up large chunks of meat with the back of a wooden spoon. When meat has been thoroughly browned, remove the meat from the skillet and let it drain on a paper towel lined plate or pan.
• Drain all but 2 tablespoons of fat from the pan.
• Add the onion, bell pepper, celery, and garlic to the pan and cook on low until the vegetables have softened.
• Add the paprika, pepper, thyme, and cayenne pepper, and cook for two minutes, or until the spices become fragrant.
• Add back in your beef and pork.
• Sprinkle the flour over the mixture and stir to combine.
• Add in green onions.
• Pour the beef stock and Worcestershire sauce into the pan, raise the temperature to medium, and bring to the boil.
• Let the filling cool slightly while you set up a food processor.
• Take roughly one-third of the filling and process until smooth.
• Dump this back into the rest of the filling and stir to combine. This gives the filling a more bound feel and a more interesting texture. Let filling cool in the refrigerator overnight, or for at least one hour.
• Fill a large pot or Dutch oven with oil for frying, about 1/4 of the way full, no more. Heat to 375 degrees.
• Portion the rested dough into ping-pong ball sized pieces.
• Using a floured surface, or a tortilla press if available, roll each piece out to between 5 and 6 inches in diameter.
• Put a few tablespoons of the filling in the center of the dough circle.
• Fold dough over the filling, and use the back of a fork to crimp and seal the edges of the pie together.
• Using a slotted spoon, or spider strainer, lower pies into oil and fry until golden brown, 3 to 5 minutes. You should be able to fry 3 at a time, depending on the size of your pot.
• Let drain on a wire rack and serve hot.