Meet the Fort Myers chef reframing how we think about dining

Liberty chef/owner Bob Boye approaches every detail of his restaurant with intention—and it shows.

BY August 1, 2023
Liberty Chef Bob Boye
Liberty chef/owner Bob Boye (Photo by Anna Nguyen)

From one of the 10 counter seats at Fort Myers’ Liberty, you see some of the finer rock ‘n’ roll machinations of a team in effortless lockstep. When dinner service starts at 5:15 p.m., the trio behind the counter is like an army prepared for battle—calm, ready to execute. As guests come in, the energy dials up. So does the music. Everyone finds their groove; the team tweezing garnish and skillfully slicing wahoo, moving as if in ballet to the beats of Kanye West and 50 Cent.

But there’s no ‘Yes, chef!’ barked in unison here. Wearing a backward black baseball cap and sleeves of tattoos on both arms, chef-owner Bob Boye doesn’t impose hierarchy in his kitchen. “If your coat says ‘executive chef,’ I don’t really care—your food better be great. Period,” the 38-year-old says. But Bob doesn’t feel the need for fancy titles at Liberty, anyway. The kitchen isn’t large enough to divide into specific tasks or positions, and Bob usually places his cousin, Richee Boye, in the chef role, preferring to take a back seat unless implementing a new project. “Your skill set shouldn’t be limited to only the things you already know—I expect everyone that works with us to learn something new on a weekly basis,” Bob says.

Shielded behind panels of frosted glass, the stamp-sized, small plate-focused Liberty feels like a vortex, drawing you into a world apart from the cacophony of the nearby Tamiami Trail. Inside, your name is chalked on a placard at your table, and no two dining experiences look the same. The menu is presented like a bingo card. Squares with names of dishes are divided into rows, the top containing the lightest fare, leading down to heavier mains and then rounding out the bottom with dessert—the highlight of which is Bob’s signature medium-rare chocolate chip cookies (the seemingly impossible gooey-not-raw morsels result from Bob’s scientific precision, with ingredients measured down to the gram and temperatures considered at every turn). Plates, intended to be shared, stream two to four at a time from the kitchen as they’re fired—two-bite pineapple and mojo pork tacos; pistou-laden duck confit; and ribeye cap pintxos (a Basque spin on bar snacks).

While he initially called Liberty a “culinary workshop” when he opened three years ago, Bob has since scratched that description, since diners often confused Liberty as a place for cooking classes. Instead, Bob’s idea of a ‘workshop’ was a restaurant with a team that progressively innovates with ideas and presentations. The title may have changed—he now calls it an “alternative American restaurant”—but the idea hasn’t.

When the Fort Myers native opened Liberty, his first independent restaurant, in September 2019, his vision was to create a small, intimate space in a less-expensive side of town with low overhead. He wanted somewhere that didn’t need to be open every day, where diners didn’t care if it was in a splashy building or at a large intersection—the focus would be on the food. “We didn’t set out with a giant budget to create a culinary theater or masterpiece,” he explains. The extent of renovation to the unit that once housed Mad Fresh Bistro entailed adding some furniture and a splash of paint on the walls.

It would seem natural for a restaurant of Liberty’s size and disposition to focus on a tasting-menu format, where chefs flaunt their skills, like a theatrical play, with a series of small plates and every step directed entirely by the kitchen. But that’s not how Bob does it. He didn’t want to tack on a $300-person price tag, so instead, he designed a more approachable à la carte menu. Whereas some restaurants present haute elements such as caviar and A5 Japanese Wagyu beef simply on a plate like a pedestal, Bob focuses on elevating his food in other ways. He enhances dishes and transforms ingredients through pickling and preserving, confiting and salt-curing, layering plates through unexpected textures and flavors, and weaving in leftover braising liquid or lesser-wanted cuts so nothing goes to waste.

Parisian gnocchi
Bob’s culinary ethos revolves around rethinking expected ideas around food and delighting guests with every bite. On the menu, you might find a Parisian gnocchi (pictured above), which has been on the menu since day one but is constantly evolving, or teriyaki cauliflower with black garlic that’s aged in-house for 45 days to add depth and richness to the sauce (pictured below). Every ingredient, technique and garnish is intentional. “The goal is not to simply innovate for innovation’s sake,” the chef says. (Photo by Vanessa Rogers)
Teriyaki cauliflower at Liberty
(Photo by Vanessa Rogers)

Everything should be open to change, Bob thinks, so his dishes evolve over time. His signature 50-layer potato has been “50 different things,” he says, but he thinks he may have found its final expression: a seared block of potato pave, crispy on all sides and finished with beef broth-caramelized onions and gravy and a creamy layer of melted gruyère cheese on top, so it has all the looks and fixings of a French onion soup. In the past, Bob experimented with roasted garlic aioli and truffle crème fraîche in the dish, but this time around, he focused on the onions and which type would best express his idea of a deconstructed French onion soup. He started with caramelized red onions and added beef broth to deepen the flavor. The color wasn’t quite right, so he tried yellow onions the next week, but their high moisture made the onions soggy when caramelized. The third time was the charm: Bob used sweet onions and swapped out the aioli—which accompanied the potato dish for nearly two years—for cheese, which Bob calls the perfect finish. “It’ll be hard to convince me this dish needs to be changed again,” he adds.

The Bob of 20 years ago wouldn’t recognize the Bob now. As a student at the University of South Florida (“I studied marketing, business administration, psychology—I bounced all over,” Bob says), he bartended at party spots where gummy bear shots and flaming cocktails were standard, and his personal diet was devoid of culinary flare. “I was a plain Jane, steak-and-potatoes kind of guy—the opposite of a person who would go and dine at a place like Liberty,” he says.

Training as a bartender at the now-shuttered Cru in South Fort Myers in early 2010, he gravitated toward cooking, watching how plates were assembled, and slowly moved into preparing simple items, like flatbreads. In six months, he became a line cook, and by 2015, Bob was the chef-owner. He didn’t have any formal culinary training to reference as he navigated his way up the ranks of the restaurant world. Instead, Bob learned from esteemed chefs he worked alongside at Cru, by eating his way around town and visiting restaurants and wine regions across the country. He day-tripped to Tampa, Orlando and Miami; ventured to Chicago to sample the restaurants and bars in the Michelin-earning Alinea Group; consumed every morsel of knowledge Jordan Kahn at the two-Michelin-starred Vespertine generously shared on a visit to  Culver City, CA; and traveled to New York to dine at lauded Eleven Madison Park. In 2013, Bob visited Oregon’s wine country to attend a pinot noir camp hosted by 50 wineries in the Willamette Valley. Winemakers acted as camp counselors, leading the group through wineries, vineyards, and tastings—some of them blind, masking the labels of the bottles so everyone had to guess which pinots were grown in which soil. Bob’s answers were often correct, even though he was only three years into his culinary career. He had a knack for the finer points of dining and wining. (Unsurprisingly, Liberty benefits from a stellar wine list, filled with lesser-known yet accomplished producers.) Bob still plans vacations around restaurant reservations, looking for inspiration from spots like two Michelin-starred Scandinavian tasting-menu Aska in Brooklyn. “It looks like an apartment transformed into a restaurant at the base of the Williamsburg Bridge and isn’t what most Michelin spots are like these days,” he says. “It was reasonably priced with no French or Asian fusion.”

Bob readily draws inspiration and ideas from his culinary capers. At Alinea, he had a scallop dish that was dehydrated and rolled into a paper-thin cylinder. He used that concept as a jumping-off point for his scallop chip sprinkled with black and white sesame seeds. This is just like Bob: He’s constantly puzzle-piecing recipes to give diners the best of him. He confers with his team daily, and the menu rotates as often as he feels necessary. The adjustments are often so slight, diners can’t pinpoint the change. He might tweak the “fancy mustard” (roasted garlic, honey, Dijon, olive oil) so it becomes a Savora mustard (vinegar, cinnamon, nutmeg and other aromatics) or change up an element of a classic dish like beef tartare—which has been on the menu since opening—by garnishing it with a black lava salt from Cyprus and aioli from rendered bone marrow. “The goal is not to simply innovate for innovation’s sake,” he says, explaining how some of the signature items can be finessed or freshened depending on the season, availability and how long they’ve been on the menu.

In December, Liberty started serving a hearty shaved celery root lasagna shareable by the heaping forkful. But after the second week, his cousin and right-hand chef, Richee, said: “It’s probably time.” They use this phrase often at Liberty, when a dish has run its course or needs some tweaking. The same week, due to diners’ demand, they made another batch of lasagna, so it really wasn’t time—yet. They retired it for spring and summer, but Bob thinks he’ll bring it back later this year.

Bob hopes his menu can inspire other local restaurants to step out of the box and experiment in their own way. In the early days of his culinary journey, Bob would often sit at a local bar with a cookbook and read, eat, and drink wine—his method of soaking up inspiration. Now, chefs from around Southwest Florida turn out regularly to absorb his provisions. Since season ended after Easter, he’s seen a fellow chef at his counter almost nightly. “The fact that we were on people’s radar, that we were a place chefs wanted to go to [when they have time off], that’s the biggest compliment I could ask for,” Bob says. 

Related Images: