Hunky Dory Holidays
It’s hard to discuss holidays without the conversation drifting to warm, gooey memories of food, and this is no coincidence. For most of us, time spent celebrating with loved ones generally revolves around the dining table.
We share in pivotal culinary traditions: wedding cake to honor a new couple; more cake and ice cream for the birthday boy or girl; Fourth of July picnics of fried chicken, watermelon and macaroni salad beneath the flicker of fireworks; and, of course, the most iconic American holiday feast—roast turkey on Thanksgiving.
For Richard Knight, executive chef of Hunky Dory, no Christmas would be complete without a dazzling Christmas pudding, set aflame with brandy. “I would make it with my mother each year,” says the English chef. He now prepares the memory-steeped dessert not for family but for guests of the Heights restaurant, along with turkey with bread sauce and classic mince pies—all customary foodstuffs of his homeland, where he first acquired the hospitality itch when he was only 15.
“It intrigued me,” recalls the chef of his first job at a local bistro, where his parents, after completing a redesign of the space and being asked if they knew any dishwashers, offered up their son. “It was so insane, the whole thing—the service, the food, the crazy people that worked there and all the shenanigans. And so I thought, ‘This is kind of cool, even though I’m washing dishes.’”
With mirth, Knight describes how soon after—with experience that barely included boiling an egg—he dedicated himself to cooking, hosting dinners at home for friends. “It was that time in the 1980s when microwaves had just come out in England, and I cooked everything out of the microwave—even stuffed trout.”
Before long, Knight secured his fate by enrolling in a hotel management and catering program, which led to experience in big London hotels. After working both front and back of house—all while playing in a rock band—love eventually led him Stateside 20 years ago, first to California and then Houston, where he says his first big break happened, of all places, in Conroe. While running the kitchen at Taverna Winery & Restaurant, a zany menu featuring 18 different goat dishes earned the attention of Houston Chronicle Food Critic Alison Cook, and suddenly the young chef was on the map. From there, Knight partnered with fellow Brits to open Feast on Westheimer (“I’ve always wanted an old, funky house”), where he served Houstonians responsibly sourced nose-to-tail preparations in a cozy atmosphere, helping pave the way for the current wave of farm-to-table fare across the city.
Hunky Dory, which celebrated its first anniversary last month, features Knight’s seasonal British-American cuisine and pub fare, tinged with his wry brand of wit and whimsy: thinly pounded pork chops presented glazed and stacked on a cake stand; English chips and queso, which arrives at the table bubbling like a witch’s cauldron; “The Silver Salver,” an ornate, beautifully arranged tray of housemade terrine, cheeses, relishes and pickles; or the fleets of chocolate mousse mice the chef likes to send out.
“To me, this place is really made for the holidays,” says Chris Cusack, co-owner of the Treadsack hospitality group that includes Hunky Dory. “It’s warm and inviting… Rich is a talented chef because of his sense of history, because of his attention to detail, because of the humor that he brings to his food, because he cares about what goes on a plate.”
For an industry full of people who have dedicated their lives to service, the winter season—when most gather with friends and family to celebrate the holidays—is spent like any other time of year: feeding everyone else. Admittedly, the long hours, alienating schedule and physical rigor can be trying—not to mention the constant demand to stay relevant.
“This is a very hard food city,” admits Cusack, alluding to the sheer number of restaurants competing in the market. “To be successful while pushing the food and drink scene forward means you have to be willing to introduce new ideas to people that they can get excited about… To be honest, the people that are here do it because they love it.”
Customer appreciation also goes far in cultivating back-of-house morale. “At home, you’ve got your family—even if you’re doing a lavish dinner of three courses, you’ve got a few things to think about,” says Knight. “When you’re doing that with this many people and they’re all having different things, you have to get them all on different plates, all at the same time, all at the right temp, all cooked to perfection, and then out the door and to the table without screwing it up.”
After all this orchestration, having a dish sent back for a trivial reason can really throw a wrench in the works. “It’s like, ‘Do you know the time, the effort, the love, the passion, blood, sweat and tears that went into this?’” the chef laments. “But it’s all about the customer and that’s what we have to remember… they’re an investment in the future.”
Good tunes are helpful, too. Hunky Dory was actually named after David Bowie’s fourth album, which happened to be the only CD that didn’t skip in the kitchen at Feast, where, as chef-owner, Knight clinched his notoriety on the Houston culinary scene. He uses music to set the tone early morning (with “of course, plenty of cups of tea”), as well as play more lively, crazy stuff just before a busy service to pump up the team.
With four restaurants, three bars, a fishmonger and a culinary magazine in the fold, Cusack and his Treadsack team have cultivated their own support system. Having this built-in work family makes things like taking off a few days to get married (like Cusack did last year and Knight will do this December) a little easier. Of course, when all your friends also work when others play, it means many close companions will be left out of special occasions… but that’s what afterparties are for, says Knight: “We have a workaround.”
Similarly, industry staff parties notoriously commence in January once the holiday hustle has passed. At Hunky Dory, Knight hosts a Robert Burns supper. There’s haggis and readings of the Scottish poet’s work, and, generously, we’re all invited. Stay tuned for details. In the meantime, as you enjoy festive meals with loved ones this season, make a point to note the little extra details crafted by the folks who’ve dedicated their careers to making sure your time spent with them is magical.
> Hunky Dory (treadsack.com) is located at 1801 N. Shepherd Dr. and serves lunch (M-F), dinner (every night) and brunch (Sa-Su). 713-864-2450.