Richard Knight’s restaurants have been featured in The New York Times, Bon Appétit, Gourmet, Garden & Gun, and GQ, among other publications. He has also received two James Beard nominations and appeared on the Food Network’s The Best Thing I Ever Ate. Soon, his latest restaurant, Hunky Dory Tavern, will open in Houston. Below, in his words, is how he went from washing dishes to working as an executive chef and restauranteur.
RICHARD KNIGHT: I started, in the same way as many others have, as a dishwasher in a medium-sized bistro style restaurant in a small town in West Sussex, in the south of England. I had never really done a hard day’s work in my life so it was a bit of a shocker to have to do the dishes of two hundred people, plus all the pots and pans from the kitchen. For the first six months I was there, we had no machine, so I did it all by hand. At first it was just a job but fairly quickly I got intrigued by the food, the people, and the roller coaster that is a shift in a busy restaurant. That and I got a tip share, so if we got really busy, I walked away with a large wad of cash in my pocket. Which as a sixteen-year-old, I felt like a god even if I walked out of the shift wet and stinking of food. It became a pivotal time in my school life, a time where I had to make decisions about what I wanted to do with my life.
Before the job I was absorbed in books about micro electronics (which reminds me, I think I still have one from that library from 1984) and that was the direction I was going… but this restaurant thing, wow! It blew my mind. So I decided to go to the local college and do a degree in Hotel Management/ Catering and Industrial Operations. Which I think just meant you were qualified to cook a little, decipher some basic industry financials, and teach people how to clean toilets. The course was fine but it, like so many culinary courses even from big name colleges here in the USA, did not teach me about the real world and what it was really like in the trenches.
The day I finished college I jumped on a train to London, found a job as a room service waiter in a very posh boutique hotel, which as it happened had a company lodging house right next to Hyde Park. So I was set. The hotel was very used to the continual ebb and flow of students back and forth through its doors, so they put me to work all around the hotel. Not because they wanted me to get experience in all areas, but more so that I could cover when they were short of staff. They knew I was hungry to learn and would do anything. So I did everything, from room service, waiter, and chef to being a night porter in charge of the whole hotel, which at the age of eighteen was a frightening and enlightening experience with lots of rich gentlemen taking lots of very high-class hookers upstairs at all hours of the night.
After that job, I hitched around Europe with my friends, playing music on street corners to pay our way and eventually returning back to London. At that time I was working a couple of jobs in the front and back of house whilst growing my hair long and playing in a band. That lasted until my new American wife said no more. We then moved down to the far tip of England to a beautiful little fishing village where my parents lived. I was then taken on as the head chef at a failing beach restaurant. Once I saw the potential of the place and the wonderful array of fish which was available to me every day fresh from the docks, I was excited and fired up again about being in the kitchen. The restaurant thrived and in the end got national recognition. That was it, I was hooked again.
After the birth of our first daughter, my wife wanted to return home to the States. We moved to California and lived there briefly before coming back to Houston, where she had grown up. Once there, I stayed at home for a few years bringing up my two daughters, whilst selling boxed lunches to my wife’s co-workers as a bit of a side job. When I returned to full-time work, I joined the Compass Group (which was the largest food service company in the world) as a corporate chef. This was fantastic in so much that I was still able to have evenings, holidays, and weekends with my kids as well as jump start my career once more. I became a district chef, a chef manager, and eventually the executive chef of a very large kitchen downtown.
My best friend (James Silk) had just moved here from the UK and at that point we were doing some small catering gigs and getting our game plan together. The next step, and something that we had set our hearts on, was obviously to have our own place. By luck through an acquaintance we got the chance to run the restaurant side of a winery with two new unknown partners with a fake winery (should have seen this red flag perhaps).
Luckily one day we were serving a seven-course goat menu and the top food critic for the Houston Chronicle happened to spy it online. She came in and ate it all. Not long after that we were awarded the “2nd Best New Restaurant in Houston” award, which was insane considering we were far from Houston. Once we found out that our new partners were dubious at best, we ended our partnership with them.
It was then that we found an amazing property that became known as “Feast.” At Feast we came out of the gate strong, trying to be the first pioneers of nose-to-tail eating in Houston. Of course it was rough, and a slow process to open the minds of people here in Texas, but we made big strides and got national recognition in lots of publications including the New York Times, Bon Appétit, Gourmet,Garden & Gun, GQ, all the way to some in-flight magazines, two James Beard nominations and a couple of TV slots. The second television appearance featured us being chosen by Frank Bruni (ex-head NYT food critic) on The Best Thing I Ever Ate show, which obviously was a great honor for me as a chef.
Feast was a great labor of love. We went through a very sharp learning curve of being sole owners. We soon learned that we were responsible for everything in addition to cooking and serving the food every day. It was tough. The relentlessness of all the crazy stuff… from the repairing of electrical and plumbing during dinner service, to things breaking down and blowing up, to staff keying my car and slashing the tires and then calling the police on us… deliveries turning up wrong, belligerent and drunk customers and/or staff, vicious reviews online from people who didn’t know what they were talking about… dumpsters being set on fire, electrical pillions exploding, people jumping off our balcony to avoid paying their tab, customers and staff stealing from us, staff not tuning up for work, having the electricity out for two weeks after a hurricane, etc, etc… It was just another day as a restaurant owner. There were good times of course, especially times like when we had to go visit our pastry chef in jail to ask him how to do the sticky toffee pudding just like he did it. We had to close Feast when our lease was up and our landlords did not want to re-negotiate but in retrospect probably a good thing in the great scheme of things. We were there almost six years and briefly had a sister restaurant in New Orleans but it was time … time to move on.
I am currently waiting for my new restaurant (Hunky Dory Tavern) to be built in the Heights area by the Treadsack Group. The process of building a restaurant from ground up is an amazing and sometimes frustrating experience, however, it is truly a gift. We started talking about this over two years ago. It has been a journey – from discussing ideas, talking to architects, planning the kitchen, waiting for planning permission from the city, all the way to the first spade in the dirt. Hunky Dory is going have a European-based menu, with some American influences. In addition, we will be using as much locally farmed product as possible with “happy,” naturally raised animals. The entrance will lead you into either the bar, which will be styled like a casual English pub with a whole wall of leaded glass overlooking a giant oak tree–shaded patio area, or the main restaurant, which will be a little more upscale. It will feature wooden herringbone floors and decorative wooden ceilings, with an open pass to the kitchen showcasing our “Grilleworks” wood-burning winch grill.
I am known for my nose-to-tail, kind of cheeky English menu, taking classics and spinning them slightly to more modern tastes. The pub menu will be “pub classics.” The restaurant menu will feature items such as whole fish, aged steaks, ember-cooked vegetables, and homemade bread. We will also have a “Feasting” chef’s menu composed of some small plates to start and then a big hunk of meat to share. We will have a few elegant touches, like a champagne cart on arrival and digestives to go with dessert. All in all we want Hunky Dory Tavern to be a neighborhood place as well as a destination place to give people an experience like no other. That’s what it’s really all about.
The above was excerpted from the new Vault Career Guide to Hospitality.
Follow us on Twitter.