It's 4:30 pm on a recent weekday, and Hunky Dory is buzzing. The two-year build out has been completed, and the property that was once the site for a used car lot and a couple of dilapidated houses now contains two of Houston's most eagerly anticipated restaurants.
Soon, 100 or so invited guests will dine at the restaurant for a friends and family service. The staff sets tables with napkins and flatware while sous chef Daniel Blue tosses another log onto the wood-burning hearth — sending sparks flying. While the audience of significant others, fellow Treadsack employees and family members will be sympathetic to any stumbles, the staff wants to put its best foot forward before the public arrives the next night.
For executive chef Richard Knight, Hunky Dory's opening marks his first return to a full-time restaurant since Feast shuttered in 2013. Although he would probably rather be in the kitchen with his cooks, he graciously agrees to sit down and answer a few questions about the restaurant's development, how Hunky Dory compares to Feast and whether he's planning on getting a new tattoo.
CultureMap: How does it feel to be here now that the restaurant is almost open?
Richard Knight: Like a strange dream . . . Now that it’s actually here it’s not really exactly as I imagined it in my head — even though I saw all the drawings and designed the kitchen. When you actually see life in it and the finishing touches like the lighting and the bottles behind the bar, it’s become this thing that’s alive. It was just this dead shell for so many months, but now it’s full of smells and hubbub and chefs running around. It’s got a life of its own. It’s just going to organically grow into this beautiful thing.
CM: Are you ready?
RK: I think so. I’ve got an amazing crew. Daniel Blue, who worked with me at Feast and then went to John Besh and worked in Germany, came back at just the right time a year ago. We know each other really well, which has helped things move along. We just got a new sous chef Matthew Boson who’s originally from Houston and done some work in really cool places in San Francisco. We’ve also got another guy coming down from New York. We all seem to be on the same page and we all seem to be wanting this thing to be so beautiful and so magical and such a good experience for people.
CM: How many items from Feast are on the menu?
RK: Actual Feast recipes there’s probably one or two: sticky toffee pudding and something else. It’s going to be a little bit of Feast coming through once we get established. The menu, especially when we’re starting out, is just going to be about getting things right. There will be a little more Feast stuff creeping in. It was be more sort of blackboard stuff where we get to play a little more and have things for the more adventurous people and the Feast diehards.
CM: I saw some chatter on Twitter that people are hoping for Exmoor toasts.
RK: That'll be back. Everybody loves that.
CM: What's the biggest difference between the experience of opening Hunky Dory versus Feast?
RK: It’s just going into a slightly different world and doing steaks and more mainline stuff, which I’ve been out of that world for quite a time. The thing about having staff is another. At Feast it was two of us and on weekends there was three of us. Literally, Santiago, our garde manager, did most of his own stuff. The rest of the stuff me and James did everyday.
At Feast, we got a couple of credit cards, signed the lease, bought some food and some wine, met some people and off we went. Here it’s been literally a year into testing and putting that in books and extrapolating that into stations.
It’s a beast in a lot of respects. Feast we just toodled along everyday. We created stuff, and we just did it. Here I’ve got to tell all these people what to do.
I did corporate work. I had a very big kitchen at the old Enron building. Just getting back into that world of having this army of people around you and being hands-off. I’m just wanting to get into everything. I just need to step back and teach them how to do it and let them roll. That’s been the hardest part so far is letting other people cook.
CM: Some of the media accounts have referred to Hunky Dory as a steakhouse. Do you think of it that way?
RK: It started out a little more in that direction in the early days, and we kept tweaking the idea and realized that’s not what we’re going for. Just because we have a big, wood-burning hearth grill doesn’t mean we’re a steakhouse. We can be so much more. We are doing a couple of steaks, and we’re doing a monster steak from hell, a giant porterhouse to share. It’s going to be at least 32-ounces, I think.
Benjy (Mason, Treadsack director of restaurant operations) had this great idea from a restaurant he went to in Vermont that did mashed potatoes and fries with all the steaks, like, both. That’s the best idea ever. If I got that in a restaurant, I would be ecstatic. We’re going to do that. Our hearth items, everything comes with mashed and fries.
Steakhouse, no, not really. Restaurant and tavern is a good kind of direction for it. I didn’t want to call it a pub or a gastropub, because there’s so many god awful people who have that in front of their restaurant name. It’s been so abused, one of those trend things that’s gone by.
I suppose we’re New American. Perhaps we’re New English. That’s what we’re doing here. 'New English,' I don’t know if anyone’s coined that phrase, but perhaps I should. Taking from my roots, I am still using a lot of the old recipes from the old cookbooks which I love and melding it with the local stuff here.
It’ll be interesting to see from the public and you guys what we get labeled as. But, 'New English,' I’m liking this word.
CM: You have a pig tattoo from the Feast days. Will you add a Hunky Dory rabbit?
RK: I know Chris (Cusack) will. I think we should. You should, too. Absolutely, I’m going to. Damn right, sir.
Hunky Dory is open for dinner seven days a week and brunch on the weekends. Lunch will follow in a month. Reservations available via Open Table.
Portions of this interview have been edited for length and clarity.