The empire behind some of the Heights' most exciting ventures is headed north. Northern Thailand, that is.
Chris Cusack, Benjy Mason and Richard Knight revealed a few weeks ago that they'll be opening a neighborhood tavern and whiskey bar at 18th and Shepherd in the coming year, and last week they announced plans to open Foreign Correspondents on the same property within the next year.
Hunky Dory will focus on simple gourmet food with a British edge, much like the menu at the now-closed Feast where Knight was the chef. Though it will share some space, 200-seat Foreign Correspondents will be completely different, with a focus on Northern Thai cuisine with a farm-to-table mentality.
Joining the group is fishmonger PJ Stoops, who's stepping away from the mongering for now to serve as head chef at Foreign Correspondents. The group, led by Stoops, gave Houston a preview of what is to come at the new Thai restaurant back in August when D&T Drive Inn hosted a farm-to-table Thai pop-up dinner they called "Midnight Sticky Rice." The dinner was a huge success with sold out crowds of people happily munching on everything from brains to bitter Thai vegetables that had probably never seen a Houston kitchen.
We caught up with Cusack to find out more about the new Thai restaurant, farm-to-table cooking and what, exactly, is in a name.
Eating Our Words: So why northern Thai food? Why now?
Chris Cusack: Well, we found this property, and we had this idea when we'd committed to working together with Richard (Knight). So we talked about concepts. At a certain point, we thought this is really expensive and there's a cost to having property and building it out. So we started wondering if we could make this work with two concepts, and that would decrease the risk that the restaurant would have to take.
The Southeast Asian cuisine was always one of the things that we like. There's so much to explore there and there's so much that's not being done in Houston. The big thing for us was that all of it has to be right.
EOW: What else did you need to get right?
CC: We knew that PJ, being our fish guy, had lived in Thailand, but I did not know the extent of his kitchen experience. So Benjy and Richard were like, we should talk to him and see if he'd be interested in consulting or something. He's like the king of fish in Houston, so we didn't think that he'd be interested. When I asked, he said he'd be interested in what we were doing. And I said to him, 'While you're at it, if you see a sous chef who might be interested in running the show, let us know.' And he was like, 'I'll do it!' We found out later that this is the thing he's been looking for exactly for the last six years.
EOW: How fortuitous!
CC: I know! So right then and there, we started to come up with a dinner to see how we worked together. And PJ came back like a day later, and I think literally the next day, I had stuff in the works for making the invites.
Before I commit to working with someone on a project, there are a couple of things I need to know. First, do they have skills? Do they know the mechanics? And second, are they a good person, a good communicator, a person I want to spend time with? It was such an awesome experience working with PJ and Benjy and Richard (at Midnight Sticky Rice), and I had a great time. The fact that so many people were interested was a great sign.
EOW: Okay, so at the Midnight Sticky Rice dinner, people kept asking you if this was part of something new you were working on, and you totally said it wasn't! You're sneaky.
CC: Well, we didn't know for sure, and that's really what we were hoping to find out with the dinner. Any time someone asks me questions like that, I don't want to put the cart before the horse.
EOW: I understand. So clarify something for me: Foreign Correspondents has a different menu from Hunky Dory, but they'll share space, right?
CC: They're completely different restaurants next to each other that share the same property.
One thing that's really cool is that while PJ is the head chef of Foreign Correspondents, and Richard is the head chef of Hunky Dory, they work well together and have a history and really communicate well. I can't help but think there's going to be a lot of collaboration among them.
EOW: Explain the concept of "farm-to-table" Thai food.
CC: For Midnight Sticky Rice, we had no fewer than six different gardeners, and I imagine we'll have no more than ten. There's this great Thai community that grows traditional Thai herbs and vegetables, and we were trying to figure out if there's a way for us to be able to pick that production up and for them to get something out of it and become partners in that. There's little to no market for it right now. They bring the stuff they grow to their friends and family, but that's it. As we've said, 100 percent of the fresh items at Foreign Correspondents will be sourced locally. Once you have this scope of an organization, we can find people who will grow things just for us that don't usually have a market for.
EOW: What's the difference between northern Thai food and Thai food from other regions?
CC: There aren't as many noodles. No coconuts, so no coconut milk in the food. There are some spices and curries in common, though. And sticky rice. PJ is the expert, and even he has to consult on his wife (Apple, who is from Thailand) for a lot of the nuances. And there aren't a lot of recipes like you see in European-style cooking where they say to use a cup of this and a tablespoon of that. They say, you can use yams in this dish. Or you could also not use yams. It's funny. There's a lot of that going on in second- and third-world regional cuisine.
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EOW: Do you have a favorite Thai dish that you're hoping to put on the menu?
CC: I can't really go into the menu yet, but I love the pork shank and the sunny-side up egg from Midnight Sticky Rice.
EOW: If you had to open another regional cuisine after this, what would it be?
CC: Oh man! I don't know. A really major factor that we consider all the time is where we are. I complain almost every single day about the eating options in the Heights. There's a lot of room to grow; I love and want to defend the Heights. I was born and raised there, and I live there now. So it'll be something different, whatever we come up with.