It’s a pleasant fall day in 2016, and Kevin Fink is doing a sort of victory lap around New York City, meeting with media who’ve been raving about his newish Austin restaurant, Emmer & Rye. He walks into a conference room in our office, and his passion and knowledge impress me. I turn on my recorder, ask if I can throw a few questions at him about wheat and grains, in part so I can harness some of the information he’s throwing at me about spelt, barley, durum. Then Fink leaves and I play back the interview and I’m baffled—there’s a lot about wheat I don’t know, and Fink may as well have been trying to explain advanced calculus to me for all I could understand.
“For sure that happens with me and that’s a very real thing,” Fink says, laughing, when I interviewed him on a return trip just a few weeks ago. This time, he’s in town spreading the word about his new all-day café, Henbit, where he’s expanding his philosophy about working with local ingredients, and experimenting with fermentation and other ancient techniques, for casual breakfast, lunch and dinner. Meanwhile, Emmer & Rye is consistently ranked as one of Austin’s best restaurants and has become one of its toughest reservations (during this week’s SXSW events, the place is either bought out or booked solid, but if you wanna give it a shot, try through the website).
The chef and restaurateur still can veer into academic descriptions at times, but what he has to say about Austin, the need for thoughtful breakfast and lunch options, and responsible growth in the restaurant industry are worth a read. Oh yeah, and you’ll learn a new culinary term—unless you’re already familiar with yaupon. Here’s my condensed, edited and at times slightly dumbed down interview with him. Annotate as you wish.
OK, so Henbit opened a month or so ago as part of the Fareground Austin food hall. What’s the story behind it?
There’s two layers to Henbit: the first is that it’s about being able to move our food systems forward, and to do that you have to do food that is cutting edge and innovative and creating new markets. And then you also have to do food that is accessible and easy and fits into what we want to do.
What did you want to do?
The conversation was, Let’s say we’re going out to eat in this movement of sustainability, or eating locally, or getting healthy, and we do that once a week. That’s not enough repetition or a pattern to make it part of life. So to me, the offer of Henbit was to give the Austin consumer a way to eat breakfast and lunch that is fast, sustainable and local, and that’s healthy and delicious. Somehow those four things are the hardest combinations to find for lunch or breakfast. You want to eat something that’s efficient and quick and also really satisfying.
What’d that mean for the menu?
Henbit is very dialed down. It’s five items at breakfast, it’s five items at lunch, and then we do a dinner menu that has like seven items on it.
Is it open continuously? Is this an all-day café?
Yes. This is the first [in Austin]. I don’t really feel like we’re really behind New York in a lot of things because there are some things we’re even ahead of in different trends, but in the all day café and food hall [trends], for some reason we’re so far behind. So Fareground is the first food hall in Austin. It’s at Cesar Chavez and Congress.
How does this build off what you’re doing at Emmer & Rye?
Here’s the thing: I think that this was the second tier of it, which is how do you keep your best people? How do you make sure that your chefs that have been working with you are able to continue to do more? There’s only so much you can do at one restaurant. There’s only so much money that fits into what is a management percentage of sales. So we opened Henbit in a very different way. Where Emmer is basically mine and I have some minority partners, at Henbit I said to my GM, my chef de cuisine and my pastry chef, This is what it’s gonna cost to open it. You have up to a quarter [of the business] that you can own, and I will make up the rest of whatever that is, and the whole goal is that we all own it equally. It’s the easiest in you’ll ever have for a restaurant. Most of the time restaurants are several million dollars to open. This was a really nice setup with an incentivized landlord that wanted to have us in there to make sure it was an exciting experience to their office consumer above in downtown Austin. So I got to offer this really interesting, palpable thing for my partners to make sure that they have really good teeth in it.
And then you don’t have to be there all the time.
Tell me about how Emmer & Rye has evolved since opening in 2015.
It’s a beast now. I think it was somewhere around a year in where we started to book up every night, no matter what, and weekends you now book two to three weeks in advance, for a restaurant that does 200 people per night. It became more of this distillation of creating really special organic experiences. So our first and second year we did 400 unique dishes out of a 25-item menu. What’s cool about that is that it’s totally based on the sustainability and preservation of things. For instance, we buy zero spices. So we have parsnips that we’ll sugar ferment to get this vanillin compound, an enzyme that is traditional in vanilla, which is what we taste but is also in parsnips and fennel when it ferments in that way. There’s a lot of crossovers at a molecular level that work. Some of these we’ve stumbled upon, some of these we’ve meant to do.
How does that translate into what comes out of the kitchen?
Last week we opened up this conger eel fish sauce that we had made. We got one conger eel. We had the opportunity of making 20 servings or preserving it. In this case we preserved the entire thing, aged it for another six months with an amino that we had made of white Sonoran wheat (as opposed to rice) and then served that with essentially tartare and rice. Super simple stuff. And that dish was delicious. If I wanted to recreate it next year I probably couldn’t because the conger eel will taste different and maybe I’ll get it or maybe I won’t.
How did you learn all the techniques and concepts you use at the two restaurants?
It’s a rabbit hole. We’re in the business of asking why. And how. So if there’s an opportunity that’s created through a fault or through an abundance of something, the question is then, Ok, how do we move this forward and make it more delicious? The other question we honestly look at it is whether this is something that will move our industry and our region forward. Like, are there things that are Texan that are plentiful from here that are not celebrated yet? And how can we make products that become something that is craveable to people, something that they didn’t need in their life before? Like yaupon is a great example of that.
Yaupon is a wild holly plant. The leaves themselves are caffeinated. It’s the only naturally caffeinated plant in the United States. It grows everywhere in Texas. Some people get it and dried yaupon leaves sell for $20/lb. But they’re literally everywhere.
What do you make out of it, tea?
Exactly, you make a green or black tea. At Henbit, we have a green yaupon iced tea that’s all from wild forage. And at Emmer we try and use it in a lot of different ways to understand more about how to take that flavor derivative of it to pair with other things. It’s obviously fantastic as a vinegar and there’s a very distinctive flavor to it as well. And then tea leaves—cutting it vs. bruising it vs. baking it all give you very different breakdowns. Another example is oak acorns. So like burr oaks are huge everywhere. You can make laundry detergent from it if you’re a homesteader, but you can steep tannins out of it then you have this delicious, nutty, rich wild foraged white oak acorn. The acorns drop everywhere and are a nuisance to so many people, but [you have to] realize how delicious seeds and nuts are, and how nutritious they can be. So we took that and we’ll process it in a jerky dehydrator, but humidity-controlled, and we’ll turn it into black wild acorns, just like you would black garlic. And then use that as a paste and rub that on food or do it into pasta.
“Every single one of our staff is knowledgeable in the process of lactic fermentation or vinegar production.”
You’ve been able to find cooks who get what you’re doing?
Finding cooks is actually not very hard. There’s not a lot of restaurants out there doing this. So if you’re a young cook and you want to learn as much as you possibly can, talk about being thrown into a kitchen where you’re going to be bombarded with a growth opportunity exponential to what is working a sautée line.
What inspired you to go this route?
I’m crazy. [Laughs]
Before moving to Austin, you staged at Noma and worked in their test kitchen, and worked front of house at French Laundry. But at what point did you decide that Emmer & Rye or something like it was the direction you wanted to go?
I worked with my dad as a young kid in making one little casual Italian restaurant with like $750,000 a year, in Tucson, and then we opened a second one four years later, and we opened a third restaurant and then took over another for a fourth, and at the end of it all we were grossing $10 million. The restaurants were nice restaurants. I knew that I could have a really good life for myself and my family and it was engaging and fun, but there was something missing. At the end of it, it was never going to be how much money I made; I always wanted to have more of an impact. I don’t think that we do at Emmer is impossible at all for a lot of people to do; there’s a lot of techniques, but once we document that and give it to people it’s something they can do.
When people come to Emmer are they getting education along with their meal?
I’m sure. But hat’s a very hard thing. If you want to be educated and are interested in it it’s really engaging, and if you don’t then it can seem really pretentious.
But you educate service staff?
Yeah, they’re amazing. Every single one of our staff is knowledgeable in the process of lactic fermentation or vinegar production. We have a great team and a really high retention because it’s such a small family. We go to farms together, we hang out together. We always have people helping out. I can’t be nor should I be the best at all these things. I have to have people who are specialized and teaching me and pushing me forward.