Today, as part of Classics Week, Eater Austin spoke to an Austin restaurant lifer who has been working for over two decades.
Hoover Alexander, the 60-year-old native Austinite and owner and chef of Hoover’s Cooking, has gone through a lot to get to where he is now. He spent over forty years in the restaurant industry in the ’70s and ’80s, where he worked in places like Steak and Ale and Chez Fred. But it all started with the Night Hawk Diner, the classic late-night Austin chain which lives on in the Frisco on Burnet. Owner Harry Akin was the harbinger of racial change in Austin back then: the diner chain was the first in the city to break down the segregation barriers and empower women and minorities in the restaurant world. It was where Alexander learned how to work in a restaurant, where, in 1977, he became the first male server in the diner’s history, and it’s what he considers his home and family. Whenever the group needed him, he’d return, because, as Alexander said, "When family calls, you come."
After a stint at Good Eats, Hoover finally started Hoover’s Cooking, his tribute to the Texan food he grew up with, along with other influences gathered along the way. Eater Austin had the chance to talk to Hoover about what he’s taken away from his years in restaurant industry, the return of farm-to-table eating, being positive, and the bright future of food in Austin.
How did you get started in the restaurant industry?
I was a freshman in UT, and I had scholarship money, and I wanted a little spending money. My stepfather was one of the chefs at a venerable restaurant chain called the Night Hawk restaurants. My first job was busboy and dishwasher. I didn’t plan on making a career. I tell people in hindsight, it was my parallel training.
How did you come to start Hoover’s Cooking?
Ultimately, the goal was to do ownership, but it was a very winding road to finally end up there. When I left Good Eats [in 1996], I inquired a few different people about investment to do my own thing. [Friend and restaurateur Vernon O'Rourke] was one of them. We opened up Hoover's two years later in '98 on his 12 credit cards because I was bankrupt and I had exhausted all of my savings over those two years. We were at the point where, in another week, we were either going to go broke before we opened or open broke, so we’re fortunate enough to open and have a swing at it. Now we’re 16 years old.
How would you describe the core of Hoover’s Cooking?
It was always the ultimate goal to put together all my good influences. People give it different names: soul food, Southern food, home cooking, but the stuff that I knew, this was the food that I ate. My first primary influence is my mother. She jokingly told people that, after we opened up here: "I never knew he was paying attention." I yank East Texas influence from my Cajun Creole exposure developing Toulouse [the New Orleans-styled restaurant he helped form in the 1980s], and then, of course, seafood and Gulf Coast, and the beef influence, the barbecue.
I’m used to food that happened to be very good food. I have memories of going to the farm, picking fresh peas, melons, greens. I have memories of slaughtering cows and hogs, and big cauldrons of water with a fire stoked and scraping the skin off the carcasses. All of that farm to table stuff that didn’t have a name back then. We’re coming full circle.
For you, it was just how and what you ate.
Exactly. I call what we do "po' folk culture." You look about around in every part of the world and people take what’s available and make something good out of it. They knew how to live off the land and that’s something that we’ve kind of become divorced. I try to carry the torch of those memories from my mother, my father, my family farm, and also the Night Hawk chefs.
Who was your mentor?
[Mr. Leon], he’d been with [Night Hawk] for forty-something years, and I speak of him very reverently. Very smart, just not very literate. He could read and write enough to read the Bible and recipes pretty much. He was an incredible chef. He was really in command of multitasking and I have memories of him making pie shells and stirring some gumbo and something else on the stove. He really took me under his wings. Over the years, I learned the kitchen, after busing tables, washing dishes: bartending, managing, a little book keeping, hosting, waiting tables.
What lessons have you learned over the years?
There’s something to be said about entrepreneurship. People who are willing to take risks. No day’s guaranteed, so you gotta keep swinging. The bar increasingly gets elevated. We’ve got to stay on our game. Another lesson is just being pitbull-like, It’s not quitting easily, not accepting "no" easily, accepting challenges, and working through them. Perseverance, about always being hopeful, positive, thinking the cup is half full. Hope rings eternal and I still have a Pollyanna-ish outlook. Every day is is a grateful day when I wake up. it’s about learning and learning new things.
What sort of new things have you incorporated?
Being sensitive to the shifting changes in the market, what the customer wants, that’s the ultimate scorecard right? We had a veggie-centric food truck on 12th Street for a little bit that’s now closed. It was an experiment. We wanted to take the familiar Southern stuff and do some cleaner versions. Being more mindful of health things and trying to be more conscious of my own personal health. Still don’t want to abandon our core, but it’s based on widening the embrace. Some people mistakenly narrowly think of Southern food as unhealthy.
How has the Austin food community changed?
Even this street [Manor Road] reflects it. [Dai Due’s] Jesse Griffith down there, reading about him and the things that he does, particularly with women but not exclusively, teaching them how to hunt, fish, dress it, cook it, and tasting some of his stuff, phenomenal. He’s one of the shining examples. East Side Cafe, they’re one of the anchor tenants. [Hausbar’s] Dorsey [Barger]’s taking that even further with the urban farm movement. Of course Aaron Franklin, I’m so proud of him and what he’s doing. It’s not just him, but he’s really raising the bar big time.
Some people are taking the food scene and the cuisine and moving it to the bar scene with all these craft cocktails and doing these things from scratch. Oh our cup runneth over. I’m so proud and glad to still be a part of this. These young chefs really inspire me to keep my literal and proverbial knife sharp.