The dark roux was swimming with happy, hearty chunks of crawfish, shrimp, catfish, andouille sausage, chicken, rice and okra. The spoon sailed in, and I took my first slurp of the gumbo.
I felt eyes on me.
They belonged to Sheila Bush, a diner sitting at the table to next to mine at Buttons Restaurant in Fort Worth.
Now you see why everybodys smiling, right?
Busy with a mouthful, I just nodded vigorously, dunked a toast point into this nectar and kept on slurping.
This gumbo was delicious, sure, but it was something more. It was warm, unfussy comfort in a bowl. It was like a hug from the sassiest Southern grandma. It was liquid harmony. It was love.
Which all makes sense when you get to know Keith Hicks, the man behind the recipe. The mad maestro of Buttons he of the exquisitely frizzy white beard learned the art of down-home cooking from his late grandmothers, one of whom gave him his nickname. His bustling, joyful restaurants one in Fort Worth and one in Addison are an ode to them.
When people debate the title of best chef in DFW, Hicks name might be drowned out by the Tim Loves and John Tesars of the area. And Buttons, while earning its share of accolades, flies beneath the radar of national best-of lists from the likes of Bon Appétit. But if theres one chef in town who makes food that embodies a hug and a spiritual uplift, its Fort Worths very own minister of cool, Keith Buttons Hicks. Where other people might talk the talk, Hicks is truly guided by his arms-wide-open philosophy, which makes Buttons more than just a place to get a big, thick pork chop or a killer plate of chicken and waffles.
Its a veritable gumbo pot unto itself, where youll see all walks of life young African-American urbanites, white hipsters, Latinos, old-school Fort Worth blue bloods all come here to fill their bellies with soul food, to listen to some jazz, Motown or R&B, and maybe to steal an audience with the groovy-looking cat in the chefs coat. If youre lucky, the guy with the laid-back, soulful smile might hail you in that gravelly, 1950s jazz musician voice with a Whats up, cat?
Food is definitely something that breaks down a lot of barriers, Hicks says. Ive seen it here, where a white family starts talking to a black family. They hook up and they say: Lets meet here again for dinner. Thats beautiful.
And youre just trying to cook food, but it turns out to be a wonderful masterpiece. And the masterpiece is the communication and the love that goes through the food that allows those boundaries to fall down, and let the people come together.
A lot of conversations with Hicks are like that. Small talk drifts into the philosophical, and before you know it, youre not sure if youre talking to a chef or a shaman. Or both.
But behind Hicks cool-cat exterior white ZZ Top beard, silver hoop earrings, ankh necklace and Kangol cap pulled low is a man as complex as the comfort soul flavor he dishes up.
A bon vivant, Hicks is also a former Army sergeant, divorced father of two and gasp! one-time vegetarian. Hes easygoing, yes, but also quietly driven landing Buttons onto two Food Network shows, while also planning an expansion of the restaurant into Houston and beyond.
He is so relentlessly positive, its difficult to imagine the worlds darkness ever bearing down on him. But Hicks admits he has wrestled with the monster of his own sobriety, even as his career reached new heights.
If Hicks hasnt perfected his recipe for life just yet, hes getting darn close at Buttons, where the harmonious blend of food, music, and an elegant and welcoming atmosphere make it a one-of-a-kind experience in Fort Worth.
There arent that many places where people of all stripes mingle, says Herb Hughes, a former Wall Street investor and Hicks unlikely business partner at Buttons. As Keith says, were gonna change this country, one waffle at a time.
Life in the kitchen
One day in the early 1970s, Hicks mother, Joy, came home from work to a distinct aroma.
What am I smelling? she asked her son, who was then about 7 or 8.
I cooked dinner, little Keith answered, revealing a feast of pork chops, potatoes, vegetables, salad and biscuits.
How did you know how to do all this? Joy asked.
I just did what you do, he said.
And? It was absolutely delicious.
The seeds were sown.
My grandmother was a maid for probably one of the most prominent families in Huntington [in West Virginia], Hicks said. Thats how it all got started. I remember the toast tasted different, because it was fresh-churned butter, as opposed to, like, Parkay or something.
He was constantly surrounded by good food and good cooks, from his mom and aunts to his beloved grandmothers: In West Virginia there was Ruth Henderson, whom he called Huff, and Nellie Braxton in Talladega, Ala.
You learn to appreciate good food, and appreciate the roundtable, he said. Just sitting together as a family. The anticipation of just having a good meal.
He was born in West Virginia and spent summers there, but he also grew up in Buffalo. We were probably one of the only black families who lived on the outskirts of Orchard Park, Hicks recalls. We had 28 acres of land; the government did some subsidizing, to grow corn. We had five horses, and wed come home, saddle up and ride. There were other kids to play with. That life was cool.
Thats kind of how I evolved with the whole just loving everybody. Like the Fonz would say, there aint but two types of people, youre either cool or youre uncool. It doesnt make a difference about your package, or the skin that youre wrapped in. Its all about what your heart is.
Those lessons were underscored in the U.S. Army, with which he traveled the world, working as a veterinary technician. Once out of the Army in 1994, his culinary career began in a melting pot, as a civilian cook in an Army mess hall in Fort Dix, N.J.
It was so cool, because there were Filipinos, Koreans, Dominican, and I was there, and wed all bring different foods, and we all just had a good time, Hicks said.
From there, he moved to Los Angeles, where he worked for Dave & Busters and Rainforest Cafe, where he learned volume, and Wolfgang Pucks chain of mall cafes, where he learned quality.
The flavors were so intense, and its because [Pucks recipes] used all really fresh herbs, and hed re-emphasize the same dish with some of those herbs, Hicks said. It opened my eyes to so many things.
In 2000, Hicks wound up in Texas, where he had followed his then-wife.
For several years, the self-taught chef bounced back and forth between fine dining and casual: from Fort Worths upscale Mercury Chophouse to Lauderdales on the Lake, then, in 2004, to the ambitious but short-lived Gunsmoke Grill, the only Fort Worth restaurant on the Dallas Morning News list of the 10 best new restaurants that year. From there, he moved to the casual Cachongas in Arlington Heights. Then in 2006, his star began to shine even brighter at Ovation in the Village at Camp Bowie, a place that would blend comfort cuisine and live music.
Its there he began to be known for dishes like his twist on the classic chicken and waffles, which included blueberry butter and a gravity-defying stack of sweet-potato crisps.
Check out a video of Chef Buttons making his famous chicken and waffles.
Eventually, his ambitions outgrew the confines of Ovations cramped kitchen. (Jokes Hicks: You had to go outside to change your mind.)
Enter Herb Hughes and his wife, Carolyn.
As customers, they struck up an unlikely friendship. I thought he was a very unique, cool person, and probably the kindest-hearted person Id ever known, Herb Hughes says.
Keith looks like the black Santa Claus, and he has the nicest spirit, and he loves everybody he meets, Hughes says. When I first met him, every time Id see him, he always hugged me and I wasnt quite used to all that. I guess by nature, I must not be a hugger. It took me a little time to adjust. Now, he doesnt hug me and I wonder if somethings wrong. I guess he turned me into a hugger, too.
Hughes says Hicks expressed interest in starting his own restaurant.
With me literally knowing nothing about the restaurant business, I was just convinced that not only was his cuisine great, but I really loved all his ideas about Buttons being a place where you bring people together, says Hughes, who worked for the Bass family before getting into the restaurant game. My wife and I are an interracial couple and I always felt completely welcome in his establishment, and I thought there should be more places like that.
When they were launching their first restaurant together, one uncertainty nagged at Hughes. I wondered: Could anyone possibly be that positive and that kind of exuding love every day? As we were in the planning phase, the first thing he would do when he woke up every day is call me to arrange which Starbucks we were going to meet at, and every morning, hed call me and say [imitates Keiths gravelly voice]: Whats up, cat? Its gonna be a beautiful day.
Every day was going to be a beautiful day to him. And thats who Keith is.
A different monster
Bouncing back and forth between Fort Worth and Addison throughout the week, Hicks clearly relishes being the ringmaster of fun at Buttons.
But he admits he has gotten lost in the circus sometimes.
Just as his career was soaring to new heights, a drinking problem nearly brought it crashing down to earth.
Driving home on the night of the grand-opening party of Buttons in Addison, Hicks was charged with and later convicted of a DWI. Then, in May of last year, after a celebration at the Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial golf tournament, came another DWI arrest. Because of a prior 1992 DWI conviction in Bexar County, the incident from last year turned into a felony case, which is pending.
Though Hicks admits he cant know until the case is resolved, he doesnt think hell be faced with jail time. His drivers license was revoked, which has made it tough getting to and from work in two different cities. Thats been a challenge. But live by the sword, die by the sword. Lesson learned. Im just thankful I havent caused anyone bodily harm in my endeavors.
Hicks says he had one last hurrah on Thanksgiving of this past year, and the next day, checked himself into rehab.
Everything [in the culinary world] was related to [drinking], he says one April afternoon at Buttons in Fort Worth. In this business, at this time of day, Id probably be sipping on my second glass of wine and getting ready for the night.
Eventually, the drinking made him pull back from people. I had reached a peak, he says. I wasnt the happy Keith; I was a different monster.
He says the post-Thanksgiving rehab decision was influenced by the DWIs, though not ordered by the court.
After having several run-ins with the law, I said, you know what? People are not seeing the jovial Keith. Things just seemed, even for me, out of control, out of whack. It was: All right, Keith, its time to do this. Lets do this.
Hicks does consider himself a recovering alcoholic. Alcohols a beast, man. Just when you start to separate yourself from it, he says, you start to feel the differences in your body, and you see just how addicted to it you were.
Now Im wearing my shades of sobriety, he says. Before, I would think you have to have a little wine or cocktail in your hand. It took me a minute actually a couple weeks, a month to feel comfortable to walk around, just being in front of it and having to face it. I just had to power up and figure it out. I praise God I was able to lick it, and not crave it, and still able to be myself.
If his struggles have affected business, Hicks says he doesnt see it. He says none of his friends, partners or chef buddies have turned their back on him. Its not so much as eyebrows were raised, he says. Its more like I had a come-to-Jesus meetin with myself.
Hes hopeful that his sobriety might even help in the relationship department. About three years ago, he and his wife of 20-plus years got divorced. We still might get back together, I dont know, he says. I mean, we talk. Now that Ive stopped [drinking], Ive got my wits back and see things from a different perspective.
Everybody gets in
When it came time to name his restaurant, Hicks held firm in the face of doubt. He wanted to use his childhood nickname, which people back home in West Virginia still use for him. Everybody thought Buttons was a crazy name. Theyd say, Why Buttons? That is so stupid, Keith!
I said, nope, thats the nickname my grandmother gave me. Its not pretentious, its just kinda smooth. Its so cool to hear the cats now go, What yall doin tonight? We goin to Buttons.
The restaurant opened at the end of December 2008, just as the economic bubble was bursting. Not a prime time to open a restaurant, especially in a spot where two restaurants Big Bowl and 29 Degree Tavern had previously failed. (The building juts out on the far side of the Chapel Hill Shopping Center at the corner of Hulen Street and Interstate 30.)
But Buttons took hold with its music and indulgent food shrimp, fish and grits, old-school pot roast, Nacho Mamas meatloaf becoming both a destination and a neighborhood hangout.
In business partners Hicks and Hughes, Buttons can claim one of Fort Worths most memorable odd couples: Hughes, the suit-and-tie, ex-Wall Street guy, and Hicks, a modern-day flower child.
But its a perfect recipe. They share the desire for financial success, as well as a philosophical imperative.
Buttons is designed to be completely color-blind, and weve trained our staff to be that way, Hughes says. Its a very important part of our mission, which is more than just a plate of food. Its to build a place where people feel welcome. It shouldnt matter whatsoever whether youre Hispanic, black, white, whatever.
One Thursday night in March, Exhibit A came in the form of Sammy and Pat Castillo, taking a spin on the dance floor.
The Fort Worth couple, both Lockheed Martin employees, met Hicks when he was working at Gunsmoke Grill, followed him from restaurant to restaurant, and eventually became friends with the chef. He is amazing with people, Sammy said. He can just make people feel at home.
We cannot tell you how much Fort Worth has needed a place like this. Its the music, the food, friendships, the people that brings people from all walks of life.
He gestured toward the crowd milling around the Fort Worth restaurant: 30-something African-American guy in a suit and Bluetooth; a white off-duty newspaper photographer eating with his wife; groups of stylish African-American women, young and old; Latinos. T-shirts, baseball caps, four fedoras.
How can I say this? Castillo continued. Theres not too many places around here that embrace a Puerto Rican with a black wife. We went to [a country bar in Fort Worth] a few weeks ago, and they wouldnt let me in because I had on a fedora. Theres people in there wearing cowboy hats and backwards baseball hats. They said: Im sorry, sir. If you want to come in, you have to take off your fedora. In this place, I see a lot of people coming in all kinds of hats, and nobody gets turned away.
We have a long way to go still in Texas when it comes to profiling and racism. And then to come into a place like this that accepts everybody.
The popularity of the Fort Worth Buttons prompted Hicks and his partners to launch an Addison branch in 2010. The grand opening was a bit insane, Hicks recalled.
The police had to come in and said: Yo, were gonna shut down this operation if you cant get your people, your valet to start parking these cars a lot faster. There was a two-hour wait just to get into the parking lot. It was just madness, Hicks recalled. Me and my partners were sitting out there thinking: Ohhh. My. God.
This led to the 2012 opening of the short-lived, smaller Buttons Place in DeSoto, which closed that September.
DeSoto was an experiment with a much smaller footprint location, Hughes said. I think it struggled because Buttons is known for its blend of good food and music, and it was difficult to deliver the type of music our guests expected. We took over an existing location which had gone under with a similar concept, and we too found that location to be very challenging.
But that failure didnt squelch their desire to keep going. It stoked their appetite to get it right.
We needed to develop the systems and everything required to take what we started and nurtured in Fort Worth, Hughes says, and turn it into something where we could put it all through the South, and really in all the major cities. At least, thats our goal.
Hughes says theyre actively scouting locations in Houston right now, and plan to announce a major expansion program in the next month or two.
Even if they get the recipe of food, music and location down pat, dont they fear missing the presence of that one key ingredient: the gregarious, one-of-a-kind Hicks himself?
Thats a very fair question, Hughes says. To be honest, I wish there were 100 Keith Hicks, but there arent. What weve tried to do is imbue our management staff with the ideals and spirit of what were really trying to accomplish at Buttons.
Just outside the KTXD studios in Addison, Hicks is prepping for a segment on D Living. Dressed in his royal blue chefs coat (never mind that underneath it was a Captain America T-shirt), he pats his sweating pate with a handkerchief.
The cameras poke through the studio doors to shoot the chef for a live teaser to his upcoming segment. Hicks looks up from his platter of chicken wangs and watermelon wedges, points both hands into a double six-shooter pose, and smiles at the camera.
The TV crew eats it up. His publicist, Tiffaney Dale Hunter, laughs a knowing laugh.
Hes a ham, she says affectionately.
I ask him if hes got any spiel prepared.
Basically wangin it, man, he tells me. Wangin it.
When the show, and his segment, finally wraps, Hicks sums it up plainly: Coolio.
Kelly Pink, the shows talent booker, thanks him for cooking for the show.
Anytime, love, he says.
With charm rolling off of him like so much blueberry butter, its no wonder the Food Network and other TV outlets have been sniffing around Buttons. Celeb chefs Aaron Sanchez and Roger Mooking came with the Heat Seekers crew to the Addison restaurant for a January 2012 episode (they were after Hicks ghost pepper-seasoned wangs). This year, the restaurant will also be the focus of an as-yet-unscheduled episode of this seasons Mystery Diners, titled An Officer and a Gentleman.
For such a zen guy, Hicks dreams big. Talking with his executive sous-chef, Billy Kidd, he explains what he means when he says hes tired of being stuck on catfish.
I love what I do, but theres a frustration because Im not able to release, Hicks says. The release is new dishes, its Everybody try this, understand this.
But they like catfish, says Kidd, who jokingly calls himself the man behind the beard.
Its a good product, Keith says. Im just saying. I put a lot of cool dishes on the menu, but they dont sell.
People come in here for what they want, Kidd says, and you try to add creative stuff, but they want what they want.
You wonder how big of a blip this frustration is in Hicks otherwise happy world.
I am in no way saying Im not appreciative of the blessings, he says. There have been a lot of restaurants that have opened and closed. And we opened up during rough times. Thats how we got this one [in Addison], because Bennigans closed. So I am very, very appreciative of what we have done. And Im thankful to my partners.
Im ready to not move on, but to show the world some more things.
And years from now, after he has fed his last souls on this Earth, how would Keith Hicks like his epitaph to read?
Theres only two types of people in this world, he says, once again invoking the wisdom of the Fonz. Cool and uncool. Here lies a cool cat.