ONE COOL CAT
By Heather Svokos
Posted 8:15am on Thursday, May. 09, 2013
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 everybody’s 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 ofBon Appétit. But if there’s one chef in town who makes food that embodies a hug and a spiritual uplift, it’s Fort Worth’s 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.
It’s a veritable gumbo pot unto itself, where you’ll 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 chef’s coat. If you’re lucky, the guy with the laid-back, soulful smile might hail you in that gravelly, 1950s jazz musician voice with a “What’s up, cat?”
“Food is definitely something that breaks down a lot of barriers,” Hicks says. “I’ve seen it here, where a white family starts talking to a black family. They hook up and they say: ‘Let’s meet here again for dinner.’ That’s beautiful.
“And you’re 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, you’re not sure if you’re talking to a chef or a shaman. Or both.
Quotable Keith Hicks: words of wisdom of a cool cat.
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. He’s 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, it’s difficult to imagine the world’s 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 hasn’t perfected his recipe for life just yet, he’s 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 aren’t 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, we’re 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. “That’s 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 we’d come home, saddle up and ride.… There were other kids to play with. That life was cool.
“That’s kind of how I evolved with the whole ‘just loving everybody.’ Like the Fonz would say, there ain’t but two types of people, you’re either cool or you’re uncool.… It doesn’t make a difference about your package, or the skin that you’re wrapped in. It’s 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.