Welcome to the latest in our series of interviews with people we admire. Kevin Fink is one of those people. He’s the man behind Emmer & Rye, one of the best restaurants in our hometown of Austin, Texas, if not the country. (Just ask Bon Appetit or Food & Wine or any number of publications singing its praises.)
What makes it so good? Much of it comes from Kevin’s mindful approach to food, which he honed at such iconic spots as Noma and The French Laundry. Everything he does he does with purpose, whether it’s exclusively using whole animals or buying heritage grains. These things ensure the food tastes better, sure, but they’re also the right thing to do—things that support the community, reduce waste, foster relationships with farmers and growers. We aim for a similar approach with our fragrances and candles, and that’s why we asked Kevin to host a special scent dinner when we launched last year.
We caught up with Kevin recently, and he was as busy as ever. He and his wife had their first child, a baby boy, this fall. And soon, he will open Henbit, a restaurant that brings the same mindful approach to food as Emmer & Rye, but for a more casual diner. (It will open at Fareground, an upcoming marketplace in downtown Austin.) As you might expect, Fink is deeply thoughtful and considerate, precise with how he speaks, occasionally cutting himself off mid-sentence to layer on a new idea, as if hurrying to match the pace of his own thoughts. We just tried our best to keep up.
PHLUR: So you grew up in a food family, right?
P: I’m curious when you were like, “This is something I wanna do with my life.”
KF: Great question. When I was 14, I was the opening dishwasher [at The Grill at Hacienda Del Sol in Tucson], and I was just excited to work with my dad [a co-owner]. You know, a restaurant can be very engaging for kids, for many reasons. It kind of throws you into it, and it makes you feel like you’re a part of a team, and not like a child. But the entire time, I knew, in my heart of hearts, I was gonna be a trial litigator for the defense. I knew it!
KF: But then I decided that I was gonna go to Cornell and continue to learn about the hotel/restaurant management industry. While I was there, I went through a lot of hard times, and I grew. I went to Italy to cook, and I think I was 20 years old the time, maybe I was 19, and it was a really lonely time because I was in a country where I didn’t really speak the language, and while I could meet a lot of American tourists, which made it not so lonely, I was an outsider in every environment. It was a great growing experience for me because it made me really understand food and understand food at a different level, and come back with an appreciation for it.
P: I bet.
KF: I came back and ended up transferring schools, I ended up meeting my wife, and we ended up moving to Boston to be part of the Marriott Corporation. Then we opened a second restaurant, which is when I came back [to Arizona]. They asked me to be a partner. At the time, a business that I had first opened with them when I was 20 years old, right out of Italy, started at $750,000 a year, then started doing about $1.4 [million]. Then we opened up a second one, and that immediately did $2 million a year. And then a year and a half later we opened up a third, and that did another $1.5. We were just on this huge trajectory. Within four years we took a $750,000 business into $10 million.
KF: But I realized pretty early on that we were not leading our industry. As much as we thought we were, I didn’t genuinely think that we were. And so I asked to go out and stage and learn. I went to French Laundry for three months to learn about all the things that they did. It was a great time for me to go because they were super short-staffed at the time, and so they just threw me into everything. I formed a lot of relationships and I learned a lot of things. And I brought back to our organization that learning.
He literally wrote us a card after, and was like “I would’ve been out of business. I would’ve had to sell the family farm.”
P: How was it received?
KF: My father [understood] a little bit more so because I think he was listening more. But the other partner in the business really didn’t get it, and kind of thought that this doesn’t work in Tucson. And in some ways they’re right. But in many ways, like, it could and it should. And it’s up to us to translate that.
KF: And it ended up bringing it to a head. I always wanted to innovate, and I always wanted to improve, and I always wanted us to look at things differently. And they always wanted to keep a secure business model, and to that generation a secure business model was holding onto what they had. In my mind, it was like well, if we’re holding on to what we have, we’re losing this battle, and this war of attrition that will inevitably come is gonna start to happen to us. And it did.
P: I believe it.
KF: So somewhere around that time I became sort of fixed in what I wanted to do. And I went and I battled and I was let go from one of the jobs within the group, which was a really hard dynamic for multiple reasons. 1, My father was a partner in it. 2, They needed me at the other groups. But it ended up being a really great life experience for me. Because a, it was the first time I’d ever been let go from anything ever. And b, it was something that I in retrospect believe was the right move for them because of the fact that organizationally, I didn’t have the same ideals as them.
KF: The phrase that sent me over the edge was when they said to me “Kevin, having great food isn’t that important. Having good food is really important. Having really great front of house is important.” And I said back to them, “I can’t tell these people that come in and make $9 an hour, and go home to try and support their family, that what they’re doing isn’t that important.” Because we’re already asking them to compromise so much in their lives. And I honestly think that that is why people go to eat. And then he went on and said “Well, I think we should just be serving burgers. That’s what people want.” And this was in a tasting menu restaurant at the time. And I was like … that sent me over the edge, right?
KF: You know, like…
P: “We’re not talking the same level.”
KF: And I mean hey, I’m a kid and I’m a passionate person, and knowing me is a great thing because, while I can be very trepidatious in a lot of relationships and couthe in many ways, if I work with you long enough I am somebody that will tell you my opinion. He did not like that very much. So that forced me to reflect a lot.
KF: And I basically told them that for me to stay on, I needed to go and do another stage, and that’s when I went to Noma. And I think that being in that kitchen taught me a lot about a, human drive. And b, the relationship that a community and a country can have with food ideas. More important than the food that Noma serves is the impact that they truly had on the Danish society. Now there’s a lot of other things that were happening at that same time. But it’s amazing the amount of tourism that occurred after they won the number one in the world [on Restaurant magazine’s 2010 list of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants].
P: Shifting gears: I think a key difference between us and you is that the average person is probably far more knowledgeable about food than about fragrance…
KF: Sure. Though there’s a major assumption in that. We just got back from Philadelphia for this great chef event, which partners with Alex’s Lemonade, which helps children with terminal illnesses and cancer, but also with the Vetri Community foundation, which basically is going into inner city Philadelphia schools and teaching them about nutrition and food. So one of the first things that they do, which is so flabbergasting to me, is they take a Snickers bar and they take an apple, and they ask the kids, no judgment at all: “Which one is real food?” What percentage do you think said a Snickers bar versus an apple?
KF: 70% said the Snickers bar was real food.
KF: And that blew my mind as well. So they go in and teach these kids. And forever they tried teaching their parents, and they didn’t initiate any change at all because the parents were so set in their ways. So they taught the kids about food. And then the kids went in and slowly started liking things, and then telling their parents, and their parents started buying different things. Now I happen to be having a baby …
KF: Thanks. So I’m doing all this other research. And the amount of sugar that the mother consumes prior to childbirth has so much to do with your craving of sugar throughout your entire life, and satisfaction of it, because it is a stimulant.
P: It’s a drug, yeah.
KF: Very much so. So if your mom has a lot of sugar while you are in utero, you immediately come out with a need for more.
P: Like heroin.
KF: Exactly. And the thing is, that’s only one of the things that we happen to know. So what you’re constantly doing is in places where there’s not fresh vegetables, you’re creating this divide where we’re getting further and further away from what we actually know is good food. And then, let me flip this around and say that all of those people know and understand fragrance. Because they for sure spend money on how they look, and they for sure spend money on making sure that they are presented really well.
So yes, the people that we know probably know more about food than they do about fragrance. But overall, in the US in general, I don’t know. Think about what percentage of consumers get at least 2 to 3 daily meals for under $7 at a fast food place. Because they’re everywhere.
P: Fair enough. [Laughs.] You’ve thought about this a little bit. So one commonality for everyone at this table is caring about building something that isn’t just a business, but also helps elevate the community. So while you’ve said you’re not running an education facility, what are some of your priorities in terms of helping the immediate area?
KF: The first and foremost thing we do with all our back of house people, is when we do meetings, we go over financials, and talk to them about all that stuff. So they’re aware of how the restaurant’s doing.
P: That’s gotta be pretty rare in your field.
KF: It is very rare. And the reason for it is what we always say to them: We’re training chefs and people that are able to carry on, and re-create, successful versions of this business under their own identity elsewhere. Because if I’m the only one able to do this—and I’m not, there are other great restaurants doing this—but for more people to be able to do this quicker, we are running an education facility.
P: You can’t be part of a movement if it’s just you and a small selection of chefs.
KF: Right. For sure. And then we do a lot of programs to support people, just the way that we buy. Our pig farm [Yonder Way Farm in Fayetteville, Texas] is a great example. Heritage pig is like a really big thing here. Berkshire. Gloucestershire Old Spots. Mangalitsa. Ok—what does that mean to anybody? Like, why is Berkshire a big deal? “Well, it’s a big deal because in Denver agricultural conference where they come and grade animals, it was the first breed to win three years in a row, and is still the breed that has won the most often of any other sow.” “Ok, cool. I can get it for that.” But why it’s such a big deal, too, is because farmers started paying more homage to it, and they started telling restaurants about it.
P: It became branded.
KF: Right. And now it’s like “Ohhh…”
P: It’s like selvage denim. We used to joke about this at Ralph Lauren [where our founder ran e-commerce]. Most people have no idea what selvage denim means, but they’re like “It’s gotta be good, and I’m willing to pay more if it says selvage.”
P: But they have no idea what it is, and why it’s a different loom. Folks just know they need it.
KF: Right, right. So I think that we, with our pig farmer, knew really early on that I like Berkshire meat because I do think that it’s delicious, and I think it marbles really well, and I think the tenderness is really good. But I also like other pigs. So if you remember two years ago, when we had all that rainfall, the lake was starting to come back up, and the reservoirs were starting to go. And it almost brought all of Texas agriculture to a halt. It was literally on the verge of a natural disaster. All the water rose at these farms, and all the fencing was now below the water line. And so all the animals, either a, the baby animals drowned. Or b, they crossed over. They got into everyone’s pen, and all the pigs crossbred. So [our pig farmer] went almost nine months where he couldn’t guarantee that a single pig that he was producing was a purebred anything.
P: He knew it was a pig.
KF: He knew it was a pig. And he knew he raised it. So if we were only buying Berkshire, and if anybody else was, he would’ve gone nine months without being able to get this premium product out. And for a small farm, they don’t have that set aside to deal with. So for us we said we’re not committed to buying only this pig, we’re committed to making you successful. And for that time period, we bought whatever pigs he was selling. And it got him through a summer already, and then enough to be able to build his brand, and what he does, back in. He literally wrote us a card after, and was like “I would’ve been out of business. I would’ve had to sell the family farm.” Which is pretty amazing to think about.
P: That’s fantastic. So what’s next?
KF: Well, we’re always widening our spectrum of things. Henbit is obviously the next focus of what we’re doing, which is taking this focus on local food, sustainable food, nutritional food, to a significantly more accessible market. Not only in price point, but in convenience. Which for me as a consumer is a major gap in this market.
KF: When we opened Emmer & Rye, nobody was like, “We really need a grain-focused, whole-animal restaurant in town” But everybody you talk to they’re like “Wouldn’t it be great if we could get something local and healthy and it would be, like, easy to get?” Every single person says yes to that.
KF: So it is a huge gap that’s just, like, sitting out there in space, that everybody is waiting to fulfill, and we’re excited to be one of the first people to do that.
P: What else excites you right now?
KF: The other cool thing that I really love is not what we’re doing, but it’s this focus on community restaurants. There’s Rooster Soup Company, and then Locol, which are national brands. I don’t know how focused on local either of them truly are, but I know Locol and Rooster are both focused on nutrition. And more than that, they’re focused on employing people in their communities that are otherwise unemployable. Or deemed that.
P: That’s great.
KF: Locol opened its first branch in Watts. They’re completely in food desert cities and areas. It’s Roy Choi and Daniel Patterson. And Rooster Soup is Mike Solomanov, who is a very famous chef from Philadelphia. It’s a completely not-for-profit restaurant that employs people that are, for whatever reason, down on their luck, whether it be they just got out of prison or they are coming back from disability or any other of those sorts of things. And they give back to farms that really need help, they sponsor people to go to culinary school, and it’s this really interesting thing of now these people that have made money, built their brands, and how they’re giving back through, not just direct charity, but creating organizations that are able to give back.
KF: It’s really cool.
P: OK, lightning-round: Favorite PHLUR scent?
KF: Olmsted & Vaux.
P: Great pick. Any favorite scent memories?
KF: Favorite scent memories? [Laughs.] So many of them are gonna have to do with cooking, but …
P: Makes sense [laughs]. Sort of expected that.
KF: I think wild French strawberries, when you feel them, when you’re picking them, are one of my favorite scent memories. It’s funny. I don’t think you can smell sugar, but there’s a sweetness that they have that is so different from other strawberries.
KF: Dry grilled bread from when I was in Italy. Like, no olive oil at all. Just like, over-actual-coal grilled bread. And I remember in Arizona, these Mexican asados. They have these huge charcoal grills, and they just throw whole birds on them. They just grill up these chickens and make the simplest chicken tacos, and they’re so, so delicious.
P: That sounds good. I’d like that for lunch.
KF: And I used to ride my bike by this 100% wild-ferment spelt bakery in Denmark at, like, 5:30 in the morning when I would be going in to Noma. It was funny because it was so unattainable to me. They didn’t open till 7, so I could never stop and get bread. But I smelled them baking it every single day, and they had the weirdest hours, so I got it like twice. But I’d ride my bike by and it would wake me up.
P: It became part of your routine.
KF: And this is gonna sound weird, but: fresh green snap peas. Before they’ve started to convert over. Because they have an enzyme in them that converts sugar into starch, so the second that you pick them, that enzyme starts breaking down their structure. If you pick them from the vine and you open them, just the smell of them is almost minty, it’s so refreshing.
P: Are there any smells you associate with summer?
KF: One of my favorite scents in the world, which I associate with rain, is creosote in the desert. And it’s so refreshing, but it’s so distinct. Have you guys ever smelled creosote?
KF: It’s such an Arizona thing. But I always associate it with rain. It might just be because I grew up in the desert. But it smells wet. And it’s so bitter, I’ve used it in cocktails and stuff like that before. It’s so, so bitter, but as a scent alone it’s intoxicating, it’s so unbelievable. I associate it with, like, monsoons and stuff like that.
KF: You should for sure get some because I think as far as scent goes it’s something that’s, like—
KF: Very unusual. And for lack of a better term, quenching. That might be just for me, but it also would be really cool to see if it does the same for you all.
P: Anything else?
KF: No, I don’t know. This is stream-of-consciousness. I interview like a butterfly, we’re gonna talk about all these sorts of things.