View from the Top: A Q&A with Top Knot Chef Angela Hernandez
Chef Angela Hernandez at the top ... of Top Knot's staircase.
Sitting playfully atop Uchi, chef Tyson Cole's first and incredibly successful foray into the Dallas dining scene, Top Knot opens Wednesday, Feb. 3, and it's poised to please. Inside, there's a stark contrast between clean and light. Raw wood surfaces and a whimsical, colorful art installation stretch across the length of the space. Delightfully mismatched lamps sit all around the bar, yet the presence of a certain Japanese feng shui is staggering. There is order here, and I imagine a lot of it comes from chef Cole's watchful eye. Little happens at Cole’s restaurants by accident. Which brings us to Angela Hernandez, whom he has tapped to lead the kitchen at Top Knot. We stole her away for a few minutes to ask some questions about the place.
Hot Fried Chicken Sandwiches – a must-order at Top Knot
What's your background and how did you get here?
I’ve been cooking since I was 19. I’m 33 now. I started in Austin, Texas, and went to culinary school there. After graduating I went to New York. And – funny story – I’ve known Tyson for a very long time. When they opened Uchi, his wife was in the same culinary class as me. I would always go eat at Uchi and knock on his door, hand him my résumé and try to get a job there. He would never hire me, for whatever reason, but I had no interest in working anywhere else in Austin. The scene there wasn’t what it is now at the time, so I moved to New York and worked for Gordon Ramsay at The London. After that I opened a small little spot in the Lower East Side called Allen & Delancey with another one of the chefs from Gordon Ramsay. I did a few other openings, Corton in TriBeCa, L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon, then I decided to come back to Austin, back home, to work at Uchiko. It was a funny way to come full circle and land at the spot I always wanted to be.
What can folks who only know Uchi or Uchiko expect from Top Knot?
Top Knot is definitely inspired by Uchi, if you look at the menu and the recipes we have. We utilized some core recipes and ideas from Uchi and Uchiko like Uchi’s edamame salad with jalapeño purée and turned that into an edamame jalapeño hummus — just making it our own. So when you look at the menu and are actually eating the food, it has its own complete identity, but it’s Uchi-inspired for sure. It’s the soul of who we are. It’s more fun, playful and casual. It’s an every day type of place. It can also be a special occasion type of place, but when we were developing the menu we asked ourselves what we would want to eat every day. And that’s what we’ve been cooking ever since.
The large and colorful art installation contrasts with raw wood beams and clean lines at Top Knot.
What’s the best thing on the menu? What do I absolutely have to try when I come in for the first time?
The hot fried chicken sandwich. It was one of the first dishes we started on, and that one item alone is four months of work in one little chicken sandwich. We thought we nailed it at first, but then we tweaked it and tweaked it to get it to where it is today. It kind of represents what we do here because you have it once and then you crave it. You want it again and again.
Tell me about these drinks...
This cocktail program is exciting for me. I love a proper cocktail and I think it’s really hard to find a bar that can do it well. I think we’ve been able to do that. And with this being the first restaurant in the company to do something like this, of course we had to do it right. The cocktails are great; I like the thought and detail that’s been put into the menu.
And they’re accessible, too...
The idea with the whole menu is to make it something that’s approachable and familiar. I don’t want people to read the menu and think, “What is this?” or “What am I ordering?” I don’t want the servers to read these long shpiels. That’s not us. This is where you can come and let loose. You can come and relax, have a drink and some food. And when the food comes it’s presented in a way that’s a bit elevated and whimsical with more thought and detail. But we don’t want the guests to have to think about all that, we just want them to enjoy it.
What about dessert? What’s your favorite?
My favorite, well, there’s a couple. I’m not big on sweets, but the Chocolate PDC (pot de crème) is probably my favorite. The presentation is something kind of unexpected. And we use dark chocolate, so it’s not too sweet. It’s simple. Lots of the dishes on our menu are made of five components or less. And the Strawberries and Cream, as well, the crème fraîche is a nice cooling note, and the mochi cake is so sick — it’s amazing.
Top Knot is the first of chef Cole's family of restaurants to offer a full bar and cocktail program.
Tell us about Tyson Cole. You said you’ve known him for a long time, but what’s it like working for him, with him and being at the helm of one of his restaurants? Is there a lot of pressure?
It’s great. Tyson’s amazing. It’s inspiring to have him in the kitchen with me and the boys. His insight and perspective on food is very interesting and always brings something new to light for us. His palate is amazing, so to use him as a resource for that has been great. Being in this position now and working with him is definitely a different dynamic for me, but we’re super stoked about the food and he’s excited about the food, so it just makes it a lot of fun for us to just bounce ideas off of each other and just get excited about it together. It’s special.
Describe Top Knot, elevator speech-style.
From day one, we said Top Knot should be the type of place where I would want to go three or four times a week. There are dishes on the menu that are craveable — food that you have a bite and you think about it, and you just want to have it again and again. It should be fun, playful and casual. It’s Asian-inspired and Japanese at its core, but we have the liberty to do things with the menu — like the hot fried chicken sandwich that has more of a southern flair — and just have fun with it. Food should be fun.
When do you open?
We open Feb. 3, starting with dinner only. Looking to launch brunch in April and lunch by summer, so we’ve already been playing around with some brunch ideas.
Gotta leave us craving more, I suppose.
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