January 3, 2016
Walking up the stairs to the second floor of the beautifully restored Holler Hosiery Mill there is a sense of excitement and familiarity. Old brick walls reach up two floors and antique windows shine like diamonds. The mind can wander toward the history of the work that was done in this building as the front door swings open. Met with the smells of Southern tradition, French standard and German influence, Highland Avenue Restaurant is a North Carolina staple. We have an abundance of epicurean gems right here in Charlotte– how did a chef from Hickory, NC become the benchmark?
I found Chef Kyle McKnight on Instagram, @Cookingwithanobody, an Instagram handle Garden & Gun would beg to differ. Highland Avenue was also recently named one of the South’s Best Restaurants of 2015. Sometime in late 2013 McKnight caught my attention with his pictures of beautifully cured and folded meats on locally made wooden boards, shelves filled with pickled and preserved shiny mason jars adorn with H.AVE labels, and plates flawlessly presented in his open kitchen pass. My romantic curiosity with food coupled with an overwhelming sense that no one else was doing what McKnight was lead me to the front door of his restaurant not long after.
Light painted long shapes across the dark wood floor leading into the dining room. I had never seen the space in the day. He asked that I make myself comfortable while he finished his task and a server in a black and white plaid shirt and dark jeans asked if I would like a drink. I sat facing one of the mill windows at a table set for service. McKnight came and sat against the window, white chef coat buttoned up to his neck, the sleeves folded around his forearms, clean. It didn’t feel like it was going to be an interview. Ever a humble pupil, he does more listening than talking, obliging with a friendly ear.
McKnight started out in the kitchen as a dishwasher in his youth because he wanted a pair of Adidas sneakers. When asked who the most important person is in his kitchen it was no surprise to hear “Underwater Ceramic Technician” as the answer: “Sometimes when I smell Dawn it takes me right back”, he remarked. But on his day off he prefers not doing dishes; he tries not to make any plans at all since he works six days a week, 12-16 hours a day. “I like eating,” he said. “All week I’m like a starved cook. On Sunday I like to eat other people’s food.” Spending his free meal time at places ranging from Mom and Pop greasy spoons to Rhubarb in Asheville, this chef will travel for food.
McKnight’s passion for locally sourced food only makes you wonder what he would be if not a chef. “Jobless,” he replied with a chuckle. “I studied art; you know I thought about being a high school art teacher.” Pondering the question, the answer seemed almost impossible. “Some form of creativity. I always thought about designing clothes. I draw. In high school I did a lot of graffiti. I messed around with silk screening and drawing on shirts.”
“I believe that I was put on this earth to cook,” McKnight affirmed when asked about where he draws inspiration. “Inspiration or motivation?” he posed. With the guidelines of his German heritage mixed with his Southern upbringing and classic French cooking, he mostly about his customers: “I think about the common person all the way up to the foodie. I want the person who enjoys fine food to come here and enjoy the food we make here and I want the common person to have this be a very important meal for them to whether they know it or not… I don’t want my food to scare people so I work with education in the front of the house so they [servers] can help guide them. I’m not too proud to put dishes on my menu that are totally geared toward the common consumer.”
McKnight built the foundation for Highland Avenue with hospitality as a cornerstone. “Without arrogance, without being overbearing, without pretension.” Kyle McKnight is a father, a chef, a compassionate friend and ever a student. He loves old school hip hop, vintage clothing and mustard. His hands make brilliantly delicious piquant food and his deep level of substance and complexity is the basis for each plate that comes across the brightly lit pass at Highland Avenue. I invite you to come and sit at one of the wooden tables in a comfy leather studded chair, order something and listen to him tell you his story with each plate.
Visit them at 883 Highland Avenue SE in Hickory, North Carolina 28602