Dinner, designed by Erin Hicks
Words by Ashley Locke
A good friend, a bottle of champagne, and a sledgehammer—this is how Erin Hicks began her career in restaurant design. Over ten restaurants later, she hasn’t looked back.
“I opened my first business—a medical supply and equipment company—when I was 21. I got married the next year, and my husband became a silent partner in a restaurant. The operating partners weren’t doing a good job, so we let them go and I took over,” she said. “I had zero experience in the hospitality industry, but I figured business is relative—buy low, sell high, control your AC thermostats, and treat people well.”
The fateful night she kick-started her career happened shortly after she took over the restaurant. “Although my mother had a design/decorating business when I was growing up, I was not schooled in it, but by osmosis, I think I got the ‘design eye,’” she said. “I sold my businesses and moved to Houston when I was 31 and was mildly unclear what was next. I bought a house in a neighborhood with lots of construction going on, quickly made friends with a builder working next door, and soon began doing builder design work.”
For a long time, restaurants weren’t her main gig. But for Erin, restaurant design came intuitively. Hosting is hosting, regardless of scale. “I don’t think there is much dissimilarity between home and restaurant hospitality—it’s really all about providing theater and anticipating folks’ needs before they do,” she said. “I think that design in meal experiences is paramount—it’s all part of a sensory experience.” That mindset served her well, leading her to work on projects such as Helen Rice Village and Rainbow Lodge in Houston.
After working in the world of restaurants for some time, she got a different opportunity—a chance to help people bring a little bit of the restaurant world into their homes. “My books are a compilation of restaurant recipes that I translate for the home cook,” she said. “My cookbook career came about through a mentor of mine—the incomparable Kit Wohl of New Orleans. “She’s a brilliant designer, author, and creator of the Crown Classic Cookbook series for Pelican Publishing.”
With Pelican, Erin published three cookbooks: Houston Classic Seafood, Houston Classic Mexican Recipes, and Houston Classic Desserts. She later self-published Houston Soups and Sips and Houston Small Plates and Sips. “In my last two cookbooks, I included wine, beer, and cocktail pairings for each dish, which basically stemmed from my love of champagne with French fries,” she said. “Who doesn’t love the perfect pairing?”
Since her world revolves around food, it makes sense that she’s very conscious of the food that makes its way to her plate. “The movie Food, Inc. really changed the way I look at things—I never want a dollar menu, anywhere. Quality of ingredients is paramount to your health,” she said. “I eat mostly organic, and I know the farms where most of my food supply comes from. I believe in what I call ‘happy meat’—these animals really only have one bad day. If not, I feel like you can taste their tears.”
Just as she did when she jumped from selling medical equipment to running a restaurant, Erin continues to go wherever the wind takes her. “My design business has expanded to include a kitchen consulting aspect. I’ve partnered with chef Bryan Caswell (James Beard finalist, Food & Wine Best New Chef, numerous food network shows) in life and in business,” she said. “We’ve just finished a project in the Quad Cities and are working on various concepts for XOXO Dining Room and Garden of Dallas. I’m finally getting to realize my dream of doing an all-pink restaurant!”
But no matter how different her business is now from when she first began, one thing hasn’t changed: “I tell my clients that I am a much better designer with a glass of bubbles in hand,” she said.
Erin’s five best hosting tips:
- Offer a glass of bubbles (or beverage) and a small bite straight away.
- A great playlist sets the mood.
- An eclectic guest list keeps the conversation going.
- Adjust your lighting—warm lighting loves you. Everyone is a sexy beast at 2200 K.
- You can never have enough ice. A sink or bathtub is a great jockey box in a pinch.