“I like to talk about kitchen injuries, ‘cause those are pretty crazy,” Kenny Hilburn explains calmly from the plush leather booth at R&J’s Lounge and Supper Club. He speaks in this same even tone no matter what the subject, whether it be his culinary philosophy or a gory knife accident. His quiet intensity subtly turns to misanthropic glee as he recalls a favorite horror story.
“The worst kitchen injury I’ve ever seen is a dude nearly severed his thumb in the webbing between his thumb and his index finger. He was cutting chicken breast one day. This is why managers and the front of the house and other kitchen staff should not talk to somebody when they’re chopping.” Kenny slowly emphasizes this last sentence and shakes his head, sleek obsidian hair pulled back tight and glistening in the low light of the parlor.
“Somebody came up to him and he kept chopping and they started talking and his thumb slipped over and he came over right down on top of it. Fat cauliflowered out of his hand and blood was spraying out of it. It was one of the most intense, gory, awesome things that I’ve ever seen in my life. That was a crowning achievement in my career—I witnessed a serious accident in the kitchen.”
To the outsider, witnessing a terrible workplace injury would be enough to make you rethink your career choices. Kitchen folk are different. They wear their scars and blisters as badges, reminders of their long hours and sacrifices.
“You’re facing long shifts… you’re on your feel all day long, it’s hot. It’s hard to work back there. There’s bad attitudes sometimes, things are on fire, there’s sharp, pointed objects everywhere and you’re trying to make sense of all of it while being under stress and you ask yourself sometimes, ‘All for what?’ All so some people can come in and eat some food and have a good time.”
The money is not even much of a motivator. “Cooks have never been paid a lot, especially in this city, and that’s the cold, hard reality of it. They work really hard and they don’t get paid a lot. It should never be taken for granted.”
For many cooks, what keeps them going is the satisfaction of hard work, serving others, and continually learning and expanding their knowledge base. It is common for them to have resumes that read longer than a tasting menu.
The first thing to spark Kenny’s interest in food was very unlikely: “I was in chemistry class, playing around with Bunsen burners. One of the things we talked about was the reason things become caramelized, or why sugar becomes a different color. I thought that was really cool—here’s this thing we put in our bodies, but we’re looking at it like a chemical process.”
This perspective has stayed with him, guiding his culinary approach. With a wide range of restaurants under his belt, from fast food places like CiCi’s Pizza and City Bites, to casual spots such as Iguana Lounge and the now-defunct Café Nova, and more high-end eateries like Vast and the Mantel, Kenny has worked with many styles. He is most proud of working a stint as sous chef at Tamazul, the Matthew Kenney-owned space that served vegan Mexican food. It was not commercially successful, but was renowned for its inventive and creative cooking.
“Molecular gastronomy” is almost a dirty phrase to utter these days, but it is shorthand for what Kenny is most interested in, what he describes as “looking at the science behind food.”
“When you’re dealing with vegetables, a lot of people think you’re just throwing a carrot into a pot and cooking it till it gets soft and that’s it. You can get so many varieties of flavor out of one singular piece of carrot depending on the temperature, the technique you’re using. Getting the opportunity to learn how to control the flavor of vegetables at Tamazul is probably the best thing I could have done for myself in my career.”
The food he prepared at R&J’s is not quite as adventurous but no less satisfying, instead resembling the comfort food he ate with family as a child. “I grew up with grandparents that lived in Bristow, OK. My grandmother was raised in Prague. She cooks a lot of these recipes, but hers are completely different. She uses cans and stuff like that. It was a challenge to come into a place like this and remember all those eclectic things my grandmother used to cook for me, but in a newer way. How can we cook this better, how can we cook this fresher? But still stay legit with it and keep it close to what it originally was.”
Since speaking with him, Kenny has most recently moved on to help open The Fit Pig, a new concept in Midtown that provides healthy, read-made meals. Everything is made from scratch and ready to take home or to the office and re-heat.