Down-Home for His Hometown


photograph by John Anderson

Hoover Alexander is a man who counts his blessings. When the busy chef/restaurateur has time to stop and think about the things he's thankful for, he counts his mother Dorothy's quality home cooking, the good friendships that he's nurtured over more than 25 years of cooking in local restaurants, and his long, positive association with the Night Hawk family of restaurants. These days, Alexander presides over a growing East Austin eatery that is fast developing a reputation for excellent down-home food. Recently, he reminisced about the job that set him on the road to success. "I had a scholarship that paid my way to UT, but I needed spending money and I wanted to buy a car," Hoover recalls. "My stepfather, Rev. Robert Winston, was one of the chefs in the Night Hawk organization. He got me my first job busing tables and washing dishes at the old Night Hawk Steakhouse up on the highway." From 1973 until 1982, Hoover did just about every job in the house at the Night Hawks: cooking, tending bar, managing kitchens, even waiting tables -- making him the first man to do so in that chain. It was the perfect training ground for a future chef and restaurant owner.

Alexander counts himself lucky to have worked a couple of years with legendary Night Hawk founder Harry Akin, famous as the man who desegregated Austin restaurants. "We had so much respect for him because of that. You know, his motto was always, 'There's nothing accidental about quality,' and that's something I've never forgotten." Akin wasn't Hoover's only influence during the Night Hawk days. He recalls pulling many a shift with the fabled local barbecue wizard C-Boy Parks and working side by side with the venerable black chef "Mr. Leon," a man who kept many of the Night Hawk's undocumented recipe secrets in his head. Eventually, the older chef shared those secrets with his young protege and, Alexander says with pride, "I remember thinking I'd really accomplished something when I was able to cover for Mr. Leon while he took a two-week vacation."


Hoover Alexander bartending at Night Hawk circa 1978

In 1982, an old college friend made Hoover an offer he couldn't refuse. Larry Kille needed a chef for his new Sixth Street venture, a New Orleans-themed restaurant and bar called Toulouse. He wanted Alexander to design and produce a Cajun-Creole menu, manage the kitchen, and earn a partnership with "sweat equity." Alexander signed on. His delicious Louisiana cuisine was very popular with the downtown business and political crowd, but Toulouse eventually expanded its bar operations, de-emphasizing food. In 1985, Hoover knew it was time to move on. He was eager to open his own place, but the mid-Eighties real estate bust wasn't the most congenial atmosphere for business start-ups. The multi-talented chef joined the opening team at the first local Houston's outlet, then moved on to a stint with the Chez Fred organization, where he picked up some invaluable breakfast cooking skills. In 1987, second-generation Night Hawk owner Gerald Stone contacted Hoover and asked him to return to the fold as the kitchen manager of the chain's rebuilt flagship location at South Congress and Riverside.

"I probably wouldn't have taken a back-of-the-house job with anyone else at that particular time," Alexander recalls now, "but the Night Hawk folks were like family." During his second tenure with the Night Hawks, Hoover made friends with a co-worker named Vernon O'Rourke, little knowing where that friendship would ultimately lead. The rebuilt Night Hawk never caught on with the rapidly changing Austin public, and in early 1988 Alexander was offered a general manager position with Good Eats Cafes. For a time, his buddy O'Rourke was there, too, before leaving for an investment opportunity with the K-Bobs Steakhouse chain. In 1990, Hoover was made managing partner and director of operations for Good Eats Cafes, a position he held until 1996. During those years, the articulate, charismatic former student of the UT Communications Department became both the voice and the face of Good Eats Cafes through a memorable series of radio and TV spots. Though he now tactfully describes his departure from Good Eats as "a messy business divorce," Alexander is quick to credit the company for the invaluable public profile he was able to develop there.


Hoover Alexander serving it up at the 1994 Academy Awards

In 1996, after nearly a quarter-century as a reliable journeyman chef, manager, and all-around go-to guy, Hoover Alexander was ready to strike out on his own. As it happened, his good friend and fellow Night Hawk alumnus Vernon O'Rourke had achieved success with the K-Bobs franchise and was in a position to invest. The partners had a concept in which they were confident, but it took them almost 18 months to find an affordable location and navigate the city's permit process. In October 1998, they served their first meal at Hoover's Cooking, a spacious eatery ensconced in part of the former Discovery Incubator building on Manor Road.

The menu at Hoover's Cooking features many of the family recipes for which Alexander's mother is famous among her siblings. "My mother's family were the first people to teach me about good food. We'd spend the summers at the farm in Utley where she grew up, eating fresh vegetables, her great pies, her yeast rolls. Those are the flavors I want for this place," he says.

Today, Hoover Alexander presides happily over a bustling restaurant not far from the East Austin neighborhood where he grew up. He has the dependable support and assistance of a good partner. His customers include the restaurant's neighbors, a loyal contingent from his mom's church nearby, a sprinkling of UT faculty, students, and staff, and old Night Hawk regulars who have known the chef since he was a teenager, plus assorted businessmen, media types, and politicians who remember him from Toulouse. They come often and they bring their friends. Hoover greets them all heartily. He's well aware that his restaurant is one of the few places in Austin where you're apt to find black and white folks working and eating together, and he hopes his former employer Harry Akin would be proud of what he's accomplished. "I feel so blessed when I look around this room. This is just what I wanted."

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Hoover Alexander, Hoover's

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