Byron Knight, owner, POND Dalston & Off Broadway
We weren't sure if Byron Knight actually existed. Or if he did, if we'd ever manage to grab five minutes with him. His name pops up all the time in Hackney as he's been behind much of the reinvention of the area's dining and drinking scenes for the past few years, with the likes of Off Broadway bar and Duke's Brew & Que as his success stories. No wonder he's pretty hard to get hold of. When we finally pin him down at his newest, five-month old venture, POND Dalston (a New-Hawaiian cuisine restaurant in Gillett Square) he buzzes around the bar and the kitchen, making tweaks to dishes before they go out and firing off suggestions to his waiting staff. It's this enthusiasm and quest for dining perfection that has recently led him to rehaul the entire menu at the restaurant- and he's already looking for his next food venture. We sat down with him to find out about his plans for worldwide domination...
POND's become sort of famous for putting Spam back on the map. We've got some Spam fries and Spam musubis here – what's the deal with it?
Well, it's a staple of Hawaiian food – proper Hawaiian food. Everyone eats it – the average Hawaiian gets through 16 cans a year each of the stuff. They seriously love it! But there is so much more to Hawaiian cuisine than Spam and these are very much street food so I wanted these just to be on the bar menu.
You also started Off Broadway six years ago, which is one of our favourite places to to drink. Why do you think it's become so popular?
We just have lots of attitude, I think that’s the formula there, very American, very sassy, strong drinks, we bend the rules a little bit, so far it hasn’t bit me in the ass as we’re still open!
You then moved over to open up Duke's Brew & Que, but you've left now. Why did you make the move to POND?
I love the brand of Duke's and the whole American BBQ is something I understand really well. As much as I loved Duke's, we were very limited as to what we could do. I see that now as a bit of a trend that has plateaued a little bit and while it can grow in other places, I wanted to do something new and get people excited.
You've been in the industry for almost 30 years now, starting in New York – so how did you end up in Hackney?
My background is in fine dining, I've spent almost 30 years in hospitality. I was head waiter in Nobu in New York, then general manager in Shiro's in LA, then a Japanese fusion restaurant for nearly nine years. In five years I took Shiro's from 38 to number one on Zagat's. That was probably around the time of the start of the Pacific Rim movement. I got to know all the chefs and the trend had its heyday in the early '90s then sort of tapered off, it wasn’t fashionable any more. But it didn’t die off in Hawaii – that’s their cuisine, a lot of Asian flavours.
Which is something that you wouldn't automatically think of when you think of Hawaiian cuisine.
But everything you think you know about Hawaii is manufactured and false – like the Tiki culture. I just read this book on how much damage the Dole Pineapple company did to Hawaii. Like, truly. What a bastard! You have this one little perfect corner there which is where all the rich houses are, so Maui, Kona – this is not where the people live. This is only for the rich and famous, the reality is very different. There's a lot of poverty, malnutrition...All those immigrants from Malaysia, Puerto Rico, even Brazil, they all came there as they were desperately poor and forced into terrible labour. The only reason why Hawaii became a state was so they could win some rights for the workers. So when they became a state, they won protection by law. It's a really fascinating history.
How did you stumble across the venue for POND – it's huge!
My friend Chris, who owns a bit of property around here, found it and got me to come and look at it. I did the number one thing you shouldn't do in business which was fall in love with the space. There was no plumbing, it was an infamous rave spot. The parties would go for three days straight. I didn't realise that I had popped in here once four years ago – I walked in and people were pissing in the corners, everyone was off their head, it was disgusting. And now I own it!
How did you know it was the right time to turn from a rave den into a restaurant?
I just felt like Dalston had matured enough, In the six years I've been here, while somewhere like the Alibi is great, it's not the sort of place that I'd necessarily enjoy going to. I really wanted to enjoy sitting at a bar and enjoying really great drinks and great food and I really wanted to get back into fine dining. Now I have Jim Freeman as my head chef. I fired everybody a month ago and hired new people.
It wasn't what I was going for. Jim's a very passionate, Aussie chef and that's working out much better.
Why did you choose New-Hawaiian cuisine as the food for POND – did you always harbour the idea?
Well, I didn't plan to open a barbeque restaurant and I opened Duke's! I walked into this space and it sort of told me what it wanted. I was thinking perhaps Creole, but it was a little to close to barbeque so I thought, “No – I don't want people to think I'm a one-hit wonder”. I began to think a little bit more about what the area likes, what flavours, the fact that economy is getting a little bit stronger...Because as the economy goes up, that whole meat and potato and comfort food thing becomes less popular as people want things a little bit more interesting. Hawaiian food steps on both those territories as you can have a the light sushi, light flavours and fish focused, but then you can do things like Spam. It's got this wonderful broad palate. Plus there's no one doing good sushi in Dalston. There's good ramen now but there was a gap for good sushi here. I wanted to do something that wouldn't pigeonhole me, I can be free to create and do something a little more seasonal.
Why does it have the “New” prefix?
Old Hawaiian cuisine would be things like Spam – the musubi, lots of Chinese dishes, sweet and sour pork, ramen, and poi – that's the taro plant. You mash it up into a paste and let it ferment for a few days, so it's a bit sour. That was the staple Hawaiian food. I had it for a little bit on the menu and I have to say my poi is the best I've ever tasted, but it's a hard one for people to wrap their heads around because it does have the consistency of wallpaper paste. If you've grown up with it, you love it. But there's certain cultural battles we can't quite fight.
You're working on a menu redesign, what's that going to look like?
The new menu is going to based on the seven sections that I have in my kitchen – raw, larder, wok, chargrill, fryer and steamer and I'll have two dishes from each of those categories to make a new wave of good food. We're going to be launching the new menu at the beginning of February.
What's your favourite dish on the menu here?
Probably the catfish that we've been doing for a long time, I used to do that in Shiro's in LA and the pork belly, that's great, it's Malaysian-style with the lettuce wraps.
And you've got something called Poke on the menu, what's that?
Poke is a very traditional, original Hawaiian food, that they were making it way before anybody else came to the island. It's a tropical fish, like a mahi or jackfish, dice it up and mix it with sea salt, seaweed and some coconut. Poke sort of became the immigrants' version of ceviche.
What's the one ingredient you couldn't live without?
Soy sauce is pretty prevalent throughout all our food. In general, our food is pretty good for people with food allergies. Asian food is good in general as it's low on carbs.
The cocktail bar is pretty impressive - what's the story behind that?
I wanted it to be a point of difference, so we focus on white spirits because Off Broadway is focused on whiskey – we've got 70 whiskeys there that I pick up on my travels. So at POND, I decided on a gin bar and vodka bar and white spirits, we just decided to go with that. It's not trying to be a Tiki bar, as tiki is not Hawaiian. My bar manager here, Megs Miller, is one of the best bar people I've ever worked with.
Where do you like eat when you're not working here?
I tend to go to Rita's a lot, I really like it there, Missy Flynn, the owner used to work for me. I like Jones & Sons a lot. Andy Jones used to be the manager of the Cat and Mutton and he was so helpful when I opened up Off Broadway, he's such a good guy.
Any chefs you admire at the moment?
Have you made any Hawaiian dishes that didn't work?
I kept trying to do the Laulau which is a steamed parcel with a little bit of pork and butterfish with salt and pepper. You wrap it up with taro leaves, which are a little bit poisonous raw, but when you cook them down they turn into a really nice winter green, then you wrap it and steam it for three or four hours. In general it's a pretty bland dish, but in Hawaii there was this little lady near one of the old fishing holes that would put a bit of ginger in it and it made it so good. I realised it could be nice, but I just couldn't pull it together for here.
Do you think the New Hawaiian trend is going to spread across the UK?
If that happens, great, if not then I'd rather that I get some really great chefs out of this. Perhaps Jim the chef comes to me one day and says something like “Boss, I'm really passionate about schnitzel” and I say, “Right on, let's open up a schnitzel restaurant in Barcelona.” I really want to create a restaurant group called The Pond, where I can take North American concepts – Mexico, US and Canada – and bring them to Europe. Then I want to take European concepts and take them to America. So I've got a bit of groundwork happening for something in Las Vegas, then I'm working towards something in Mexico city. I want to create a life where I get to be in lots of places that I love.