by Kristi Willis • Photography by Dustin Meyer
Few people have seen more changes to Austin, or its food scene, than Chef Roy Mallett. The spry 81-year-old (affectionately known as “Mr. Roy” by friends and fans) has a broad smile and a twinkle in his eye as he shares what it was like to start working, in 1955, at the iconic Night Hawk restaurant at South Congress and Riverside—the first eatery in a burgeoning family of restaurants. “My cousin was a chef at the Night Hawk and he helped me get a job as a busboy,” he says. “I moved to dishwasher, janitor, then night watchman. I think I had almost every job there but cooking.”
Mallett went back to his job as busboy in 1963—“after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated,” he notes—but shortly thereafter, one of the head managers decided it was time for Mallett to learn to cook, and made him assistant chef. “I didn’t grow up cooking, but I learned by watching,” he says. “When I was a busboy, I passed by the chefs all the time and could see them putting all this stuff together. They didn’t know I was paying attention.”
In 1970, the Night Hawk’s head chef left and Mallett was promoted to one of the highest-profile kitchen positions in town—a big leap for this humble man from Manor. “I only have a ninth-grade education,” he says. “But I learned everything I needed to do—count, read, you name it—through working at the Night Hawk. I don’t know how I made it this far, but it was God’s will.” The new chef learned his craft, in large part, by trial and error. He started his day at 5 a.m.—an hour-and-a-half before the rest of the staff—so that they wouldn’t see any mistakes he’d made as they prepared for the 11 a.m. lunch crowd. “I didn’t want people to know how much I threw away before they got there,” he confesses.
He quickly found his groove in the kitchen, though, cooking alongside his mentor Lela Jane Akin, owner Harry Akin’s wife. Together, they developed new recipes and updated the restaurant menu. “It was special to cook with her,” he says. “I learned so much.”
The Akins were the soul of the restaurant group, key to its success and known for being generous employers who enthusiastically hired women and minorities before it was common to do so. “Mr. Akin was a nice man, a good man. I’ll never forget him,” says Mallett. “He always knew everybody by their first name.”
As times changed and the Night Hawk’s popularity waned, the original downtown location closed. Instead of moving to the Night Hawk Steak House at 290 and I-35, Mallett landed at another restaurant in the family—The Frisco on Burnet Road. He helped transform the beloved diner from primarily a burger joint to a full-menu experience—introducing the now-famous Night Hawk chili, the popular meatloaf and the made-from-scratch pies that he still makes today. But as much as Mallett loves cooking, he says the real joy of his job is being with the people he works with every day. “My wife passed in 2004 and this has been my home,” he says. “They’re like my family. I love them all—from the waitresses to the cooks and our general manager Deborah [Donovan]. They treat me like family and call me ‘Mr. Roy.’ That makes me smile.” That feeling of being family is mutual. “Many of our team members have worked here for over twenty-five years,” says Donovan. “There’s something very comforting about walking into the restaurant and seeing Mr. Roy hard at work baking the pies and making the cold salads. It warms my heart to see him passing on not only his craft to a new generation, but the commitment to doing what you love.”
“When you start doing something, stick with it,” Mallett advises. “It’ll grow on you, and you’ll learn everything you need to know. By changing jobs, you have to start all over again.” And when people ask Mallett why he doesn’t retire, he says, “I don’t have high blood pressure, I don’t have ‘the sugar’ [diabetes] and my eyesight’s good. I’m blessed to be alive, and I can’t imagine anywhere else I’d rather be.”
For more information on when to drop in and say “Hi” to Mr. Roy, visit thefriscoaustin.com or call 512-459-6279.