Chef/Owner Thomas Stacy of ReikiNa (‘Snacks to pair with Divine Energy,) in Houston, TX, has the sort of ‘come up’ story that has one say, ‘You did WHAT?! HOW?’
A lifelong visual artist and musician, not to mention vinyl collector, art curator, plus–he made his own damn tables
for his restaurant, Chef Thomas Stacy entered his chef / restaurateur career through an unconventional creative side door. Thomas shares, ‘ People are like, ‘Did you go to culinary school?’ And I say, ‘No, I went to the internet.’ I waited
tables during college and staged at my favorite restaurant, Uchi (Houston TX) for almost a year, but mostly I browse the internet, read cookbooks, watch videos and cram ideas together.
Don’t let Stacy’s unabashed modesty fool you, his culinary narrative harks back to his early childhood making eighth-
generation buttermilk biscuits with his grandfather and watching his Dad, a proper Francophile from Louisiana, flambé fancy French sauces.
Further evidence of Stacy’s ‘natural born ‘culinarian’ gave way when in middle school, he and his brother bought their own smoker and smoked pork shoulders and fruit. In high school, Thomas found himself obsessed with making apple pies with his best friend’s mom. Thomas shared, ‘I now realize now how formative these things were. They were cool but super nerdy and something other kids were not doing, like, at all.’
Graduating University of Houston with a degree in Supply Chain Management, Thomas wound up in Seattle, running an Amazon fulfillment center. After three years the realization that ‘fulfillment’ was exactly what his life was lacking became very loud. Thomas bravely chopped and changed. He moved back home to Houston and committed himself to finding a career in one of his three passions, painting, music, or cooking.
Cooking being ‘the lowest barrier to success,’ Thomas set his intention and sallied forth accordingly. ‘I had to start somewhere’ Thomas offered, so I took my resume, and went to my favorite restaurant in Houston, Uchi, with Chef/ Owner Tyson Cole. Fortunately, they hired me for short stage. ‘Uchi was incredible. I had zero kitchen experience and I didn’t realize I would be allowed to create dishes right away. The first dish I put up for tasting made it through. It was a garam masala duck confit with persimmon habanero chutney and coconut yogurt. People ate it and I was like, holy crap.’
After working at Uchi for about a year, Chef Stacy was set to help open a new innovative Mediterranean called March, also in Houston. The day after orientation at March, all of Houston closed down due to the pandemic.
After a few months of biding time Thomas was tired of not working. A close friend, reluctant to eat in restaurants when the ‘Nora’ was still unfolding, was enticed by Thomas’s social media posts of his cooking-while-camping exploits. He subsequently invited himself to dinner at Thomas’s which would become the seed to the young chefs’ decision to host tasting menu evenings at his home; a decision that would ultimately change his life.
Thomas explains, ‘My friend who was replying to my story, is a meme guy. He has a lot of followers so this got word of mouth going. I also made a website and started riding my bike to houses that I loved in the neighborhood for their beautiful architecture. I’d deliver a letter saying, ‘I love your house. I’d like to invite you to dinner, a Japanese-French Fusion Tasting Menu experience.’
I got about a 20% reply rate, which was good.
I really wanted everything to grow by word of mouth so I made these glass tile tokens and I painted a little circle on them and would say, ‘This is a token of referral, a ‘Shokai’ in Japanese (meaning inquiry.) I would encourage people to pass the tokens out to their friends with the information on how to make a booking. This really started working.’ Chef Thomas shared. ‘I would have been booked up by now at my house but I was offered the restaurant spot on New Year’s Eve. Somebody came to eat at my house who had connections with the shopping center, where ReikiNa is now.’ Chef Stacy offered. And the rest, as they say, is ReikiNa’s his-story.
Speaking of story, we asked Chef Thomas, (who intuitively connects
everything he offers to personal origin stories, ) ‘Why do stories matter? He responded,’ When someone drops a dish in front of you, you can eat it and it can taste good. Fine, that’s great. But if they can tell you the story behind it, about the person who created that recipe eight generations ago; something personal and/or specific, you then have further respect and connection, it can taste even better.’
The seasonal private tasting menu highlighting Asian flavors through a European lens’ at ReikiNa benefits nightly from Chef Thomas’s eclectic vinyl selection and Thomas playing piano at the venue. He explains, ‘I’ve been playing piano since I was a kid. I had my piano in my house while we were doing the dinners. I would serve dessert, take off my apron, go in my room and start playing piano and see if anyone would notice… and they did. Then, when we were building the restaurant, which has a lot of space I asked myself, ‘Do we bring the piano? Do we keep that as part of the experience? Or is that going to be weird?’ And then I just decided there’s a lot of weird stuff about what we do anyway so I should just own it. So I decided to keep playing piano during desert. I play Radiohead covers and Bee Gees and stuff like that.
To add to the artistic luster of ReikiNa, the venue boasts a 105 ft. wall that acts as a rotating gallery for local artists curated by Thomas. ‘I was at one of my friend’s galleries and saw this triptych that now hangs in the front of the restaurant. And I was just like, I wonder if he’d want to move it to the restaurant. And so he did. But there was still more space so I asked a couple more artists. And then I realized, Okay, we’re gonna rotate the menu. Why don’t we rotate the art gallery?’ Chef Thomas shares. ‘I’m curating it on a referral. I’ll ask the current artists, ‘Who do you like right now? Let’s reach out to them.’ The deal is the artists have to move everything in and out. I’m not going to hang anything. I’m not going to remove anything. But I’m also not going to take a cut of their sales.’
ReikiNa was manifested from Thomas’s overflowing artistic nature and appreciation for that of others. Chef Thomas shared. ‘We do a meditation at the dinner every night. I say, ‘I know meditation is not for everybody, and I don’t care. I want to push you out of your comfort zone a little bit. I want to invite you to close your eyes and take some deep breaths with me and find your center. I invite some thoughts of gratitude. Then I walk away and the first course, an East Coast Oyster with Sockeye Citrus Salmon Emulsion, is in front of the guests when they open their eyes.’
What is most inspiring about Chef Thomas Stacy is his parkour level of creative zeal intermingled with a distinct lack of hubris. Despite his rocket to ‘one to watch’ status’ and relative ‘luck’ of landing a successful brick and mortar so early in his culinary voyage, there’s nothing preachy about him. Instead what you get is a vibrant ‘Shokai,’ that has you want to dance to the music he’s playing; submerge yourself in his tasting menu of the moment. When I asked him if there was anything else he would like his fellow chefs to know about him, he responded cheekily but earnestly with, ‘You can just tell them I said ‘I love you.’