Society / Profiles

Houston’s Prince of Parties Retires With Grace — and Thoughts of a Book

Should His Celebrity Clients Be Worried?

BY // 06.07.17

Caterer extraordinaire Jackson Hicks might have slipped quietly out of the kitchen at the end of the year, retiring after 35 years as Houston’s “Prince of Parties,” but the man who has served more heads of state, European royalty and powerful political leaders than anyone in the Lone Star remains the debonaire man about town, one with plans for a book.

Consider the Houston Symphony Wine Dinner in March. Symphony society board chair Steve Mach announced Hicks’ retirement to the stunned black-tie throng dining on stage at Jones Hall. The news was greeted first with gasps and then with a standing ovation for “Jackson,” as he is fondly known. Jackson with his partner, Milton Townsend, at his side, took it all in with grace.

With so many incredible events under his stylish belt and now more time on his hands, Jackson is considering putting pen to paper on his colorful career. But don’t expect a tell-all. Ever the gentleman, Jackson once told Texas Monthly’s Mimi Swartz, “I never gossip about my clients. Part of the privilege of being a fly on the wall is that flies don’t talk.”

Relaxing on the velvet couch in the living room of his early 20th century colonial-style mansion, Jackson says of a book possibility, “I haven’t really considered the exact format. But I have some things I’d like to say. After 35 years, there are events that people are interested in.”

His discretion, perfectionist ways and gentlemanly comportment have earned Jackson best friend status with many Houston swans and with the presidential Bush family. He annually celebrates former President George H.W. Bush’s birthday with the family. His eponymous firm was the caterer of choice for Jenna Bush‘s Crawford Ranch wedding in 2008.

And you can thank Barbara Bush for the prevalence of Jackson and Company’s to-die-for strawberry shortcake. It’s her favorite.  Crossing party lines, the shortcake was on the menu when Gov. Ann Richards tapped Jackson to do the dinner for Queen Elizabeth in Austin.

“Jackson was and is the most generous of people,” Barbara Bush tells PaperCity. “The luncheons and receptions he has donated to literacy are unbelievable. He did Jenna’s wedding at George and Laura’s ranch where a storm blew everything over and he raced all night to get replacements up.”

From the early days, Jackson and Company jump-started the Houston era of the celebrity caterer/event planner and expanded Houston’s party oeuvre. “When we started there were so many things that didn’t occur to people that they could do with entertaining,” he says. “No one really thought of doing really large seated dinners outside of a hotel or the club. No one thought of doing a dinner for 400 in the backyard . . . We just took the position that if you want it, we’ll try to do it.”

Imagining beyond the traditional party scene, Jackson and his team introduced  dishes that became his signature — crab-filled avocados, caviar-filled beggar’s purses, bacon wrapped quail stuffed with jalapeno, and his famed to-die-for empanadas with the lime and avocado sauce. And who among his early clients can forget the impressive five-foot tall avocado trees?

A self-admitted pack rat, Jackson says he has kept every menu and notes from every event including the lunches he did for the heads of state attending the G-7 Economic Summit. That would include his notes on his mandate that every spear of asparagus should be measured to the exact same length. It’s that sort of attention to detail that won Jackson notoriety and a heady list of clients.

 His notes cover the particulars of the estimated 15,000 events he has created, everything from dinner for two to dinner for 2,000. Among those notable affairs, Jackson counts the American Express parties for the Winter Olympics in Calgary, parties for Queen Elizabeth, dinners for the Queen of Sweden and the Prince of Wales, gatherings for the Duchess of York and the Duke and Duchess of Kent. He has entertained a number of U.S. presidents as well as the presidents of Russia and Italy.

His was the firm tapped by Dominique de Menil to organize the opening of The Menil Collection. Likewise, his team catered the opening of Wortham Theater Center, the opening of the Bush presidential library in College Station, and countless weddings, private dinners, and charity balls. The latter often done at great discounts and with Jackson and Company dinners as auction offerings.

In 2012, Jackson and Company garnered national recognition by the Business Committee for the Arts as one of the nation’s 10 Best Companies Supporting the Arts. Ceremonies were held in New York.

Jackson Hicks was also the first caterer to ensure that his staff greet arriving guests by name. “I would stand at the side of the room and tell waiters who someone was and what they drank if I knew and frequently I did because we had the pleasure of taking care of them for so long,” he says. “And I think it’s also just a personal touch that you remember those kinds of details about the people you serve.”

For example, when legendary trail lawyer Joe Jamail would arrive at an event, Jackson recalled, he would be greeted by his name and a tumbler of Glenlivet on the rocks.

Jackson credits his mother and grandmothers with his kitchen skills, his tenure at Neiman Marcus and Richard’s with his wine knowledge. With a degree in social sciences from Baylor University, he initially had no intention of going into the catering business. It was friends swooning over his at-home dinner parties that encouraged him to start his business.

He notes, “The core values that I started with in the business are still the core values that I have today. Hot food that’s hot. Cold food that’s cold. No mystery food. People like a beverage soon after they arrive at an event. There has to be enough valets.” Amen to all of that.

With his departure, Jackson is confident that Jackson and Company will continue its position as one of the city’s leading catering/events companies. “The team is still in place. Nobody has left and some of the people that are there have been with me 25 or 30 years,” he says. “And Milton is still going to be around doing things. We have the same executive chef we’ve had for 15 years.

” I have elected to make the transition as smooth as I could by yielding various responsibilities over this last decade  and I feel comfortable,” Jackson says. “Over the last couple of years, while I have been at the events and it’s great seeing people, they’ve been basically handling the logistics. I didn’t even see the menu for the wine dinner until I was seated.”

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