Antoinette Bruno: You have created 14 restaurants over the past 20-plus years. Did you always imagine founding Southwestern and New American cuisines?
Stephan Pyles: That was never part of the plan. I was a chef’s assistant at Great Chefs of France Cooking School in the late 70s. I was cooking French but eating American at home.
Seafood from the Gulf Coast, tamales, barbeque – I wanted to bring those things into American cuisine. In 1984 or 85 Ann Green (the writer and consultant) recognized that Dean [Fearing] and Robert Del Grande were doing the same kind of cuisine, and at the same point the media started writing about it. Chez Panisse in the Bay Area was first, then Southwestern, then Norman [Van Aken], and now the world.
AB: How has the Dallas food scene evolved over the years?
SP: It’s evolved quite nicely. Dallas is a snapshot of what’s happening culinarily in America. The fact is that 15 years ago there was very little on culinary radar that was not local. Dean Fearing and myself were the only known chefs. It was a hometown atmosphere. Over the years as interest in food in general has increased – as it has in the rest of country – it has certainly affected Dallas. People are better traveled, better educated, and their palates are more educated. The scene [in Dallas] has been elevated to a world class level.
AB: What’s going on now?
SP: The last few years have been more about more celebrity chefs opening branches of their restaurants in Dallas, which has added to validity to the culinary marketplace. Nobu, Craft, Charlie Palmer, BLT are all here. We’ll see how those all shake out – I would be surprised if all of those restaurants are long term. I don’t mean to be negative, but I think it’s an unusual marketplace here and often chefs don’t do the research that they need to. Dallas is very supportive of its local folk.
Otherwise, it’s a very refined culinary scene right now. The restaurant scene is hand-in-hand with the rest of the development in the city. The arts district has grown exponentially with the opera hall, Wyly Performing Arts Center, symphony hall, sculpture garden – it’s a massive arts district; it may be largest in world when it’s finished.
I always try to stay just ahead of the curve. I’ll be opening a new restaurant at the end of the year serving global tapas. Texas has always been known as the land of big plates and big steaks – our version of vegetarian is just something without beef (fish, chicken, just not beef). We’re embracing smaller portions and more diverse flavors. The new restaurant will have flavors from Spain, Peru, Morocco, Lebanon, and India.
I just got back from India. I went in March and I liked it very much. The further I get from [the trip] the more it sinks in and now it’s settling in and making sense now. It was a lot to take in for the two weeks I was there. I was particularly smitten with all the breads, spices, and paneer. The flavor profile is heavy seasoning with spices, like cardamom, cumin, and chilies. It would have been aggressive enough without the chilies; now India is the largest exporter of chilies in the world, even more than Mexico.
AB: How do you feel your cooking has evolved over the last 20 years?
SP: It started out when I first came into the business when I was at the Mondavi Winery – Paul Bocuse, the Troisgros brothers, Allain Chapelle, Julia Child, were big – and I started doing French nouvelle cuisine with American ingredients. Southwestern Cuisine came through that passage – fine cooking with tomatillos, cilantro, and chilies. It became more rustic in the 90s with ranch cooking or “Cowboy Cuisine.” And today that’s almost come full circle: my food is more refined and more complex and far-reaching in terms of influences. I don’t entirely look to Mexico and South America for cooking. But I try to keep the integrity by not going to far a field. For instance, I don’t think that Asian food is a good fit to Texas, but Spain and then it’s Mediterranean and Moorish influences are.
I think [my food] is taking more risks and combining different cultures.
AB: Is that would you would call New Millennium Southwestern cuisine?
SP: Yea, that’s as good a description as I can give.
AB: Which restaurants do you feel was most influential in shaping your culinary style and business philosophy?
SP: Timmy and Eddy’s in 1978. The chef there was Francois Taylor; I learned from him all the important basic French techniques. Also, I’m from the industry – my folks had a truck stop café.
AB: Tell me about your mentor; what did he teach you?
SP: Michel Gerard – he taught me attention to detail. He had me pick out the individual spinach leaves and put them on a paper towel, then blanch them; then he would come over and tell me to puree them.
AB: What chefs do you most admire?
SP: Julia Child, Simon Beck, the Troisgros brothers, and George Blanc.
AB: Is there an ingredient that you’re really in love with right now?
SP: It happened last year that I became really infatuated with cardamom. I like it a lot. It adds a complete flavor profile, and it works really well with flavors I already work with, like citrus, spices, and cilantro. One of the things that I like about Southwestern cuisine is that it can be so healthy and have the same punch and flavor profiles but without the fat. You can get the same great flavor from smoke, spice, and chilies; cardamom just works so well with that. It has a subtle, secretive flavor that reminds me of when I first discovered lemongrass.
AB: What do you think are your signature techniques?
SP: Smoking, grilling, and the use of chilies. Anybody with a hood can smoke. We would get a smoker from the hardware store for 175 bucks called Cooking Cajun. We’d go through two a year! With chilies, it’s about flavor profiles, mouth feel, and layering of flavors without all the fat.
AB: How do you maintain leadership in your kitchen, even when you are away from it?
SP: The same people who do the cooking when I’m in the kitchen do it when I’m away. The key is to surround yourself with the best talent you can find. I have to make sure the executive chef I hire has the same passion, vision, and attention to detail that I have.
AB: What is your favorite interview question to ask a candidate for a kitchen position?
SP: Is there something else you can imagine doing besides cooking? If they say yes, then I tell them they are in the wrong business.
AB: What advice would you give to aspiring young chefs?
SP: Part of the mistake many make is that once they can cook, they think they can run a business. The tendency is to do great food at any cost. You have to be open to what the public wants. I’m a perfect example: when I opened Routh Street Café, I didn’t have tenderloin on the menu, and within a month, I learned my lesson.
Be as well-rounded as you can; be a business person; learn from HR. You better partner with or surround yourself with those that know about taxes, finances, and HR.
AB: You have a long history with hunger relief groups, like Share Our Strength. Any projects or events you’re currently working on?
SP: We are involved with the 20th anniversary of [Share Our Strength’s] Taste of the Nation coming up on June 29th here in Dallas. I’m still on the board for The North Texas Food Bank; I focus on childhood hunger and doing Operation Frontline which teaches indigent mothers how to buy and make food smartly on a very small budget. And Tasting Pursuit is a yearly [fund raising] event that involves out of town and local chefs; we open our restaurant to the event and the seats sell for $160 a piece.
AB: What’s on the horizon for you?
SP: I’ve signed on as a consultant for the Dallas Museum of Art. I’ll be doing some exciting events and menus with their Restaurant 1717, which does dinner and lunch. And the King Tut exhibit is coming to the museum for six months and there will be some exciting stuff surrounding that.
Plus, I’ve got two business partners who’ve never owned restaurants before and they want to expand – and we get a lot of offers. Now we are settled enough to do it. Tim Byers is my executive chef, he had his own restaurant and came from Mansion on Turtle Creek; with Tim we have a lot of depth in culinary management. And something that is completely missing from Dallas, which is odd, but a restaurant like Star Canyon – a restaurant that I did back in the 90s. It was not as in-your-face Texan architecturally and in terms of décor. So, what I want to do is bold Texan, to open in the next 18 to 24 months.
It’s time to strike – when the iron is hot, as they say.
+ Fast Facts for Stephan Pyles
Where do you travel for culinary inspiration?
I go to Spain twice a year, and Peru. Latin America has had the greatest impact. Chef Gaston Acurio in Peru – he has opened up cevicherias all over.
Who are your most successful protégés?
David Garido (Austin), Kevin Rathbun (Atlanta), Tim Anderson, Russ Hodges (he teaches), and Shannon Swindle.
What is your most indispensable kitchen tool?
My Vita-Mix blender – to puree everything, salsas and such.
What person from history would you most like to eat dinner with?
Mozart. He was so brilliant at such an early age, and died so young.
When you and your family eat out, what are your favorite restaurants off the beaten path?
Ferre for their roasted sea bass with wild mushroom risotto; Steel for their tatake with beef and tuna; Local – the chef changes the menu often, but she does really good fish and lamb. For barbeque: Sonny Bryan’s, but you’ve got to go before they sell out. They open at 11am; it’s just a shack. Cuquita’s on Henderson is very festive with a mariachi band; they have great pozole. For Tex-Mex: Mia’s on Lemmon Avenue, and Matitos.