From humble beginnings in West Texas to working with Julia Child, Lone Star celebrity chef Stephan Pyles (of Dallas restaurants Stampede 66, San Salvaje, Sky Canyon and Stephan Pyles) sat down with Where™ to discuss his culinary come-up and favorite things to do in DFW.
What drew you to Dallas, and what made you decide to become a chef? Dallas was always the “big city.” Having never been out of Texas, I spent six months in Europe after college and that’s when the seeds were planted; I discovered I wanted to be a chef. My “break” happened at the Robert Mondavi Winery’s “Great Chefs of France” program in California, after I’d been working at the Bronx restaurant in Dallas. I experienced a incredible [culinary] transformation in the Bay Area while working alongside Michelin three-star chefs and Julia Child, who became a mentor.
What was it like working with Julia Child? I was star-struck. Not only was she personable, she was knowledgeable, but she was the first one to say she wasn’t a chef – she was a cook. She taught me some fundamental things like how to hold a knife better and how to cut artichokes.
You’re hailed as a primary founding father of Southwestern cuisine. How did this title come to be? There was no Southwestern or regional cuisine here to speak of in the late 1970s and early ‘80s; it was mostly continental and French, then New American. To do something regional is what I learned from the French: Use seasonal, local ingredients and recipes that were drilled into my head at an early age, like jalapeños, cilantro, tacos, tamales. Integrating the table I grew up with was the way I cooked then, and it’s the way I cook today.
How would you describe “New Texas Cuisine”? It’s a blend of Mexican, Southern and Cajun/Creole, but influenced by the style and sensibility of fine dining. The press dubbed it “Southwestern cuisine,” but it wasn’t just me who started it. It was also Dean Fearing (of Fearing’s restaurant), who was at The Mansion on Turtle Creek at the time, and Robert del Grande in Houston. We grouped together to have more of a “voice,” although I was the only one of the three originally from Texas.
You’ve made Dallas your home for more than three decades. How has the culinary scene in Dallas progressed over the years? If you’d asked me five years ago, I’d say it seemed to have stagnated. Over the last three years, that’s all changed. When I opened Stampede 66, I trademarked the name “Modern Texas” cuisine, which actually started with Star Canyon. Since then, there have been a slew of restaurants opening with that tag line. Jeff Harris’ American Food & Beverage in Fort Worth is a great example. The dining “scene” here has started, stopped and sputtered, but now I think we’ve become a culinary destination.
When you’re not at one of your own restaurants, where do you go to eat in Dallas? I like Mexican food and Tex-mex. I like to support my protégés, like Tim Byres at Smoke and Matt McCallister at FT33, as well as Katherine [Clapner] of Dude, Sweet Chocolate. Others include Graham Dodds of Hibiscus, Dan Landsberg (Dragonfly Restaurant at Hotel Zaza), Marc Cassel of 20 Feet Seafood Joint, and Danyele McPherson of Remedy.
Did you learn the basics of cooking from your family, or your parents’ restaurant? Yes, my grandmother was a great cook. The recipe for honey-fried chicken (on the menu at Stampede 66) is hers – but it’s done in a modern style. She wouldn’t have wanted me to do it the same way she did, anyway; she’d have wanted me to put my own spin on it.
Describe your fondest memory from being in the kitchen. There are several ... but one would be from [my parents’ restaurant] the Truck Stop Café, because everything seemed so massive as a kid. The line cooks and fry cooked seemed so big, and the dining room was classic Texas – the jukebox playing, waitresses with big hair.
What are some of the essential things to do in Dallas? Well, considering where Stephan Pyles (the restaurant) is, I’d say the Dallas Arts District in downtown. We were here before it technically became an Arts District. The Nasher Sculpture Center and Dallas Museum of Art are great venues. One thing that’s really unique to Dallas is the Bishop Arts District. I like to go to Bolsa, Stock & Barrel, and Mesa in Oak Cliff.
What are a few of your hobbies? Traveling is probably my biggest ... When I go I try to always do some “research” for work. Some of my favorite places are Peru (I’ve been at least 12 times) and Spain. I also love China; I’ve always been fascinated by the culture.One thing I spend a lot of time doing is [philanthropy] to fight childhood hunger. Every year we put on the “No Kid Hungry” dinner here in Dallas.
Do you cook at home? No, all I have at home is yogurt and cereal. There’s not much in my fridge except for milk, because I like lattés. I do love to entertain though, and I love to cook at Thanksgiving.
What are some things you’re looking forward to this fall season? The State Fair. October is always a crazy busy month for us. This year, we’re taking 18 people to Cuba for a culinary tour.
What do you love most about Texas – the food, the hospitality? All those things. I like to say that hospitality was created in the South, but it was perfected in Texas. There’s a great energy and a pioneer spirit here, and the idea that anything’s possible. We’re also highly individualistic, and that penetrates everything. You can see it in our major cities: Austin, Houston, San Antonio, Dallas and Fort Worth are all so different.
How would you describe Dallas to someone who’s never been? Vibrant, independent, modern, confident. It’s all here: We have the largest contiguous arts district in the country and we’re a world-class city. We’ve finally become the city we always thought we were (laughs)!