By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Stephan Pyles almost didn't move into his new 5,000-plus-square-foot, three-story house. It earned him two offers before construction was even completed. One anxious buyer even asked Pyles to throw out a number. He was stunned when the would-be buyer grabbed it.
But the offer fell through, and Pyles had to move in. He couldn't be happier. The noted co-founder of Southwestern cuisine (along with chefs such as Robert Del Grande of Annie's Cafe in Houston and Dean Fearing of The Mansion) has dedicated this lull in his career--spanning five nationally acclaimed restaurants, four books, a PBS television series (New Tastes from Texas) and a James Beard award--to absorbing this new space, a handsome contemporary spread of iron, glass, concrete, stone and wood hugging the rim of the Katy Trail. He's even curtailed his travel fetish to drink in his Turtle Creek pad, valued at some $2.2 million. At times, he seems in awe of it himself. In the entertainment room on the second floor, Pyles manipulates a few buttons in a clumsy, overenthused kid sort of way. Black curtains close around the windows, and another set of curtains opens to reveal a television: the largest projection screen available for the home, he boasts. A sci-fi film buff, Pyles slips in the DVD Independence Day, adjusting the knobs on the receiver until his house shakes as an alien spacecraft obliterates the White House.
But it's in the kitchen that the self-taught Pyles turns into the biggest showoff. His tightly sprung elfin frame moves from the deep fryer, to the 10-burner range, to the professional salamander broiler, to the ovens, to the refrigerated drawers, to the dishwashers. On one side of his cooking island are two rows of cookbooks, roughly one-quarter of his collection, he says. To the right of this steel, glass, granite and wood kitchen is a wood-burning rotisserie. Yet this kitchen is no spectacle of indulgent exhibitionism. It serves as a backdrop and workroom for Pyles' TV appearances and cookbooks.
Pyles, 49, is clearly enjoying this plateau in his career. He's perched atop new riches and new opportunities sloughed from his short fling with Carlson Restaurants Worldwide, which he entered after he and his partners sold Star Canyon, AquaKnox and Taqueria Cañonita to the company. This hiatus is also somewhat of a relief for him. "I'm a little bit more comfortable in my own skin," he says. "I'm more relaxed about the approach, about the process."
This couldn't be said about the two other lulls in Pyles' 25-year career, one that caused him to question his relevance as a culinary professional and another that drove him so deeply into despair he nearly took his own life.
Yet Pyles not only survived his traumatic life-changing respites, he went on to whittle himself both a reputation as an innovator and a track record of successes virtually unmatched in the Southwest--maybe anywhere. And he's seemingly done it all without leaving a single smoldering bridge or a jealous, vengeful antagonist in his wake. All of this is in a viciously competitive industry that routinely shreds nerves and chops otherwise composed temperaments like so many scrubbed carrots.
Prodding colleagues and cohorts for their candid opinions of Pyles gets almost comical. There seems to be an unspoken but mandatory period of gushing before honest appraisals set in, all of which bring more gush. How can this be? Where are hordes of envious ne'er-do-wells and fragile egos mercilessly bruised by his relentless drive for perfection, packs that under normal circumstances would be drooling for the chance to take Pyles down a few notches?
Somehow, he's neutralized them. "People are afraid of pissing him off," says one chef. "A Pyles-related entry on a résumé is pure gold." Maybe so. But even people who are squeamish about bad-mouthing a colleague will almost always spill off-the-record comments if they feel they've been wronged. But "off-the-record" is almost never uttered when people tell their stories about Pyles.
"He's very even-keeled, which is an interesting mix for a chef," says Amy Ferguson-Ota, who was once chef at Pyles' Baby Routh restaurant and now operates Oodles of Noodles in Hawaii. "He's so calm, and yet he executes his profession...beautifully. He's very much a perfectionist. He's very creative. The combinations that come out of his mind are just incredible...for a boy from Big Spring, Texas."
Perhaps therein lies the key to his success as a world-class chef and as a human being: This West Texas boy never dumped on his own roots.
The flanks of Interstate 20 leading into Big Spring are strewn with disheveled hovels and mechanical litter. The front yard of one tiny shack displays the rusting carcasses of two 1930s vintage cars. Their wheel-less rear ends, propped up on stacks of cinder blocks, jut up into the air like cats in heat. Elsewhere shacks are dwarfed by acres of metal corpses--buses, cars, trucks, tractors, oil rigs--stacked behind them.
At the gateway to the town itself is a huge oil refinery operated by Fina Oil and Chemical Co., which a brochure notes was at one time the largest inland oil refinery in the United States. At night, the refinery glitters like a slice of Las Vegas Strip.