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By the age of 16, Pyles' interest in music deepened. He complemented his vocal training with piano instruction. "I was so serious that I accomplished a lot quickly," he says. "In three years, I maybe accomplished the equivalent of eight or so."
But his father says this demanding intensity made him a difficult student, and he went through several piano teachers in his quest to master the keyboard. "He could put his mind to anything he'd want to do, and he could do it," the elder Pyles remembers. "He could learn anything, and he could learn it fast. But he wanted to do it his way, and he had a hard time getting a teacher. He was pretty well set on the way he wanted to do it."
Yet adolescence showed a darker, rebellious side to Pyles. "He was a mischievous kid," says his father. "He was pretty strong-headed."
When he was 16, Pyles' parents divorced, and he went from having rigid rules to almost none at all: no curfews and virtually no limits. "I was not such a nice teen-ager," admits Pyles. Yet his villainy was limited to fights and neighborhood terrorism executed with water balloons and eggs--mild annoyances that perhaps assumed sinister proportions in the context of his religious upbringing.
So on the brink of manhood, Pyles was much more inclined to sing for his supper than he was to make it, which suited his parents just fine.
Even when dressed down in shorts, a billowy shirt and sandals, Pyles is natty. His dark hair is meticulously groomed, and his beard is scrupulously trimmed. His frame is a sort of totem to the lean discipline and tightly sprung energy with which he ran his kitchens.
Stacked on his coffee table are books on foie gras and caviar. But the tall bookcases flanking the fireplace betray a few of his nonculinary indulgences: the Library of Curious and Unusual Facts; Cultural Arts of the World; the Collection of Mysteries of the Unknown. There's even a library of Fix it Yourself guides; Pyles fancies himself a handyman.
He relaxes on his couch. His shih tzus, Vega (named after Las Vegas) and Keanu (named after the star of one of his favorite sci-fi flicks, The Matrix), spread like dust mops nearby. Yet even relaxed, he can't hood his intensity. When he leans back into the couch cushions he tightly squeezes the pillow, nervously twisting a corner, or he leans forward and looks off to the side, vigorously flipping at his ear lobe.
Pyles says his spirituality changed when he went off to college, a path that took him from Howard County Junior College to East Texas State University-Commerce (now Texas A&M University-Commerce), where he studied music.
"I went from this very dogmatic Christianity thing...to agnostic, to atheist, back to agnostic...to other religions," he says. "I believe in God, a god, a spirit, whatever that is, a light, an energy. It's very important. That's what keeps me focused, having that spiritual side of life. It affects everything I do. It affects who I am, the way I treat other people. It's made me a more honest person."
Pyles abides by simple maxims, such as the Golden Rule. He prays and meditates. He says these habits helped him survive the grueling rigors and frustrations of the restaurant business.
But it wasn't only his spiritual side that shifted once he left Big Spring for college. His interest in music gradually waned as well. Pyles dreamed of becoming a vocalist, but he quickly realized that his chances were next to zero. Plus, he had no desire to teach. "I wasn't a very good student in college," Pyles says. "I just found way too many distractions." Those distractions included lots of drinking and partying.
But Pyles' ennui changed when he went on a backpacking trip with his best friend from college. This three-week excursion would take him to France. Only those three weeks morphed into three months as Pyles and his pal surveyed Italy and Greece as well, consuming every nickel of their meager funds in the process. They survived by sleeping on the beach or in youth hostels and by having money wired from home.
Pyles was astounded by the food in Europe, by the flavors, the varieties and the freshness. This was food like he had never seen. Yet when he returned home, the only thing he was sure of was that he didn't want to go back to school.
What he did do was move to Dallas, where he got a job selling sheet music at the Whittle Music Co. at Oak Lawn and Congress. But his restlessness drove him to Lake Tahoe, where he got a job for several months in a casino dealing blackjack and writing keno.
When his gambling cravings were exhausted, Pyles moved back to Dallas and got a job as a waiter at Jimmy and Eddy's, a defunct restaurant serving continental cuisine on Inwood Road. It was there that he had a life-changing realization. "It all started coming back," he says. "This is what I want to do. I really liked waiting tables. I really like interacting with people. I liked serving good food. This is in my blood."
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