By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Pyles soaked up every facet of the restaurant operation. He waited tables. He tended bar. He took a pay cut and worked in the kitchen as a prep cook and line cook with the restaurant's French chef. His enthusiasm won him notice. The Bronx restaurant made him an offer that was countered by Jimmy and Eddy's. He went over to The Bronx anyway, where he held numerous titles: pastry chef, headwaiter and executive chef.
But the rigors of the restaurant business took a toll, and Pyles decided to take a couple of weeks off to travel to San Francisco and San Diego. When he returned, he fell seriously ill, and his life shifted to still another track.
Pyles discovered he had contracted hepatitis B. To make matters worse, Pyles' mother had died. His grief in tandem with the disease debilitated him to such an extent that, in 1978 at the age of 26, he was unable to do anything, not even take care of himself. Nursed by family and friends, Pyles survived via disability payments. "I couldn't work, and I kept relapsing," says Pyles. He also learned from doctors that hepatitis could potentially bar him from working in the restaurant industry. After six months, the uncertainty and the frequent relapses finally got the best of Pyles, and he slipped into deep depression. "I was suicidal," he says. "It was actually the only time in my life that I thought there was really nothing I could do."
His constitution began to shift when he read a book by Norman Cousins stressing that laughter and positive thinking are as influential on bodily health as depression, albeit in the opposite direction. Cousins said he would watch Laurel and Hardy movies to relieve a painful nerve disease. So Pyles watched as many comedies as he could stand. He also started studying Eastern religions and relaxation and self-hypnosis techniques. "I'd call my friends and tell them, 'You've got to find some really good jokes. Go get some jokes and bring them over.' I would make people bring me jokes," he recalls. "Finally, it was like I turned a page. I woke up and said, 'I'm going to beat this thing.'" He also woke up with a determination to become a great chef.
After recovering his composure through laughter, Pyles spent the next several months chewing up cookbooks. He devoured both volumes of Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child. He scoured two volumes by Gaston Lenôtre--Desserts and Pastries and Ice Cream and Candies--executing every single recipe down to the last detail. His original intention was to become a pastry chef because he felt a strong kinship between pastry and music. "[Music] is very similar to composing a meal," Pyles says. "There are certain things, there are certain rules, and you want absolute and complete balance. You don't want too much repetition. You want to highlight certain ingredients. There are beginnings, ends and crescendos."
Still feeling puny from his illness, Pyles stumbled on the opportunity to serve as an assistant chef in the Robert Mondavi Great Chefs program. Launched in the mid-'70s, the event brought three-star Michelin chefs to California for up to 10 days of cooking demonstrations, seminars and winery tours. Over the next couple of years, Pyles assisted chefs such as Julia Child, Simone Beck, Michele Guerard and Gaston Lenôtre through the program. It was during these bouts with great chefs in the cutting-edge environment in California that Pyles smelled a culinary revolution. "I knew that change was afoot," he says. "I knew there was something serious happening in food...The buzzword out there was New American cuisine. Nobody really knew what that was."
But Pyles sensed he could put his signature on this new style as its features came into focus.
"Stephan started telling me about this New American cuisine," says Frank Woods, who cooked with Pyles at The Bronx. "'Think of it. Regional American cuisine. It's New American cuisine.' And I looked at him and said, '[Stephan], American cuisine is what your mother cooked.'"
Those words proved more prophetic than perhaps either of them imagined.
Pyles' first post-Bronx work was as a caterer, and by chance he catered a party hosted by attorney John Dayton and his wife, Arlene. It was a huge affair, a sit-down dinner for 100. Dayton was so impressed with Pyles' touch that he asked Pyles if he would partner with him in a restaurant. Pyles was lackadaisical about the offer. "I think he thought it was an easier life, God bless him," says Pyles of Dayton, the scion of the Dayton family out of Minneapolis who acquired its fortune in retailing. "A lot of people think that it's an easy, glamorous career. It can be glamorous, but it's not what it's cracked up to be."
But after six months of pondering, Pyles agreed to the union. He didn't put a penny into it, but the vision for the 56-seat Routh Street Café was all his. Pyles says the partnership was good in the beginning, and when the restaurant opened in late 1983, success was virtually instantaneous. Based on creations such as free-range chicken with black bean sauce and crayfish enchiladas, positive local Routh Street reviews were followed by national acclaim in the defunct Cook's magazine, The New York Times, Esquire and GQ. Pyles says the success and attention felt strange at first, but he found himself craving it, like a drug rush.