Something about Stephan

After 25 years in Dallas' restaurant jungle, Stephan Pyles has come out respected and rich. How does he stay so clean?

Adds Cox: "The biggest thing that happened to AquaKnox was living in the shadow of Star Canyon. Because it came out of us after Star Canyon, it was always, 'Why aren't you as busy as Star Canyon? Where is all the animation?'"

But that wasn't what attracted Carlson Restaurants Worldwide CEO Wally Doolin to Pyles and Cox. It was their taqueria concept. Pyles says he ran into Doolin during a Share Our Strength event, an international hunger relief organization of which Pyles is a founding board member. They discussed doing a restaurant together. Each felt the taqueria would be a good place to start, since the intention was to turn it into a chain, but the deal eventually grew to encompass Star Canyon and AquaKnox.

The talks dragged on for eight months. "I was absolutely torn," Pyles says. "I had such misgivings, and I was questioning my sanity. I mean, I was perfectly happy. We were on a roll. Why would I want to do this? It was a lot of money. But am I selling out?"

Stephan Pyles relaxes at his swimming pool. It's been a long, strange trip from hot, dry Big Spring, Texas, to the top of the food chain.
Stephan Pyles relaxes at his swimming pool. It's been a long, strange trip from hot, dry Big Spring, Texas, to the top of the food chain.

Pyles won't disclose the deal's terms, but he says he got 37 percent to Cox's 12 percent and Hickingbotham's 51 percent interest. Pyles says he was convinced he could make the partnership with Carlson work. But it wasn't long before it grew strained, and the ambitious plans were deflated. Star Canyon was slated for 18 markets, and the defunct AquaKnox (now zen den) was to go into just as many. The taqueria would multiply even more aggressively.

"There were times of excessive enjoyment and excitement at what we thought we could do," Pyles says, ticking off the financial and human resources Carlson had at its disposal. "There were times of sheer disappointment at realizing we might not could...That was not the most pleasant of my experiences in the restaurant business. I certainly learned a lot about the corporate world. But what it taught me was, that's not me."

Pyles has taken a more leisurely tact when outlining his future. He wants to do a picture book (A Day in the Life of an American Taqueria). He wants to do more television. And he wants to do more restaurants, both a small casual restaurant with Mexican flavors that can be duplicated easily and a larger (though at 120 seats, smaller than Star Canyon) more upscale restaurant.

He says the upscale venture will be more thought-provoking than perhaps Star Canyon was, with its roots firmly buried in the earth to reflect his passion for Texas farmers and farm products. "Great restaurants are not created," he insists. "They evolve."

Yet do great chefs evolve? Pyles thinks so. He says he's mellowed over the years, though he and others insist he was never a despotic terror in the kitchen. "I was never a screamer," he says. "I would like to think that people thought I was really tough but fair...It's more the silent treatment, which can be more deadly. If you really upset me, you're going to know it. And I'm just going to let you think about it."

Indeed, chefs who have worked for and with Pyles cite his uncanny ability to clearly set the tone in his kitchens and to explicitly articulate his vision as perhaps the most significant key to his success. His operatives fear not his wrath nor his ridicule--which is rarely present--as much as they dread letting the man down.

So it's no wonder the sparse rumors about him come from outside the kitchen cloister. There was a controversy a few years back surrounding Star Canyon's reservation system. Pyles, Cox and their managers were alleged to be holding back tables on Friday and Saturday nights for important people, those with Park Cities addresses or Porsches for example.

Pyles tells a story of a man who confronted Cox one Saturday evening and insisted he had to have a table for 8 p.m. It was his anniversary. Cox told him the restaurant was completely booked and there was nothing he could do. But the gentleman insisted, eventually holding up and waving a bill as incentive. "Sir, I'm sorry. I couldn't even get my mother in here tonight," Cox replied. The man walked out in a huff. A few minutes later he called Cox from his cell phone and barked: "Do you realize that was a 20 dollar bill I was holding in my hand?"

Pyles generates laughs while retelling that story, but he should prepare for another stiff dose of similar stuff, because whenever his next, as-yet-unnamed restaurant opens (he hopes November 2002), there will be more buzz, anxious crowds, stars, barrels of press ink and reservations tangles than perhaps any human can stand, even one with Pyles' temperament. Whatever it is Pyles has, people can't seem to get enough of it.

Maybe there's something in that Big Spring scrub.

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