Something about Stephan

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

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.

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.
Though he claims he's basically shy and doesn't enjoy much socializing, Pyles still likes to entertain, which he now does over an expansive Italian black marble dining room table, top. Pyles' new $2.2 million Turtle Creek pad is rich in distinctive pieces such as this handcrafted Italian chair, middle, and this striking wire mesh shadow sculpture, bottom, titled "Melanie," by Southwestern artist Randy Cooper.
Though he claims he's basically shy and doesn't enjoy much socializing, Pyles still likes to entertain, which he now does over an expansive Italian black marble dining room table, top. Pyles' new $2.2 million Turtle Creek pad is rich in distinctive pieces such as this handcrafted Italian chair, middle, and this striking wire mesh shadow sculpture, bottom, titled "Melanie," by Southwestern artist Randy Cooper.
A view from the living room into Pyles' kitchen, which serves as a backdrop for his TV appearances. Pyles' shih tzu Vega, below, does a sphinx in the vestibule.
A view from the living room into Pyles' kitchen, which serves as a backdrop for his TV appearances. Pyles' shih tzu Vega, below, does a sphinx in the vestibule.
Pyles' withered restaurant roots: The one-time Phillips 66 truck stop his family once owned just outside Big Spring, above, has been vacant for more than 20 years; below is what's left of the Coahoma Café in Coahoma, Texas, the Pyles family's third restaurant.
Mark Stuertz
Pyles' withered restaurant roots: The one-time Phillips 66 truck stop his family once owned just outside Big Spring, above, has been vacant for more than 20 years; below is what's left of the Coahoma Café in Coahoma, Texas, the Pyles family's third restaurant.
Pyles says his fling at the nationally acclaimed Star Canyon was the best time of his life.
Mark Graham
Pyles says his fling at the nationally acclaimed Star Canyon was the best time of his life.

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.

Downtown Big Spring is pocked with abandoned gas stations, Mexican restaurants and barbecue shacks. In some cases, it's difficult to tell the difference between operating businesses and the remains of their shuttered siblings.

But perhaps the most poignant symbol of Big Spring's current predicament, which turned grim after Webb Air Force Base was shuttered in 1977 and the boom and bust cycles of the petroleum industry began to exact their toll, is the Settles Hotel. This 15-story circa-1930 hotel is the tallest building in Big Spring. Indeed, it was once the tallest building between El Paso and Dallas. It was also one of the most opulent structures in West Texas, with 150 guest rooms, apartments, a luxurious grand ballroom, a vast lobby planked with marble, a curved staircase and a private club. It was a stopover for celebrities and dignitaries such as Elvis Presley, Lawrence Welk, Agnes du Pont and President Herbert Hoover. But the bustle went dead more than 20 years ago. Today this Texas landmark, owned by the city of Big Spring, is a gutted and disheveled maze of busted walls, perforated floors, knocked-out windows and leaky pipes.

Pyles left Big Spring long before it succumbed to decay. He wasn't even sure if the restaurants his family owned when he was a boy--the Phillips 66 Truck Stop, the Wagon Wheel restaurant, the Coahoma Café and the Lakeside Café--still were open. When asked if he knew anything about a Phillips 66 truck stop that existed years ago on the western edge of town, the manager of Carlos Restaurant and Bar shook his head. "Who owned it?" he asked. When told the name of the owner, he shook his head again. "The only guy I know of named Pyles is some five-star chef out of Dallas. He ate here once."

But an old-timer at the next table over did remember the truck stop, which thrived in Big Spring long before the massive Rip Griffin Phillips 66 Truck/Travel center emerged on Interstate 20. He explained that it had been abandoned for more than 20 years after changing hands several times, but it was still standing, lying dormant and decaying, like an old lighthouse long ago extinguished.

The corpse of the old Pyles truck stop sits on a triangular sliver of real estate just before U.S. Highway 80 splits into Third and Fourth streets, thoroughfares that run through the heart of Big Spring. The tiny structure is striped with fat bands of blue and white. "Lefty and Denny's Pool" is crudely stenciled over the sign that once carried the Phillips 66 insignia. The windows are fractured, and the dining area that once held a handful of tables is strewn with old car batteries, a plastic gas can and a hydraulic jack. A sign on the wall reads "no fighting or cussing" in blood red.

Pyles' father, Austin, a butcher by trade, left Big Spring in 1981 and now lives in East Texas. He says the family earned a good living from that truck stop before he sold it in 1965. "The town was booming then," he says.

He put Stephan to work at the truck stop when times were lean. The younger Pyles started his restaurant career at the age of 8, busing tables on weekends. "I loved it," Pyles recalls. "I looked forward to it all week. It was just as hick and Western as could be. All chewing gum and big hair."

The truck stop was by far the most successful of his parents' four restaurants, and it enabled them to build their dream house. But construction of Interstate 20, which diverted most of the truck traffic from Highway 80, forced them to sell. Their next restaurant venture was a spot called the Wagon Wheel, a large brick structure that had a neon wagon wheel on its roof. The menu bulged with steaks, Mexican food, fried chicken, chicken-fried steaks and broasted chicken. "It was Texas food, before I knew what Texas food was," Pyles says.

Though he says he was always fascinated with food, an interest aroused by Sunday family dinners and meals in restaurants, Pyles never considered going into the restaurant business as a profession. Watching his parents struggle to eke out a living from their restaurants soured him.

Besides, he had other interests. In the seventh grade he played football, where his 5-foot-8-inch frame proved meaty enough to earn him a slot on the line as a right guard. But he never grew taller, and by the end of the ninth grade, Pyles washed out, his football career abruptly ended.

So he focused on other pursuits: music, drama, radio and Bible club. "I was kind of thought of as a Jesus freak," Pyles confesses. "I had a very conservative, religious fundamental upbringing. That sort of shapes everything."

This fervency forged his adolescence in seemingly contradictory ways. The rigid strictures of the Church of Christ had the odd effect of opening him up to the world of music. Because musical instruments were forbidden as accompaniment to hymns during church services, virtually all of Pyles' singing was done a cappella. "It taught everyone to sing better," he says. His musical inspiration also came from family gatherings, where they would sing hymns accompanied by his father's mandolin and his uncle's guitar playing.

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."

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.

Stars came to visit, too. "We had Pavoratti in there for a private dinner," says Tim Anderson, former Routh Street sous chef who is now chef at Napa Valley Grille in Bloomington, Minnesota. "I mean, the first time I ever met Wolfgang Puck he somehow ended up in the kitchen, and he's standing there in front of me drunk on his ass in a green seersucker suit with a broken zipper."

Pyles says there was almost no end to such mayhem. "Routh Street Café was the ultimate indulgence. It was kind of the playground for the people of the '80s who had more money than they should have." He recounts episodes of people emerging from Routh Street's bathrooms with most of their clothes left behind; of groups ordering lavish five-course dinners only to push the food around on their plates between guzzles of Cristal and trips to the bathroom; of a man who passed out facedown into his food; and of wives stumbling upon their husbands dining with unexpected guests. "We caused a divorce or two," Pyles says.

But under the weight of it all, the action, the attention, the glitterati and three more restaurants (Baby Routh down the street from Routh Street and Tejas and Goodfellow's in Minneapolis), the Pyles and Dayton partnership grew strained. The Minneapolis restaurants weren't doing well, and the financial fundamentals of Routh Street itself were suspect, Pyles says. He says Routh Street raked in $1.2 million in sales the first year, peaked at $1.6 million and did $1.1 million the last year it was open, never generating much in profit. Those numbers were to feed $1 million invested in the real estate plus a $1.5 million investment in finish-out. Add to that shaky math those struggling Minneapolis restaurants plus a $300,000 kitchen renovation Pyles spearheaded, and it's easy to see the cause of the anemia.

Though Pyles was shocked by the sudden closure of Routh Street (and eventually Baby Routh) in 1993, he wasn't surprised by the growing chill that swept his once cozy partnership with Dayton. "The split didn't so much take me by surprise," he says. "I mean I was unhappy. I'm sure he was unhappy...I just knew that he was wanting some life changes." He pauses and looks out the window. "You know, it's different for people who don't have to work. You just don't understand. It's like that saying, the rich are different from the rest of us."

But for Pyles, even though he knew he was hanging onto something he shouldn't have, Routh Street was all he knew, and its demise sent him into an emotional tailspin.


On a table in the entryway of Pyles' new house is a portrait of him with Sharon Stone. To the right is a portrait of him with Andie MacDowell. He caught a lot of stars after Star Canyon opened in 1994: Mick Jagger, Jon Bon Jovi, Kevin Costner and Bill Gates. His official bio notes that he's cooked for Mikhail Gorbachev and Jimmy Carter. Pyles sighs. "I've never been overly impressed with stars. I think that they're guests. It was no different than when Tom Landry used to come in."

But it was different. Star Canyon was Pyles' comeback, the restaurant that proved not only that Pyles could do it again but that he could do it better on his own terms--this after he thought he was washed-up following Routh Street Café's closing, a time when he entertained grave questions about his relevance and reputation.

"It was certainly one of the most painful and emotional periods of my life," he says. "Because there was a sense of failure and a question of what I did wrong and what could I have done differently. It was a dark, dark time." Financially, Routh Street's death put four months' severance into Pyles' pocket.

But 18 months later, Star Canyon opened. It was a vivacious, tongue-in-cheek peek at Texas, with down-home Texas cuisine dressed in Pyles' flair. He and partner Michael Cox (onetime waiter at Routh Street) were backed financially by TCBY Enterprises President Herren Hickingbotham. They were turning people away from day one.

In retrospect, Pyles says he's come to realize his greatest strength is not necessarily his palate or his creativity or his agility with dead-on flavorings or even his demeanor. It's his ability to reinvent himself, to evolve. "At one point in time Routh Street Café was a temple of gastronomy," he says. "Everything was very precious. I wanted Star Canyon to be an experience instead of a temple of gastronomy...It was the best time of my life."

At its most profitable, Star Canyon generated some $5 million in sales annually on an investment of $1.3 million. "That was a hell of a return," Pyles cracks. The success prompted them to think about more restaurants. Pyles had ideas for a taqueria and a seafood restaurant, with the former first on the agenda. But when the Highland Park Cafeteria space came available, they abruptly reversed priorities.

Pyles admits the resulting AquaKnox turned out to be one of his greatest disappointments. He says he never felt like it came together the way he wanted because he didn't have the time to devote to it. There wasn't a strong presence in the kitchen, and it was simply too big. "It was just never quite a really special experience," he says. "And the design was never quite what we wanted. It was like it was almost not finished."

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?"

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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