By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Yet that's not exactly what happened. Suddenly, Fearing and Pyles were the only guys in town making a serious go at a cooking style that was primed to be as regionally influential and transformative as the farm-to-table philosophy Alice Waters popularized in Northern California or the scrubbed-up Southern cuisine set forth by Frank Stitt in Alabama.
Southwestern-leaning eateries predicated on trendiness instead of talent shut down. The Mansion rekindled its Francophilia, eventually hiring a Loire Valley native to helm its dining room. And even chefs who trained under the patriarchs—Nick Badovinus, Casey Thompson and Marc Cassel are a few of Fearing's kitchen alums who've opened their own area restaurants—gravitated away from the Southwestern genre.
While the scarcity of imitators has surely helped boost traffic at their eponymous restaurants, Fearing and Pyles are mystified why their ideas didn't catch.
"It's an interesting question," Fearing says. "Stephan and I have talked about it. Both of our trees of life are huge. But it's not like other cuisines, where people left Charlie Trotter and kind of did Charlie Trotter in their own style. It's funny that people would love me and wouldn't do Southwestern cuisine."
Perhaps Fearing's ego is an element of the equation: Famed for his outsized personality and multicolored cowboy boots, Fearing is so firmly linked with Southwestern cuisine that it's a struggle to separate the man from the masa. A young chef who lards his menu with quail tacos and ancho shrimp soup is at risk of putting on a culinary drag show, aping Fearing's signature moves.
"Stephan and I took it to unbelievable heights," theorizes Fearing, who wonders whether young chefs are paralyzed by their unspoken answer to the question: "Would I ever get it like Dean and Stephan got it?"
Or maybe their resistance is rooted in apathy, not anxiety. Pyles characterizes the current generation of chefs as "eclectic," which is a kind way of saying the cooks who've come through his kitchen don't thrill to regionalism. They chafe at the Southwestern label, which they find confining.
"What's always been disappointing to me is when people ask who are the heirs apparent, the fact is, the chefs we've trained don't do any unabashed Texas," says Pyles, a fifth-generation Texan. "It's interesting, because I have this struggle. I have to continually remind them to bring things back to this style of place."
Speaking of executive chef Matt McAllister, who's since left Pyles' restaurant, Pyles says, "He's out there wanting to do molecular, and I say 'Remember our deal here. Where are we from? Texas.' So he'll add some chiles."
McAllister confirms he's not under the sway of Southwestern cooking: "I don't really do Southwestern food," he says. "It's not my style. Mine's just kind of simple American. I'll use whatever ingredients are freshest and most in season."
It doesn't matter much to McAllister whether his dishes reflect Dallas. That's a more pressing concern for Pyles: Although Pyles' newest restaurant is a compilation of global cookery, he's smitten with his home state's foodways.
"I would like to do an in-your-face Texas concept," he says. "Maybe it's a little Disneyland-like. Ambiance is pure Texas. It would really pull from four influences: Southern, Hispanic and the cowboy steaks and the chicken-fried steak. We do a chicken-fried steak at lunch [at Stephan Pyles] that sells like crazy."
Chicken-fried steak is the kind of regionally bound dish that's served as an organizing principle for communities with vibrant food scenes. Chefs in other cities take tremendous pride in reworking the humble dishes their grandmothers made, embroidering them with modern techniques and swapping out canned goods for farm-fresh ingredients. Up in Minneapolis, where all that's needed for a funeral is a cadaver and hot dish, chef Landon Schoenefeld this year opened Haute Dish, serving "new Midwestern cuisine." That means he makes his "hot dish" with short ribs, baby green beans and porcini béchamel.
What the Dallas dining scene really needs, the most vocal lamenters say, are more meats, grains, fruits and vegetables grown by local farmers. Won't happen, the skeptics respond: North Texas is hot and the soil's lousy.
"That's ridiculous," says Erin Flynn, who farms near Austin. "That's absolutely ridiculous. People have been eating in Dallas for millennia."
Cranky weather conditions haven't impeded the local food scenes in Portland, Maine, where the average winter temperature is about 20 degrees, or Portland, Oregon, where farmers have to contend with almost 40 inches of annual rainfall. Coaxing pigs and plants to grow isn't the problem, Flynn says: It's getting product to market.
"Just because you can grow it doesn't mean you can get to it," says Flynn, who recently moved back from Georgia to launch Green Gate Farms.
Compared with Georgia, Texas' local food scene is badly stunted, Flynn says. That's partly a result of the state consistently favoring large-scale commercial farms, and partly a result of grassroots activists failing to organize on small farms' behalf.
"In other states, the nonprofit communities and academic communities have come together to create infrastructure," Flynn says. "Texas has a different tradition."
Flynn starts to make a point about the primitive state of farm-to-table networks statewide by referencing an "Eat Local Week" meeting she attended that morning, pausing to ask the dates of Dallas' "Eat Local Week." Told no such thing exists here, she shifts her conversational course.