By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
"Man, things are bad there," she says.
In Dallas, the local food distribution system consists primarily of Tom Spicer processing orders for arugula and squash blossoms at his ramshackle market in East Dallas.
Spicer spends a fair amount of time explaining market economics to growers and buyers. He coaches farmers on which greens to grow and teaches chefs how to use new ingredients. But a one-man show can't double as a revolution: While most leading Dallas restaurants are sufficiently savvy to tack the words "local" and "seasonal" on their menus, Spicer claims very few exercise the integrity real locavorism demands: They make exceptions for asparagus in January and substitute commercially produced ingredients for the locally grown stuff when it runs out.
"It's symbol over substance," Spicer rails. "That's Dallas."
But even chefs who aren't trying to wriggle out of their ethical obligations often find it's hard to uphold the most basic tenets of the local-food movement in Dallas, where the supply chain's twisted and tangled. Ed Lowe, whom chef Sharon Hage calls the "Godfather of the Dallas farm-to-table movement," made buying from local farmers a cornerstone of Celebration Restaurant—and then he gave up.
"In the early years, I went to Farmers Market a lot, and then it faded as a common practice for us," he says. "It's certainly easier to pick up a phone than take a van at 4 in the morning. You can pick up the phone and say, 'I want two cases of squash' or you can get into a vehicle that will support a substantial load of produce."
If you're after cantaloupe from Pecos or tomatoes from Canton, he adds, "You have to get to the Farmers Market at 10 p.m. the previous night. If you're not there, you're not going to get anything."
Lowe has recommitted his restaurant to buying local, but acknowledges the logistical hurdles remain very real. Without a coalition of growers and eaters to forge a healthy distribution network, most restaurants are stuck doing what makes financial sense.
Dallasites would do well to remember local food is about money, Flynn says.
"It's an entrepreneurial opportunity," she says. "And Dallas is known for business. If ever there was a place where local food should take off, Dallas is the place. To overlook food opportunities, that's more for us in Austin to take advantage of."
Flynn's interrupted by the oinking of her guinea hogs, a now-rare breed that Thomas Jefferson kept. She's breeding the pigs because "nobody has this breed. But we know it has potential." Flynn's developing a market, and suspects her counterparts in Dallas could do the same. Maybe they won't pin their hopes on pigs: Perhaps they'll grow different strains of rye or make ricotta cheese. Perhaps someone will buy a fleet of trucks that could handle deliveries from small farms.
"Local food can create a renaissance," Flynn insists. "It can revive a local culture. You take that first step in food, there's a tremendous ripple effect."
It's tempting to believe Dallas could build a vital food community solely with local spinach. But locally grown ingredients are a means, not an end. "That should be a given," Pyles says. What might matter more is the provenance of the city's chefs. If Dallas is to reclaim its former edible glory, it needs more chefs like Pyles, who have a deep connection to the region and the flavors that once exemplified it.
The mischievously audacious seasoning that once distinguished Dallas cookery is slightly at odds with the delicate nature of farm-to-table cuisine. Many chefs who chant the organic, local, seasonal mantra advocate a hands-off approach to cooking. "Chefs need to let ingredients speak for themselves," Dallas Morning News critic Leslie Brenner wrote in her prescription for the city's restaurants, published last summer.
The spell of minimalism is strong. The latest season of The Next Iron Chef featured a challenge in which the competing chefs were supposed to create a dish that "respected the potato," leading to much discussion of whether multiple layers of flavor are consistent with vegetable respect. Bryan Caswell made a tater tot, which his fellow judges decided didn't respect the potato.
Indian cooks respect the potato by mashing it with peas, chili powder and coriander leaves. Peruvian cooks respect the potato by smothering it with tuna mayonnaise and avocados. Respect is not synonymous with subtlety.
"That's not my style," Pyles says of the current vogue for unadorned plates. "I'm happier to taste something intense and have it keep going in my palate."
Pyles' characteristically Texan attitude shows up at Samar, where he's corralled the intense cuisines of India, Spain and the eastern Mediterranean. The influence of a local chef, who understands and loves North Texas, is apparent—no chicken-fried steak required. The flavors are strident and dense, just like Martha McDonald liked them.
So where are the local chefs? More than 10,000 students have passed through the culinary program at El Centro College since it debuted in 1966, but it's a long way from the classroom to restaurant ownership, especially in a dining climate Jessie Taylor-Yearwood, a professor at El Centro's Food & Hospitality Services Institute, describes as "brutal."