By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
There's a cost to assembling the type of résumé needed to open a restaurant these days, and most El Centro students can't afford it. That's why many of them end up designing menus for nursing homes and working as prep cooks at massive hotels.
"I think to make a name for oneself is much harder than it might appear," Taylor-Yearwood says.
Prospective chefs are expected to be circuit riders, logging hours in kitchens across the country.
"A lot of people in our program can't do that," Taylor-Yearwood says. "They're not willing to move out of Dallas. These resources are not available to us. These experiences are not available to everyone."
Pyles and Fearing agree the economy's partly to blame for inhibiting a resurgence of the youthful, creative spirit that invigorated the Southwestern movement. Fearing was tremendously impressed by a recent visit to Animal, the meaty endeavor Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo debuted before either of them had turned 30. L.A. Weekly's Jonathan Gold has called the eatery "the most influential restaurant in Los Angeles." Fearing doesn't anticipate seeing anything like it in Dallas.
"I don't know if it's as easy to open up a restaurant as it used to be," Fearing says, sighing. "Back when I was doing it, people didn't know you couldn't make any money with restaurants. I worked for a group of guys who wanted a five-star restaurant in North Dallas, and they lost their shirt. We had three unbelievable years, but we never made a dime."
Toying with people's palates is far more appealing when the rent's already paid. Fearing attributes the timidity and conservatism that's made the Dallas dining scene so dreary to financial fears.
"I don't know if they can be as brave as we were, because we really didn't care," Fearing says. "I wasn't married. I had a car and an apartment."
Houston chefs are deadly serious about their craft, but their city's ruled by a mindset that's reminiscent of Dallas in the 1980s. "The cost of doing business here is a fraction of what it is anywhere else," Caswell crows. Significant municipal support and a famously nonexistent zoning code have helped make it relatively easy to open a restaurant in Houston—and, so long as the owner's on the premises, to stay open.
"Houston has an intense affection for the owner-operated machine," Caswell says.
Fearing says he knew Southwestern cuisine had attained legitimacy when Jean-Georges Vongerichten served foie gras with black beans and jalapeños. By contrast, when Caswell returned to Houston after a nine-year absence to open Bank by Jean-Georges, "the majority of people who came to the restaurant didn't know who Jean-Georges was. They came to see a hometown boy made good. In Houston, people don't give a shit who you are. They just want to know you're here."
Caswell likens Houston to New Orleans at its bustling, intermingling, port city best. He compares Dallas to the same city before Hurricane Katrina: "It's not growing. It's not moving forward. There are no guys coming up to replace the old." In New Orleans, it took a devastating storm to empty out storefronts, drive down rents and create opportunities for young, inventive chefs who couldn't win—or didn't want—corporate support.
"Dallas has become so commercialized," says Ngoc Trinh, an El Centro student who dropped out of a predental program at Baylor because, "I said, 'You know what, I love to cook.'"
Trinh, now a research chef consultant for Frito-Lay, has hopscotched through the city's top kitchens, collecting the credentials she needs to make it as an independent chef-owner.
"I've spent the last six years developing my career," she says. "I have a great concept of what I want to do. I'm building a foundation for myself. My young rebellious attitude will last until I'm 35."
There are glimmers of hope for the Dallas dining scene. There are a few passionate young chefs like Trinh, who's too astute to reveal her grand plan. There's the burgeoning cocktail community, which so far hasn't shied away from the swagger that once made Dallas restaurants important destinations. And there's the State Fair of Texas' Big Tex competition, which annually commands as much attention as Southwestern cuisine ever did.
Fried beer—and all the other questionable edibles that fair vendors dunk in hot oil and impale on sticks—is carrying on the regional traditions that Dallas chefs have largely ignored. Deeply reflective of place, fried beer is simple and strange and willfully offensive to delicate palates. McDonald, who showed her television audience how to make corny dogs, would have loved it.
Reclaiming the distinctive flavors of Dallas would surely energize the local dining scene. But a food culture that enriches a city hinges on community, not any particular seasoning. When asked to share their visions for dining in Dallas, young chefs don't cite dishes or cuisines. They stress the relationship between restaurants and customers. They describe a place where restaurants don't cynically foist fads upon their guests. "Dallas food is like the mink coat that comes out in November when it's 65 degrees," Taylor-Yearwood grumbles. They speak of diners who are eager to try new foods and enthusiastically patronize independent eateries.