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10 Questions: Stephan Pyles

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Geez, where does one start? More than just a celebrity, Pyles is one of the few truly important chefs in Texas.

He is considered one of the pioneering figures in New American cuisine. Along with the likes of Dean Fearing, he invented Southwestern cuisine, one of the feats prompting the James Beard Foundation to induct him into their "Who's Who"--the first Texan so honored. He earned "best new restaurant" citations for Star Canyon and AquaKnox and Esquire's Chef of the Year honors when he opened his most recent venture, Stephan Pyles.

One can use up a lot of space listing his awards. He's also written four cookbooks, hosted TV cooking shows and helped set up Share Our Strength and other charities. But you just might catch him in a random moment diving into a bag of Cheetos...

1. Why Southwestern cuisine? Why not Midwestern?
That was kinda what we called it when I opened the restaurant in Minneapolis. But it didn't take off--fresh vegetables two weeks of the year, when the ground's not frozen, corn and lots of beef.

2. What was it like 'inventing' a cuisine?
Considering I had no idea I was doing it...well, when I realized what was happening, it was really kind of heady stuff. Then at that point the fame and attention took it to an ugly place. You think you're given free reign. It was a remarkable time, but it had its excesses.

3. You're an icon now. Ever think there should be a restaurant named after you?
No. But I was named after a certain restaurant in town.

4. You have Stephan Pyles, Dean opened Fearings. Ever think of retaliating by, say, starting your own band?
I'd have to do something more innovative. What is it, the Live Wires? I'd be the Barbed Wires.

5. In all your travels, have you run across a favorite food?
Weekly. Wherever I am, I'll find something new. I remember the first time I discovered tajines in Morocco and that was, what, 20 years ago? Just the exotic and complex flavors, the preserved lemon and cardamom, something that is subtle and powerful at the same time.

6. Ever just grab a bag of Doritos and munch out?
I've been known to...but it's usually Cheetos.

7. You are a chef, restaurateur, TV host, cookbook author...what do you do for fun?
Cook, run restaurants, host TV shows, write cookbooks--and travel, and eat. How lucky am I?

8. Do you really test every cookbook recipe?
I do. Typically I have a staff I bring in--home cooks. They prepare the recipes and I taste. These are recipes I've developed and if it's not quite right, I'll go back and redevelop. If it's really off, I'll get in the kitchen with them.

9. Denny's Grand Slam or McDonald's Egg McMuffin?
Denny's. You won't find me at McDonald's. You won't find me at Denny's, either, but you didn't give me a choice. One has the sense of being more real, that's all.

10. If you couldn't be a chef...?
Well, I studied music, so I would like to be a composer--if I were any good at it. Or an architect. That's the part I like about restaurants: you design the room, work on decor and color; you design the menu; then there's the lighting, the logo, you set the tables--then you open and have to run the damn thing. I would be a designer of all aspects.

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