Chef Dean Fearing on Thanksgiving, Eating in Dallas and Sharp Knives

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You'd be hard-pressed to find a more charming chef than Dean Fearing, the man behind Fearing's Restaurant at the Ritz-Carlton Dallas. Known fondly as the "father of Southwestern cuisine," he earned a world-class reputation as The Mansion on Turtle Creek's executive chef. He left that post in 2007 to head his own restaurant, which has been a mainstay in the local culinary scene ever since. He took a few moments to chat with the Dallas Observer about some new dishes, what he does in spare time and what he's cooking for Thanksgiving dinner this year.

What are you up to today? Well, I was just working on a new song. Later tonight, I'm making the boys an Italian dish. It'll be like mama mia deluxe ... made by some eastern Kentucky boy.

Even on a day off you end up cooking? This morning when I was making breakfast for the boys, they were like let's have pasta tonight. I should be Italian, I'm not kidding.

Is that because Italian is your favorite food? My favorite food is what I think about when I wake up. It could be across the world. I wake up and love curry that day, or barbecue another day, or Italian. Maybe down home or real Mexican, whatever. That's how my palette always been, I wake up and think, "what do I feel like eating?"

Is that mentality reflected in your menus? Very much so. I think that's why you see so much diversity. For example, this new grouper dish that we're doing, with black bean sauce and miso puree and vegetable stir-fried rice. It's all those flavors I like and it's exactly how we come up with the menu. It's kind of whatever we feel like eating.

Do you find yourself inspired by other menus in town? I'm inspired by reading a magazine. It's much like the person who's a singer/songwriter, you can be anywhere and all of a sudden you hear a verse or a combination of words and realize, "that's a song." I can be anywhere, I mean I'm talking Sonny Bryan's barbecue anywhere and something will click with me and I realize, "whoa, that's what I want to do at work." I won't take it exactly how they're doing it, but it puts me into another dish. I ask, well how would I do that?

Speaking of music, you have a band, right? I've been playing with Robert Del Grande, a big chef in Houston, forever. I mean me and Robert and Stephan Pyles have been at the forefront of Southwestern cuisine since the '80's. When I learned Robert played guitar, we would play together after cooking. We called it the Room Service Tour. We invited all the wait staff and cooks working an event with us and we'd just eat, drink and play guitar. I think the food service industry has some of the best musicians ever. And I think a lot of them are a little frustrated, so we'd just play and order room service, and it was a full-fledged party with guitars and singing. That's how Robert and I formed The Barbwires.

Don't you have another local band? After I got divorced, I wanted to play more. I met three other guys who were recently divorced. So I built a music room over my garage and we started rehearsing. It's been a great outlet for all of us. We've got a place to go, a clubhouse. It is the most fun I have. We try to meet up every Monday night. We just played at The Mansion at the Turtle Creek Monday night. Our in-town band is called The Lost Coyote. We're actually playing at the Sons of Hermann Hall on Saturday, November 30, as part of a charity event called "A Flood of Love for Colorado."

What other surprises do you have up your sleeve, Dean? Well, I've been writing a lot of music lately. I've been noodling around on my guitar. I was writing a song right before this.

Do you have a name for this song yet? I'm not finished with it yet, Lauren. It's untitled. Usually I'll write a song and then at the end, it will come to me. I don't even have a title in mind right now. Next time you see me, ask again and maybe I'll even play it for you.

OK, fine. Let's talk about cooking. When you approach a new dish, what are you thinking? I have a whole philosophy to a dish. The most important thing is that everything eats together well. That means it needs to fit in the genre that it's in. If it's going to fit into the Louisiana cuisine, or the Asian, then that's how the flavors need to taste. I would never put an Asian black bean sauce on Cajun rice. The flavors on that plate need to represent that style of cuisine. Then the plate eats well.

This is how we came up with this new salmon dish that is kind of a Louisiana flavoring. We made a creole barbecue sauce to glaze the salmon and then we're adding a Gulf Coast seafood pan stuffing. It has oysters, shrimp, sausage and it's bound with a cornbread stuffing that we make in a pan to order. Along with that is the trinity in that stuffing, which is green bell peppers, celery and onion. And also green onions and parsley, then we make this really intense seafood stock made from various kinds of seafood with a touch of tomato in it. Then we make the country greens with it, which is bacon and onion, that great sweet and sour green taste. And then... It's all very intense. (Laughs)

You're making my mouth water. It's pretty delicious. ... So then we make some homemade peppers, some voodoo, sweet peppers, they're like bread and butter pickles or chilies. They eat well with the whole dish and adds a crunch element that I think is so important with each of the dishes we do, cause that's what our ears love to hear. Then it's finished with a preserve on the side, to add some sweetness to the dish.

That sounds incredible. That's what I love about cooking; it's what keeps me interested in cooking. Designing a plate is like writing a song. The song has to stay true to itself and so does the dish. When we come up with a dish, when we finish it I think to myself, there it is. There's the song. Are there any flavors or dishes you avoid? Well, calf's brains are not a favorite of mine. I also avoid tripe, because it really just tastes like whatever's inside of it to me. I also just think calf's brain is the most god-awful taste I've ever put in my mouth. I've tasted it more than enough before and I never have to do it again. But those are really the only two things I don't eat.

Are there any exotic foods that have become a favorite? Truffles are my favorite all time. You gotta love the French and Italians for having some pig dig those up centuries back. I mean, thank God. I love the fact that they're seasonal. We had them last weekend and we scraped them over a little side dish that we were doing ... some delicious burgundy black truffles. To me, that is exotic. I am growing to love them more and more.

Do you think a refined palate is something you developed or something innate? You know what, anyone can develop a palate. It's called practice, practice and practice. You would get one if you were around food all the time, experimenting with food, cooking food and eating food. When we go into work we eat, drink and think food. When you form a little culture like that it's neat to come into work, because we're always questioning our abilities. Can we do this dish better? Can we find a better product for this dish? That's the culture I love -- surrounding yourself with food.

If you were going to give a rookie gourmand some advice, what kinds of food would you tell them to start eating? I would tell them they should start eating the food their grandmother served them. There is never a better memory than my grandmother's cooking and she only cooked with salt and pepper. There were no exotic ingredients, it came out of a garden, came off a farm. She cooked it, and we'd eat it. Even at a young age, I could tell the difference between store bought food and food my grandmother had. At the time, I probably couldn't put it together, but her food always tasted better. Why? Cause it was closer to the earth, so to speak. There is something about country cooking in eastern Kentucky that is like no other. It's all Southern cooking, but being raised there when I look back on it, I had two grandmothers who were incredible cooks. At their houses, you were always guaranteed a great lunch, dinner, Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner. All of the holidays above the rest. Even in the wintertime, she canned everything. Us kids would run down to the cellar to get the green beans, the corn, they were all canned.

Speaking of Thanksgiving, does your family make you cook on the holidays? Ever since I went to college they have, and it hasn't changed yet. They're making me cook this year.

What are you cooking? Very traditional. The only thing I probably do that's new, and it's old for us now, is I do a tortilla stuffing that I developed years back at the Mansion and we serve it still at Fearing's. It's a corn stuffing with the flavor of Mexico, with the fried tortillas in it. It's become a mainstay, my family demands it. And my customers demand it on Thanksgiving at the restaurant. Along with that, I cook turkey and gravy -- a good, wholesome gravy. Then there's a cranberry jalapeno dressing and two kinds of pies. It's always pumpkin and it's always pecan. Very traditional. I may serve a butternut squash soup, before the turkey and all the fixins'.

That sounds pretty delicious, but it sounds like if I were going to Fearing's it would be like I were eating Thanksgiving dinner with your family. You know what? It sure would. It's pretty traditional there. We do an a la carte menu, but every year the turkey dish has to be the turkey dish with all the trimmings. We'll do 400 people on Thanksgiving Day and I think about 200 of them will order the turkey. For me, I wouldn't order anything else.

I've asked a few other chefs this question, so now I have to ask you, what is the cooking utensil you couldn't live without in the kitchen? A sharp knife. There's nothing worse than going over to someone's house and they want you to help them cook, then they hand you the dullest knife in the world. I deal with this with my mom back in Louisville. I always tell her to get my brother or someone to sharpen her knives. For me, cooking is being able to glide through the product, it gives you speed, it gives you accuracy and you can make those cuts that you want so precise. That and a good wooden cutting board are my two pet peeves in the kitchen. It's not about the bells and whistles, it's about the real products you need to cook with.

Wait, what do other chefs say to that?

I've gotten a few spoons, actually. Spoon? Huh, good for them. Well, I can get my sons to stir for me.

What do you think of the culinary landscape in Dallas? Changing? Improving? You know, all I wanted for Dallas 10 years ago was more neighborhood restaurants. And man, do we have them now and great ones. Small and chef-driven. We have great restaurants now. It's great to see Dallas coming into its own with all this good food.

If you could dream big, what would you ask for next? Less restaurants.

You can't have it both ways. No, you sure can't, but wow. With the amount of restaurants opening up, it's like how many people can possibly live here to support all these restaurants?

Well, Fearing's seems to be doing OK. We are on six years of being very blessed and it's still a great time. There is not one time, driving into work that I wish I wasn't driving into work. It's still just as much fun as day one.

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