Food lovers who follow Dallas chef Dean Fearing know he has a band — and a pretty good one, too. But this important figure in Southwest cuisine didn’t just randomly decide to get a few people together to start jamming to form The Barbwires. He’s been playing music he loves since he was a child and has kept the art close throughout his career.
In the early 1980s, he started playing music with chef Robert Del Grande, with whom he would later travel to promote Southwest cuisine.
“After the events, we’d all meet in somebody’s room, order a bunch of room service and drinks, and Robert and I would play. Everyone would show up. There were always vocalists,” he says. ”On the cooking side of life, there’s always someone who’s a musician or was a musician: Like Stephan Pyles, who did vocals [and piano] in college, he would sing with us.”
Fearing's love for music started even earlier than that, when he was living in Ohio and Crosby, Stills & Nash put out their first album, in 1969.
"There were three of us in the neighborhood that ran down to get Yamaha guitars. We were going to be Crosby, Stills & Nash, and I've been trying to achieve that my whole life," he jokes.
Music isn’t just a thread in the lives of Fearing and Pyles, two of the original "gang of five" founders who popularized Southwestern cuisine. Many Dallas chefs have or have had music as a critical part of their lives.
Take Justin Box: He’s worked at a number of local restaurants and is the consulting chef of the new Lockwood Distilling Co. in Richardson. He cooks for a number of punk bands that come to Dallas, has played the drums in bands before and is in one now.
“In my mind, it’s like beautifully controlled chaos,” he says of his multiple loves.
Producing and Cooking
For Danyele McPherson (HG Sply Co.), her youth spent on the flute and piccolo prepared her physically for the kitchen.
“Marching band is really similar to what you do day to day as a chef," she says. "When you’re cooking, all these people are moving together in tandem to make something work. Formations in the field and hitting the right notes make the music happen. Everyone’s working at the same time to get this plate out to a person. If one person has a hiccup, it doesn't work.”
Consulting chef Patrick Stark sees that, too. He’s been in bands such as the Soundbites, hooked some record deals and kept playing.
“They’re both obviously creative arts that are subjective. They're extremely difficult industries with high thresholds; it’s a team atmosphere where you have to depend on other individuals, not just how good you can play an instrument or how good you can cook,” he says.
And those high thresholds mean high demands. Both careers take physical and mental tolls.
“It’s harder to charge your battery the older you get,” Stark says. “Kitchens and bands, it seems like a glorious lifestyle in your early 20s, mid-20s. If you’re still doing it in your mid-30s or 40s, it is hard as anything to keep the passion and energy charge to continually get that creativity.”
Other chefs have lived the rigorous band life and gone on to cooking, such as Peter Barlow. Now the chef at Pyles’ Fauna, he previously toured nationally in bands, having worked with Suns of Medea, Marujah and We the Electron, before settling into cooking. For other chefs who talk about that transition, one common response came up: being able to eat.
“I was kind of at a crossroads to go into cooking more or to be a musician ... and I just kind of thought, ‘Musicians don’t always get to eat, so maybe cooking would be a better route for me,’ ” Fearing says.
“I was in different bands, but it never went anywhere, and it never made money, so I worked in a kitchen,” says Eddie Baron, sous chef at Fauna. “I was playing music, then I’d work at the restaurant during the week.”
The two fields have something else in common, too.
“Cooking was something that still gave me that adrenaline rush that playing onstage did, and I could get a paycheck regularly,” says Cody Sharp, who's a consulting chef.
“If I could have seen some money coming my way, maybe I would have stayed on that path. But I couldn’t stop eating,” jokes Josh Harmon, who's the chef of the Belmont Hotel. “So I figured someone should pay me for it ... I think they are both in the same stratosphere.”
That’s one reason Fearing thinks you find a lot of musicians in kitchens: They wound up there by need, fell in love with it, then pursued the career path.
Daniel Pittman went to music school to be a teacher, where he would spend six hours in a practice room. He didn’t stick with that after school but started cooking at home (and claims he was “horrible”) before going to El Centro for culinary school.
Anastacia Quiñones-Pittman attributes her discipline in the kitchen to that which she acquired while playing violin: For years she practiced the instrument growing up, including with the Greater Dallas Youth Orchestra.
“When you’re practicing, you’re just listening to the conductor and one person, that’s how I relate it to cooking: There’s always one person guiding you, yelling at you or telling you what not to do.”
Composing and Developing
“Anything emotional should be accompanied by lots of those traits’ states of minds and rushes,” says John Tesar, the chef and owner of Knife and a long-time guitarist. “When you can play and it sounds good, you feel good, you don’t have to be Hendrix. I think the same is for cooking: You do it, and it tastes good and looks good and you feel good.”
That creative rush is part of the attraction, too, whether it’s music or dinner.
“I love the creativity, both being a chef and being a musician is pretty much starting with a blank canvas, blank plate, then you start putting it all together,” Fearing says.
Harmon, who sings and plays piano and drums, is the chef of the Belmont Hotel, where artists of all kinds often stay, especially musicians. He’s no exception for chefs who constantly have music blasting in the kitchen.
“I wanted to create. Constantly, from my first camera at 12 to my first drum set at 13. I knew that world was what I wanted,” he says. “But I was also a gnarly little dude. My mom had such a hard time taking care of me. ... In high school I was a pretty rough kid too, always pulling pranks and doing stupid things with my friends.
“All that energy I had needed to be harnessed. I needed a way to control that and still create. Music had some of those qualities, in the sense I still got to be gnarly and I was still able to create.”
He would find these same aspects in a kitchen, where he would get a job as a teenager.
“When I started cooking I saw all the same things — part of a group, creation being the main theme. But I also gained discipline. That’s what I was missing. Focus.
“In the music world you could take a bare note. A raw chord and turn it into a full song, a big production,” Harmon says. “It’s the same with food. You get to take raw things, bare products and create something big and meaningful. A lot of the time it takes six cooks to prep and put out from beginning to the end. Just like a song.”
Pyles feels a similar connection.
"Both careers require incredible discipline, long hours of practice and creativity. Both are equal parts science and art," he says. "I have used my music theory and composition training and applied it to menu creation."
Performing and Serving
“You learn it, you practice it and you perform it,” Pittman says of both cooking and music. “It’s extremely satisfying in multiple senses. You see the fruits of your labor have a good performance. It’s very similar in that sense.”
The connection between the two art forms should be obvious, their practitioners say.
“It’s hard to deny that they coincide,” Sharp says. “It’s going from playing live music and being in front of a crowd of people to — yes, it’s on a much larger scale — but to being in a kitchen, it’s almost more intimate. It’s hot, there’s this adrenaline rush knowing you have control basically over how these people dining in your restaurant’s night goes.
“A shitty meal experience can change your night drastically, much like going to a show where you paid for a ticket and the show sucks … I think that’s so much of what the chefs feed off of, that ego and acceptance. You want to be liked as a musician just as much as you want to be acknowledged for the food you cook.”
McPherson, who also has some history in producing music videos in college, sees the similarity in producers of food and music.
“When you go to a great show for a band that you love, the feeling you walk out with, ‘That was incredible,’ I feel the same way when I go to a place and experience an amazing meal,” she says. “It’s this full experience when music or food are executed well, you get to know and feel all the emotion of why that song was written or created; same as for food, you feel what the chef was thinking — I understand why you put this garnish on this plate.”
And these aren’t all the chefs in town who have musical ability, of course. But there are only so many words on the page.
“Everywhere I’ve ever cooked, there’s always been musicians working at the same spot, and it was always keeping your toe in the water, so to speak,” Fearing says. “It’s amazing to see how many people play instruments or sing that are in the food business.”
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