In Dean’s Image

Food Arts

Kitchen Spy

In creating a namesake restaurant, exuberant Dallas chef Dean Fearing made “no rules” the one rule he follows.  Katherine Gregor reports.

“I didn’t want to go down any old roads, I wanted to blaze new trails,” drawls Texas chef-celebre Dean Fearing discussing the tabletop design for Fearing’s, the restaurant he opened in August at the newRitz-Carlton in Dallas.  That same excitement at blazing fresh territory defines the 18 month love fest he had creating his own place from soup to nuts and bolts.  The Texas maverick, who more than 20 years ago distilled Tex, Mex, and Lonesome Cowboy into a new Southwestern culinary idiom, is again pushing barriers at Fearing’s, and having a hell of a good time doing it.

On a hard-hat tour during restaurant construction, the gregarious chef with the big smile and booming voice raved about “reinvention,” “reinvigoration,” and a new menu diners would find “refreshing.”  After two decades at the helm of a corporate-owned restaurant – Dallas’ beloved Mansion on Turtle Creek– Fearing relished the opportunity to start over as a chef/owner with complete creative control and a lavish $6 million budget to design a restaurant from scratch.  Fearing’s concept: “It all starts with my personality and flows from there.”

It’s true.  What’s so appealing about Dean – everyone calls him Dean, from his dishwashers to high profile guests like Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones – is his big heart, fueling a down-home authenticity that belies his sophisticated smarts.  Energetic, upbeat, big in stature, and people-oriented, Dean is a human campfire who draws others to his warmth, a key reason wealthy Dallasites stayed loyal to the Mansion all those years.  But the Mansion was a formal place, and Dean is a casual kind of guy.  His Texas schtick is both knowing and real-deal – the blue jeans, colorful Lucchese cowboy boots, and the vintage 1955 Fender Telecaster guitar he plays in his alternative country band, the Barbwires.  But just as authentic are the chef’s high ambitions, refined taste, and exacting attention to detail, all of which inform the complexity of his cooking.  That same provocative duality defines Fearing’s, the restaurant: two-stepping on the chef’s knife’s edge where unpretentious meets urbane.

Many had tried to lure Fearing from the Mansion on Turtle Creek during his 21 years there, but it took a dream deal to make him jump.  More than anything Fearing, 52, had yearned to break away from staid coat-and-tail elegance: “I don’t want to be a fancy restaurant in town, and I don’t care about critics and numbers of stars,” he explains.  What he did want was to get back on the radar of adventurous younger foodies and to give back to the Dallas food scene.

“I wanted to be free!” says Fearing.  He has made “no rules” the mantra of his restaurant – no dress code, no protocol, no reservations required to grab a stool and dine by the kitchen. “You want to order a five course dinner in the bar? Be my guest.”

In 2005, Denny Alberts, a longtime friend and former executive of Rosewood Hotels & Resorts, which owns the Mansion, presented the offer he finally couldn’t refuse: build a signature restaurant to his own design with Ritz-Carlton affiliation.  Alberts is president and COO of Crescent Real Estate Equities Company, the developer and owner of the new Ritz-Carlton Dallas.  The Ritz has 218 high-end hotel rooms, a huge full-service spa, and 70 exclusive residences.  Fearing knew well the advantages of being attached to a luxury hotel.  He negotiated co-ownership in the restaurant, with culinary and creative control and a 50-50 financial partnership.  “You are integral to every step of this operation,” Alberts told his new chef.  “You will be the final decision maker, in every area – purchasing, planning, interior design, kitchen design – this is your restaurant.”  Over the thump of his fast-beating heart, Fearing recognized the sound he heard: Opportunity, knocking real loud.

Fearing’s concept was compelling enough that Ritz-Carlton agreed to a space-licensing arrangement for its restaurant.  That ensured the chef would have not just ownership but his yearned-for freedom from any corporate master.  Fearing says it’s the first time Ritz-Carlton has agreed to house an independent chef-owned restaurant, a unique down-to-the wire deal that took 11 anxious months to negotiate.

It’s testimony to Fearing’s culinary stature that he could command such a chef’s dream of a deal.  Two decades ago, he rose with the first wave of region-defining American chefs.  In Texas, he enjoyed camaraderie with his rising-star peers – including Stephan Pyles and Robert Del Grande, with whom Fearing still plays in the Barbwires. (He used his time off between restaurants to cowrite and record 12 songs for a new CD, Bliss and Blisters; in addition to Houston’s Del Grande, the cookin’ band features honky-tonk saxophonist Johnny Reno from Fort Worth.)  At a time when few classically trained chefs knew a tortilla from a tea towel, Culinary Institute of America graduate Fearing electrified diners with his signature warm lobster taco with yellow tomato salsa.

During that heady era of creative culinary energy, Fearing rewrote the fine dining menu for nouveau riche Dallas.  He dared to use classical French techniques on Tex-Mex ingredients like serrano peppers, jicama, tomatillos, masa, cilantro, and avocado.  At Primo’s, his favorite after-hours hangout, he instituted a communal “chef’s call,” where, in a friendly spirit of kitchen solidarity, Dallas chefs and restaurant staff shared news and ideas and brought in visitors like Wolfgang Puck, Alice Waters, and Jacques Pépin to pep up the culinary cross-pollination.  But 21 years is a long time to sustain a reputation for creative cachet at any one restaurant.  Gradually, the Mansion fell off the hot-and-trendy map.  Still, Fearing sustained his own stature with cookbooks, magazine covers, three television shows, a line of food products (sauces, dressings, tortilla soup), and continued excellence in the kitchen.

For all his talk about casual dining, Fearing’s success will depend upon his continued pull with Dallas’ moneyed set – ladies-who-lunch in lavish Neiman-Marcus ensembles, oil-world investors who order $500 bottles of red wine to go with their $50 rib eye steaks.  For the adventurous and well-off, his menu offers maple/black peppercorn buffalo tenderloin on jalapeño coarse-ground grits and crispy butternut squash tacos.  Those with humbler tastes and pocketbooks can splurge on a $16 burger with fries in the bar.

Fearing’s has a separate entrance in Dallas’ new 21-story Ritz-Carlton, a buff brick and limestone tower reminiscent of a New York apartment building from a more gracious era.  Given the opportunity to select the restaurant’s interior designer, Fearing told Alberts to “get a guy who’s hungry to come into Dallas, then tell him it has to be the best thing Dallas has ever seen.”  Fearing selected fellow Southerner Bill Johnson; top restaurants designed by The Johnson Studio in its hometown of Atlanta includeRathbun’s, Aria, Jo?l, and Bluepointe.

In a melding of minds, kicked off by “three days going to the mountaintop together,” Fearing and Johnson developed a sophisticated luxurious vision for Fearing’s that hits the sweet spot between contemporary and timeless.  Predominant tones include dark chocolate, café-au-lait, terra-cotta, golden honey, and biscuit beige.  Lending the interior a stylish visual complexity are illuminated panels of glowing honey onyx, African mahogany paneling, and large-scale commissioned artwork with nontraditional Texas imagery.  Art glass reappears in chandeliers, panels, and glass tile, even in the gorgeous restrooms.

The restaurant’s entry hall doesn’t reveal the dining rooms, instead creating the anticipatory mystery of a stage just before curtain time.  As five different dining rooms (one outdoor) and two bars (indoor and outdoor) each possesses its own distinct décor and character, returning diners can have a repeatedly fresh experience.  Fearing sees the concept of a restaurant with seven different venues as a prototype that could go nationwide.  Three dining areas – the Gallery, Sendero, and Ocaso – each seats 44.  The Gallery is the one white tablecloth dining room, with a more formal feel.  By contrast, the octagonal Sendero (“path” in Spanish) is light and open with window-walls, patio views, and garden room furnishings.  Ocaso (“sunset” in Portuguese) offers outdoor patio dining enlivened by three waterworks and a miniature park.  The cozy, cellar-like Wine Room seats private parties of up to 16.

But the major space is Dean’s Kitchen, an L-shaped dining area that wraps around the kitchen, where up to 60 diners can view the culinary staff at work.  An eight-top chef’s table and a long counter with stools look directly onto the long gleaming stainless-steel chef’s counters and cabinetry of the display kitchen. One counter is granite-topped.  Diners get an eye and earful of final preparation and pickups, obliging expediters to keep their cool at all times.  Separating the front and back kitchens, and bringing the richness of the interior design right up to the Jade ranges, is a striking art-glass panel with a chocolate-and-honey willow pattern motif.  Fearing calls it “one of the most important design elements Bill Johnson did for me.”  He loves the way the semi-opaque panel partially reveals to diners the silhouettes of active cooks in the back kitchen.

Just as he partnered with Johnson on the interiors, Fearing worked closely with designer Sean Callnin from the Denver office of Ricca Newmark Design, on mapping out a 2,100-square-foot kitchen with $225,000 in equipment.  Ricca Newmark had already designed and planned a kitchen to the Ritz standard; when Fearing signed on, that was scrapped and a new kitchen was designed to Fearing’s specs, making it “a real stretch to keep the project on schedule,” according to project director George Perry. (The Ritz-Carlton also has a separate kitchen for hotel event catering and room service.)  At Fearing’s request, for example, the chef’s counters were custom-built by Florida Stainless Fabricators to a 39-inch height instead of the 33-inch standard.  “Oh Lordy! It’s so much better for my back!” explains the 6-foot-plus chef.

Giving a kitchen tour, he stops to admire his custom glass-front stainless-steel wall cabinets as another man might gaze upon his custom sports car: “Are these not beautiful?! I’m not kidding! I’m just in love!” His special sweethearts: custom-fabricated pull drawers built into the chef’s counter.  Across from the deep fryer, he points out a nifty pull-drawer breading station.  The dessert and pastry station has a handy pull drawer dedicated to just nuts.  Nearby, ice cream scoops have their own wells, handy when plating the mascarpone ice cream accompaniment to a caramelized peach/almond crisp with ginger/peach sauce or the coconut ice cream plated with another reinterpreted favorite, banana cream pie.

“After 21 years at the Mansion, to have my own kitchen with my own designs is really amazing.  So many long-time frustrations fixed!” he exclaims.  Details he loves include the extra-commodious garnish tops, spoon wells with tiny sinks for each chef, and “double-wide” pick up line that efficiently accommodates two 12-inch dinner plates across its width.

There’s also a separate fully equipped kitchen and pick up area just for bar food – lobster tostadas, quesadillas, yakitori, a cheese plate, and that ultimate burger.  “I didn’t want the bar food coming off the main line,” Fearing explains.  “It’s too confusing.  I did it for 21 years, but if you can separate them, it’s a wonderful thing.  This way, it helps flow and circulation.  On the main line we can concentrate on picking up the entrées, without getting crunched in.”  Over 40 staff work together in the kitchen each night.

For cooking equipment, he went with Jade ranges, cooktops, griddle tops, and ovens.  While for most stations he specified Frymaster fryers, he couldn’t resist the round sculptural form of a Cleveland lowboy kettle: “I bought it because I fell in love with it! I just liked the look of it!” he sighs.  A vacuum sealer on wheels provides portable airtight storage.  A small Cookshack smoker comes in handy for smoked salmon.  A separate sous chef box ensures restricted access to culinary valuables like caviar and truffles. A Fearing favorite is a giant walk-in cooler measuring 19 feet by 8 feet 4 inches.  “I’m lovin’ that!”

Critical to his menu are two Aztec mesquite wood-fired broilers.  They’re used nightly for mesquite-grilled mahimahi painted with browned butter flavored with red plum and basil, then plated over roasted candy-stripe beets and pole beans.  Another wood-grilled dinner entrée, lamb chops flavored with coriander, is served on sweet-and-sour eggplant alongside crisp red onion rings.

Onion rings are a recurring theme on the menu; dipped in a Shiner beer batter and deep-fried, they’re kissing cousins to the all-American drive-in food that Fearing also loves.  “I get more great ideas in dives, because you can see where you can spin it,” he says.  He’s been known to extol the pleasures of eating a Fletcher’s corny dog drenched in yellow mustard at the State Fair of Texas.  As a Fearing’s starter, three big crisp onion rings are served atop an heirloom tomato salad, crumbled with Vermont blue cheese and accompanied by two dressings, basil and jalapeño/ranch.  The chef sources many Texas and regional food and products: farm-to-market produce like beefsteak tomatoes and Parker County peaches, quail and bison from Maverick Creek Ranch near Eden in the Texas Hill Country, Texas-grown microgreens and herbs, handcrafted Guernsey-milk butter and cheese from Lucky Layla Farms outside Dallas.  But he also riffs slyly on de rigueur regionalism: as a pre-dessert, diners are surprised by a tiny Dr. Pepper float, the soda fountain pride of Waco, Texas.

A barbequed shrimp taco, mopped in sauce from the original Sonny Bryan’s in Dallas, sounds like a simple enough starter.  But Fearing pushes its limits by tucking the grilled shrimp and some jalapeño Jack cheese into a house-made tortilla and topping it with a marinated red onion salad with mango. Resting on slivered green cabbage wetted with a smoky citrus vinaigrette, the ensemble is garnished with smoked pecans, cilantro, and colorful julienned bell peppers.  Too many flavors? No.  Somehow it all works together brilliantly.

Another “no rules” tenet: The food doesn’t have to be Southwestern.  While most menu items radiate Southwestern/Texas flair, others are Asian-inspired.  A standout is the hamachi starter.  Dusted with five-spice powder, the yellowtail (amberjack) is flash-seared, sauced with wasabi-spiked avocado, then plated with spicy ponzu and a jade basil salad.  The pheasant entrée is a Texas game bird flavored with orange and ginger, served over sesame/shrimp stir-fried rice, and garnished with tempura white asparagus and morels.

Fearing’s menu also reflects a commitment to healthy eating.  He uses soy milk in place of cream for all dishes except desserts.  All plates feature fresh vegetables.  He even uses a reduced turkey stock in place of brown sauce.  “It just feels lighter,” says Fearing.

Just as important, he wants a staff who treats people as he would.  To make his restaurant an extension of his personality, he needs a team to mirror his own strengths – attention to detail, people skills, genuine warmth, talent, and drive to excel.  “That was a huge fear, that I’d never be able to find the right group,” he says.  But he needn’t have worried: By all accounts, he’s the kind of boss for whom good people jump to work.  “He’s a genuinely nice person,” says Bill Mabus, a partner in Crescent Real Estate who worked with him on Fearing’s.  “I keep looking for the dark side of Dean, and there isn’t one!”

Fearing enjoyed the slower pace of life between restaurants; he got to spend more time with his wife,Lynae (who co-owns the hip Pan-Asian Shinsei with Tracy Rathbun, wife of Dallas chef Kent Rathbun of Abacus) and their two sons, ages 7 and 9, with whom he got to watch classic horror movies every Saturday night.  But all the time, he was seeking younger versions of himself: “warm, honest, kind, genuine personalities who put hospitality first.”

Networking nationwide, he discovered personable Vermont native Joel Harrington, whom he tapped as chef de cuisine.  Next in command is executive sous chef Eric Dryer, who takes charge of lunch.  He gives both a certain amount of autonomy, nothing that “a little ownership goes a long way.”  He means that literally.  Top staff could become partners in the restaurant one day, with opportunities to take the Fearing’s concept on the road.

He tapped only two staff with whom he’d worked previously – wine director Paul Botamer and pastry chef Jill Bates.  For all other positions, he sought out fresh faces nationally.  Vacationing in Maui, he rediscovered Alex Aland and knew he’d found his maître d’.  In Florida he found Holland nativeWinfred van Workhum, who excels at training and mentoring; he hired his restaurant manager,Justin Beam, in part for his “great smile.”  The youth of his team means the midlife Fearing gets to do a lot of the mentoring.  “They’re kids with hearts of gold,” he enthuses.  “They’re young, but they’re learning. We can help them grow.”  In the early weeks he was regularly demonstrating techniques for cooks, correcting mistakes, and even delivering plates to diners. (“People love that!”)

“We work as a team, and I’m right there with them,” he insists, sounding less like a nationally known veteran chef than a bison ranch forman on branding day.  At Fearing’s the exuberant namesake has already achieved something even more important to him than a critic’s stars.  “People say they’ve never worked at a happier place.”