Dead or Alive?

by alex mann

Don’t stick a fork in Southwestern cuisine; Fearing and the gang are making sure it’s well done

In the ‘80s and early ‘90s big hair and shoulder pads weren’t the only things in vogue.  Chilies, cilantro and tortilla soup were making their own statement in the Texas culinary scene, creating a Southwestern cuisine that swept the state.  Who knew food could be trendy, too?  “Food is a lot like fashion.  Things go in and out of style.  When we started out, American cuisine was just coming onto the scene,” says Chef Stephan Pyles, also known as the Godfather of Southwestern Cuisine and guided the cooking movement with local cookbook author Anne Greer McCann, Houston’s Robert Del Grande, Aurora Chef Avner Samuel and former Mansion Chef Dean Fearing.  “We felt that Dallas was really ready for something that was different.  It just took off from there.”

The Gang of Five ushered in the existence of this new brand of eats, creating a niche in the annals of American cooking for themselves and for their Southwestern fare.

“The question I always ask with Southwestern cuisine is: ‘Is it the one true American cuisine?’” ponders Chef Dean Fearing, the Gang of Five’s resident rock star.  “I think it is much in the way the French have regionalized their cooking or Italians with theirs.  I guess there’s California cuisine, but what is that?  Does anybody really know what this is?”  And Fearing has a point.  The primary staple of Southwestern cuisine is its use of local products, incorporating ingredients native to the American Southwest, like spicy peppers and indigenous meats.  And while Georgia may have its grits and Maine likes lobsters, Southwestern cuisine utilizes regional goods extensively – in a way that no other part of the country really does.

“How could you be in Texas and not use chilies and cilantro?” asks Pyles, a fifth-generation Texan and chef/owner of the downtown Dallas restaurant that bares his name.  “That’d be a little like cooking in France and using Italian ingredients.”

It got so popular, in fact, that you’d not only find Southwestern in one of the Gang of Five’s respective establishments, but also at, well, less-reputable institutions.  The fast food industry caught onto the burgeoning success that was Southwestern cuisine and started to peddle Southwestern salads, sandwiches and wraps all over the place, at outlets such as Taco Bell and Wendy’s.

“I was always sort of ambivalent about that,” says Pyles.  “That’s where the title and the description become so important, so that people know that they’re actually getting good, healthy, well-prepared food.”

But since its popularity, the face of Southwestern cuisine has changed.  Where Chef Del Grande and Chef Pyles still serve up some of the state’s best Southwestern Cuisine at Café Annie and Stephan Pyles, respectively, the trend seems to have diminished.

The Mansion on Turtle Creek, once so famous as a Southwestern powerhouse doling out Chef Fearing’s famous Lobster tacos and tortilla soup (and still does even after his departure last year), is now reforming their food to resemble a more European feel under Chef John Tesar.

And the Gang of Five have gone their separate ways.  Chef Avner Samuel has experimented with European, Asian, and Mediterranean styles at Urban Bistro and Aurora, McCann writes cookbooks and Chef Fearing will soon open his new dining destination, the highly anticipated Fearing’s, in the new Ritz-Carlton this month.

Aside from Stephan Pyles restaurant, and to a lesser degree, Blue Mesa, Dallas seems to be lacking the spicy, homegrown grub to which it was once so accustomed.  We just have to pose the question: Has Southwestern’s star faded in the new millennium?  Has the Big D sun set on sour cream, cilantro and spicy chile peppers?

“I don’t think Southwestern Cuisine is dying,” says Chef Samuel, formerly Executive Chef at the Mansion on Turtle Creek.  “There are just so many other options if you want spicy food, like Vietnamese or Thai.”

Chef Pyles, whose restaurant is well known for the signature cuisine, agrees, believing that food trends thrive, fade, and revive on a regular basis.  “Like anything or any food, it’s cyclical.  I’d say now, Southwestern gets overshadowed by Tex-Mex,” he says.  “But I don’t think it’s dying.” In fact, Pyles is evolving Southwestern Cuisine by adding what he terms as a “new millennium” twist.  His more modern update on the style he once spearheaded includes combining Southwestern ingredients with an international touch.  “I think it speaks volumes for where we are in the world with global access,” he says.  “But it can be anything from Arabic fused with Old World/New World Spain – like Mexico and Peru.”

Dean Fearing thinks the food that made him one of this country’s most acclaimed chefs is hardly on the down turn.  “It will always be around,” claims Chef Fearing, whose new restaurant will feature a mix of Southwestern fare and traditional American concepts.  “There’s that spice that draws us to the food.  It’s why people like restaurants.  It has to be interesting, and to me Southwestern Cuisine certainly is.”

But if that’s the case, why isn’t someone stepping up and taking Southwestern Cuisine to new heights?  “I don’t know why someone hasn’t taken the reigns on it.  Stephan and I have talked about that,” says Fearing.  “We think that maybe the younger chefs see that he and I have sewn this thing up and ask themselves, ‘how could I compete against them?’”

Still, Fearing believes there’s a future in the spicy food.  “It will always be around and it will always be modern if it’s something new and if we can keep creat

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