by Alison Cook
Chef Dean Fearing’s one-of-a-kind laugh reverberates through the north Dallas mansion where he has gathered friends and family together for Thanksgiving dinner. Part Woody Woodpecker cackle, part good ol’ boy guffaw, the sound bounces off the domed rotunda in the two-story library.
This Thanksgiving season is a heady time for Fearing. After more than two decades as chef at one of Dallas’s most notable restaurants in one of its most luxurious hotels, the Mansion on Turtle Creek, he has just opened his own place, Fearing’s, in the city’s new Ritz-Carlton. The fiercely ambitious project brings together a fistful of concepts: an elegant dining room; a casual, glassed-in garden pavilion; and indoor and outdoor bars. There’s even a raucous space called Dean’s Kitchen with an open cooking area, decked out with rough oak paneling and glowing rawhide chandeliers.
A lanky eastern-Kentucky boy with a playful drawl, Fearing arrived in Dallas in 1979 as a cook at the Fairmont hotel’s Pyramid Room, then the city’s most celebrated restaurant. He’d been headed there, in fits and starts, since junior high school, when his father, Tom, a Holiday Inn executive, pressed him and his older brother into service as kitchen jack-of-all-trades. The family hopscotched all over the Midwest, wherever their dad’s job took them. “We would fill in if the dishwasher got sick or the banquet chef got thrown in jail,” Fearing recalls.
A culinary arts program at a local community college eventually led Fearing to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. “I ate up that school like a piece of chocolate,” he says. Right out of the gate, he landed a job as saucier at Maisonette in Cincinnati, under the fabled Georges Haidon. “Everybody else in the kitchen was French,” Fearing recalls. The leap to Dallas and the Pyramid Room – and from there to his long reign at the Mansion on Turtle Creek, starting in 1980 – made him one of city’s best-known chefs, and a leading proponent of New Southwestern cuisine, the elevated version of Tex-Mex food that was just starting to captivate the country.
These days, Fearing is moving away from the cooking genre he helped pioneer. “I don’t want to be themed anymore!” he announces in a faintly self-mocking drawl. He describes his new style as “the way we eat now,” and he works with more Asian touches and locally produced ingredients and uses healthier cooking techniques. The new restaurant’s official motto is “Elevated American cuisine with bold flavors, no borders.”
As his Thanksgiving guests arrive, Fearing serves them freshly mixed blood orange margaritas. The cocktails are an inspiration from Shinsei, the pan-Asian spot co-owned by Fearing’s wife, Lynae, which has been wildly popular since it opened in Dallas a year-and-a-half ago. Lynae, a statuesque blonde who moves like the dancer she used to be, and the yoga teacher she now is, crosses the library in pursuit of her toddler nephew, Mason (she and Fearing have two sons, Jaxson, nine, and Campbell, seven). En route to her young nephew, Lynae stops to chat with her Shinsei partner and friend, Tracy Rathbun – the wife of another celebrated Dallas chef, Kent Rathbun of Abacus and Jasper’s.
Soon, everyone gathers at the dinner table for the first course of Fearing’s vivid Thanksgiving menu, a testament to the relaxed, eclectic mode in which the chef is cooking now. The smooth butternut squash soup is laced with ginger and topped with a pecan-spiked whipped cream, his riff on the heavy cream that is invariably added to holiday soups.
Fearing heads over to the glossy tangerine-and-sage-glazed turkey that sits on the buffet table. His roasting methodology is tried and true, and he’s religious about cooking the bird for a strict 15 minutes per pound in a low and slow oven, basting every 15 to 30 minutes to keep the meat moist. “I’m a real turkey-basting kinda guy,” he proclaims. “It’s so important.”
He came by these convictions the hard way. His childhood Thanksgiving memories are of his mother rising at 2 a.m. to put the turkey in the oven, where it would languish until 5 p.m. before emerging “as dry as the desert.” After Fearing turned pro and got turkey religion, he jokes, “my family’s world turned.”
Now he stands over his masterwork with a carving knife as Lynae asks, “Can I please have some dark meat?”
“This is the Norman Rockwell moment that everyone loves,” says Fearing. “But really, you should take the breast off the carcass and slice it across the grain, like meat loaf. Cut it with the grain and you get shreds.”
The bird is perfect, and its tangerine glaze, with an alluring sage accent, gives the turkey a gorgeous, burnished color. More tantalizing still is Fearing’s clever Texas answer to traditional cranberry relish: a lush, chunky combination of avocado and red pepper laced with pieces of caramelized onion. The relish is also terrific with the jalapeño-tortilla turkey dressing, a beloved staple from Fearing’s Mansion years. Made up of crumbled, slightly sweet corn bread and earthy tortilla strips, the stuffing is baked so that it caramelizes a little where it hits the baking dish. (Those well-browned pan scrapings are the bits worth fighting over.)
Once guests have carried their plates to the long dining table, for a few moments nothing is audible but the clinking of forks. But Fearing’s parties don’t stay quiet for very long, and soon, the stories start rolling. The Fearings’ friend Ashley Lavish, who is in Lynae’s yoga class, claims to have once won the title of Miss Austin. “What was your talent?” deadpans Lynae. “I twirled fire batons,” Lavish shoots back.
Amid the hubbub from the kids at the table, Greg O’Neal – who designed the bold green-and-brown interior of Shinsei, which includes photos of both the Fearing and Rathbun children – sits up in his chair at his first bite of Brussels sprouts in cranberry brown butter. “These are amaaaaaazing,” he cries, drawing the word so far out it almost snaps in two.
Instead of predictable mashed potatoes, Fearing serves creamed onions infused with sage and thyme. It’s an idea he dreamed up after Neil Manacle, the chef de cuisine at Bobby Flay’s Bar American in New York City, served him wilted greens in a little cream. Fearing loved them, and he also loved Manacle’s recollection that for Thanksgiving, his grandmother creamed everything in sight.
Even the glossy green beans show Fearing at his best: He’s injected them with Kentucky-boy soul by adding country ham, and he’s folded in strips of salsify just because he likes it. It’s low-key sophistication without a shred of self-importance.
Dessert arrives. “I need a rest!” comes a groan from the table. But soon the slices of lustrous pecan pie are gone, and attention turns to the individual pumpkin puddings capped with large swirls of meringue, a dessert that’s the result of a collaboration between Fearing and Jill Bates, the pastry chef at his new restaurant. Tracy Rathbun makes her way over to Fearing’s elbow. “I love the vanilla in the meringue,” she tells him. “I told Lynae we should use it for the banana parfait with ginger snaps at Shinsei.” But Fearing is busy making sure there won’t be any leftover pudding. “No crust!” Fearing exhorts his lagging troops. “Isn’t that great?”