By Amy Culbertson
Dallas isn’t taking Dean for granted anymore.
Open up a copy of the July or August Bon Appetit magazine, and there’s his familiar face, looking out from a two-page ad inside the cover. Rest assured that it won’t be the last mention of Dean Fearing showing up in the national foodie mags in coming months.
Some 16 months ago, Fearing dropped a bombshell on Dallas’ restaurant scene when he up and left his gig at the posh Mansion on Turtle Creek after 21 years as executive chef. Next Wednesday, he’ll be presiding over the city’s most-anticipated restaurant opening in years: his very own place, Fearing’s, in the new Ritz-Carlton Dallas.
At age 52, Dean Fearing is once again Dallas’ most-talked-about chef.
“A lot of people, and not just in Dallas, are going to be taking a look to see what Dean’s up to,” says formerDallas Morning News restaurant critic Dotty Griffith. “Can he really reinvent himself?”
Breaking from the past
With his Lucchese boots, his rocker haircuts, his larger-than-life energy and his disarming down-home manner, Fearing has been an icon of Dallas fine dining for a quarter-century. Wolfgang Puck and Jacques Pepin hang out with him. Cookbooks, TV shows, his own line of sauces, a James Beard Award, the cover of Gourmet magazine – all are on his résumé.
But the young scenesters populating the tables these days at Trece and Tillman’s Roadhouse were still eating Spaghetti-Os when he made his name as one of the creators of Southwestern cuisine. The trend-obsessed restaurant world has seen a lot of hot chefs come and go since Dean Fearing whipped up his first lobster taco.
And the rap on the Mansion was that it had stood still for a lot of those years, its elegantly appointed tables populated largely by rich blue-hairs. No longer was Dean’s food on the must-try list for in-the-know foodies visiting Dallas from other cities. No, they were more likely to head for a cutting edge spot like, say, Shinsei, which just happens to have a former Mansion chef in the kitchen and Fearing’s wife Lynae as co-owner.
None of this has been lost on Dean Fearing, who is deeply happy to be leaving the lobster taco at the Mansion, where it remains as one of the last vestiges of the ‘80s Southwestern revolution on a menu his successor, John Tesar, has recast as “contemporary American.”
“I’ll never have to make it again,” Fearings says with a wry grin.
Fearing says it was the prospect of ownership – something he hadn’t experienced since he opened Agnew’s, the restaurant where he began to be noticed nationally, in the early ‘80s – that precipitated his decision to leave “one of the greatest chef gigs of all time” at the Mansion.
It was Denny Alberts, president of Crescent Real Estate Equities Co., the company that was building the new Dallas Ritz-Carlton hotel and condos, who approached him, as Fearing tells it.
“Denny came to me and said, ‘Dean, I’d like for you to be the chef in the Ritz hotel.’
“We’re at Starbucks in this kind of incognito dress; he’s got a baseball cap over his face.
“I said, ‘Denny, I don’t want to be the chef at the Ritz. Why do a lateral move? But if you and I want to become partners and we license the space at the Ritz…’”
The next morning, he says – after “the longest night of my history” – Alberts told him yes, and they began mapping out the plans.
Seven kinds of dining
When asked what he’s going to get to do at Fearing’s that he wasn’t able to do at the Mansion, Fearing doesn’t hesitate for a reply: “Casual food,” he says with feeling.
“I wanted to throw the coats away [at the Mansion]. The problem is everybody got scared.”
“Five years ago I started to see the downplay of people wanting to dress up,” he says. “People didn’t want to do the 2 ½-hour dinner on a Thursday night any more.”
Fearing has put a lot of thought into how to adapt to that reality. Obviously, he’s not going to be leaving the fine-dining market behind – not after two decades of building up a loyal following, and not with a menu whose entrée prices start at $34 for a chicken breast at dinner.
The answer, for Fearing, has been to build a restaurant with seven distinctly different rooms, for seven different dining experiences, from a soaring central dining room paneled in Brazilian mahogany to a clubby-elegant-chic bar and a dining room that’s literally part of the kitchen.
Today’s dishes, Fearing notes, tend to be creatures of the moment: “Nobody is making reservations a week out; nobody’s making up their minds what they’re going to eat before they look at the menu. I wake up daily going, “Tonight do I want to eat curry; do I want to eat sushi?”
So in his new restaurant, he says, “you might get a cold sweet-corn vichysoisse; you might get a Grade A tuna ceviche.”
The local connection
These days, Fearing is describing his cooking with the phrase “elevated American cuisine, bold flavors, no borders.”
“It’s a farm-to-market approach to dining,” he adds. He’s committed to using local growers and producers, Fearing insists, something that many Dallas chefs pay lip service to but that very few are really serious about.
He mentions herbs and produce from local grower and distributor Tom Spicer, buffalo and game from Louis Mathis’ Maverick Creek Ranch in Central Texas, cheeses and Guernsey-milk butter from Garland’s Lucky Layla Farms, “and Gary, my yard guy has the best Parker County peach connection; he’s a peach fanatic.”
But is all this – the maple black-peppercorn buffalo tenderloin on Anson Mills jalapeño grits and crispy butternut squash taquito, the $60,000 Italian glass chandeliers – enough to set Fearing apart from what dozens of other big-buzz chefs are doing in Dallas?
“Dean still has huge stature,” notes former restaurant critic Griffith, who covered Fearing’s breakout onto the national scene for the Morning News in the early ‘80s.
“If Dean declares it a trend, in some ways it is a trend,” says Griffith, now director of promotions for the Dallas Arboretum.
“I think he can be very cutting-edge. He will do himself a disservice if he tries to re-create what he was doing,” she adds.
A down-to-earth star
Fearing’s ace in the hole just may be his ability to balance his status as superstar chef with his unpretentious, aw-shucks-I’m-just-a-Kentucky-boy charm and his infectious enthusiasm. Nobody schmoozes better than Dean – his nightly rounds of the dining room were a not-insignificant factor in keeping customers coming back to the Mansion – and he has not lost his touch.
This is, after all, the chef who put his Granny Fearing’s recipe for Kentucky baked beans into his first cookbook – canned pork and beans, Heinz ketchup, yellow mustard and all – right alongside the warm lobster taco with yellow tomato salsa. It’s the guy who threw a charity barbecue every year at the Mansion, where he got up on the stage to rock out with his all-chef band, the Barbwires.
Fearing took the months before the opening of his new restaurant, in fact, to record the Barbwires – which he fronts with fellow Southwestern-cuisine pioneer Robert Del Grande from Houston – in saxist Johnny Reno’s Fort Worth studio.
“Johnny made the Barbwires sound like a million bucks,” he enthuses. The disc, Bliss to Blisters, will be out just two weeks after the Ritz-Carlton opening, and Fearing seems almost as excited about the new record as he is about his new restaurant.
But not quite. Standing at his restaurant’s front door, Fearing glances at the traffic coursing by onMcKinney Avenue, then at the hotel’s main entrance to his left, then back up at the door, where the “Fearing’s” sign is yet to go up.
“When that gets on, I’ll really cry,” he says. “I’ll really know it’s there and it’s mine.”
Menu spans the globe
The lobster taco is gone, though Dean’s Tortilla Soup provides a nod to chef Dean Fearing’s past. Influences on the menu at his new Fearing’s restaurant range across the globe – Asian flavors are particularly evident – and prices are at the top end of the scale for Dallas: At dinner, appetizer prices vary from $12 for the tortilla soup to $24 for foie gras; entrees range from $34 to $50. Some excerpts from the new menu:
- Barbecued Bluepoint Oysters With Artichokes, Spinach and Gulf Crab Meat, $18
- Watermelon-Jalapeño-Glazed Quail on Three-Bean Salad With Hushpuppy Prawn, $22
- Orange-Ginger-Dipped Pheasant on Curried Shrimp Fried Rice With Tempura White Asparagus and Organic Shiitakes, $38
- Griddled Wild Sea Scallops on Wilted Brussels Sprout Leaves and Smoked Virginia Ham With Tangerine Essence, $38
- Smoky Red Chile Caesar Salad With Grilled Radicchio, Baby Romaine, San Pedro Cheese and Tamale-Battered Shrimp, $16
- Chilled Denton Asparagus With Basil Egg Salad, Fried Artichokes and Herbed Dressing, $12
- Sticky Noodles With Garlic Prawns, Broccolini, Stir-Fry Vegetables, Soft-Boiled Egg and Ginger Sauce, $20
- Chile-Braised Short Ribs With Summer Corn Whipped Potatoes and Crispy Tobacco Onions, $22
At Fearing’s, add seating options to the menu
“Step into my little world,” says Dean Fearing on the back loading dock of Dallas’ new Ritz-Carlton hotel. Threading his way through an anthill of hard-hatted workers, he strides through the back door of his brand-new kitchen – which is hardly little.
“Look at this line,” he says in awe. “I haven’t seen this much stainless steel in years.”
There’s a wood-burning oven and a wood grill, plus a scrubber system to pull the mesquite smoke from the grill.
Which is a good thing, because the kitchen flows into the dining area that Fearing calls “Dean’s Kitchen.” Most “open kitchens” are separated from the diners by windowed walls, but here at Fearing’s, there are no walls between cooks and customers, just a long counter where diners who walk in without reservations can sit, and beveled copper hoods that define the kitchen’s perimeters.
The kitchen may be the heart of the restaurant, but there are six other dining spaces in the 6,000-square-foot Fearing’s:
The Gallery is the most formal room, with its soaring 18-foot ceilings, 9-foot-square Texas painting and massive smoked mirrors framed in milky-gold honey onyx illuminated from within.
But perhaps the most appealing room is the Rattlesnake Bar, enclosed in paneled walls of Brazilian mahogany inset with 8-foot-tall panels of dark leather. More softly glowing honey onyx frames the back bar and the bar, whose elbow rail is covered in faux rattlesnake skin.
Outdoor patios are raised above street level and planted with 30-foot live oaks; a glassed-in pavilion can be opened up for alfresco dining.
There’s also the Wine Cellar, with a barrel ceiling of Austin stone and a feature that Fearing particularly likes to demonstrate: The glass wall panels are inset with electrodes that, at the push of a button, will change the glass from clear to frosted.