Southwestern Chefs

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One of the first gurus of the evolution of Southwestern cuisine was Stephan Pyles. I don’t think he ever set out to become a guru, but it just happened. And I’m glad it did.

Stephan Pyles grew up in West Texas. His parents owned a truck stop and diner, and so Stephan grew up learning about barbecue and smoked meats, as well as Native Mexican foods like tamales. As a young man, he worked as the chef at The Bronx in the Oak Lawn part of Dallas. I was lucky enough to live walking distance to The Bronx back then.

I feel lucky that I became such a great fan of Chef Pyles at a young age, because I’ve been able to follow him throughout his decades-long career. He opened up his first well-known Dallas restaurant in 1983, and I’ve been fortunate to dine at that and other restaurants of his in Dallas and Austin over the years.

It was because of his love for the food that he grew up on in West Texas, as well as all of the other regional cuisines of Texas, (it’s a big state), that Stephan expanded Southwestern cuisine to include the Texas way of cooking, to which he refers to as the “new Texas cuisine.”

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One Thanksgiving, I made a completely Southwestern meal from the cookbook. The girls were little then, and wanted no part of any lengthy holiday meal, so I designed the meal to suit our adult spicy tastes. I made a chorizo-corn stuffing for the turkey, on which I rubbed adobo-honey sauce, and served sweet potato enchiladas topped with tomatillo salsa and black bean-mango relish. I also remember making blue corn muffins with toasted pine nuts.

It is because of my being a fan of Stephan Pyles that I now have ancho chile paste, adobo, cilantro and poblano pestos, and many other Southwestern staples on hand year round in my pantry and freezer. This cookbook, although published in 1993, is still a fabulous introduction to Southwestern cuisine, in my mind.

Presently, it appears that Chef Pyles has two celebrated Dallas restaurants – Flora Street Cafe, and Stampede 66. Stampede 66 is the chef’s “love letter to Texas.” On his website it’s stated that he’s the “undisputed founding father of modern Texas cuisine.”

However, there is another chef who helped drive the Southwestern bandwagon as well as Stephan Pyles, and that is another Dallasite – Dean Fearing. His latest cookbook was published in 2014, shown below, but he was well known for being the chef at The Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas.

After a couple of decades, the chef left The Mansion in 2007 and opened Fearing’s in the Ritz-Carlton. If you ever stay in downtown/uptown Dallas, go to Fearing’s, the restaurant, for dinner. His tortilla soup is a still popular signature dish. I’ve also had a wonderful brunch there as well.

From Instagram, here’s a Dean Fearing meal from his restaurant – Achiote-Glazed Colorado Rack of Lamb over Mole Rojo and Green Chile Braised Lamb Enchilada, Serendipity Corn with Heirloom Squash variations.

His food is the epitome of Southwestern cuisine, which isn’t surprising since he was one of the originals. What’s funny is that if you google both Stephan Pyles and Dean Fearing, they’re both listed as “the father of southwestern cuisine!” Well they both truly are and, they’re friends. Here’s a recent photo from a charity event.

Now further west, in Santa Fe, New Mexico, there was a young man named Mark Miller who was on his own quest to popularize Southwestern cuisine. He opened up the famous Coyote Cafe in 1987. He also wrote a chile pepper book in 1991; it’s a wonderful reference.

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Mark Miller was the one who taught me to call chile peppers by their name, and spell them properly – chile peppers, which shouldn’t be confused with chili, the dish, aka chili con carne. (Internationally chile peppers are spelled chilli peppers.)

Mark Miller also wrote a beautiful, coffee-table cookbook in 1999, called Red Sage.
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Red Sage was the name of his restaurant in Washington, DC, which unfortunately I never got to. But I read this book cover to cover to my husband, while we were on a road trip. The book is fascinating, with in-depth stories about cowboys and Indians and the foods they foraged and ate. The recipes are also spectacular.

Mr. Miller includes American Indian ingredients in his version of Southwestern cuisine, which really makes sense. It was a huge culture of the Southwestern United States. So I read, and we learned that jerky was the Indians’ energy bar. And we learned about huitlacoche, essentially truffles that grow on corn. And we learned about the Indians’ native ingredients, some with which we were familiar, like buffalo, masa, and pecans, but others like pigweed that we were not.

Recipes I have made out of his cookbook include Spiced Pork Chops with Ancho-Blackberry Sauce, Chicken Quesadillas with Poblano Pesto, and Poblano Rellenos filled with Spinach and Goat Cheese. All were spectacular.

Obviously there are other chefs who helped support and drive this recent “regional” American cuisine, but this post is about the three who were significant in my lifetime.

14 thoughts on “Southwestern Chefs

  1. Thanks for sharing Mimi. I think I would find ‘Red Sage’ fascinating as I have always been interested in American Indian culture. The recipes sound mouthwatering too. I will have to get my hands on a copy. It is amazing how much you learn about people through food as it is such a fundamental part of every culture. I have only ever visited Texas once and it was many years ago when I was sixteen years old. The best bits for me was getting to see a real life Armadillo and watching the cowboys herd cattle. Wish I had their horse riding skills!

    • That same year that I wrote about, 1978, was the same year I saw my first armadillo. It was dead, on the side of the road, but I was so fascinated that I got out of my car and photographed it. Still have the photo!!! I was with a Chinese guy who did the same thing!

  2. I love Southwestern flavors and all the cookbooks you mentioned I am sure are full of great recipes. I lived and went to school in Texas for a number of years. In Texas the food is big and bold and full of flavor. Love it!

  3. I love these posts. I’m always looking for new inspiration from different places and I love the southwest. This is really helpful. Thank you.

  4. I thought Mark Miller WAS the king of Southwestern cuisine so I was really interested in reading about Stephan Pyles. (Some girlfriends and I dined at Coyote Cafe back in the day soon after it opened in Santa Fe.) I know have some new cookbooks to seek out. Thanks, Mimi.

    • If you’re ever in Dallas, check out Stephan Pyles. Although it’s a little, now that he’s expanded southwestern cuisine to include global flavors. There’s a ceviche bar!!!

  5. I don’t have any of Stephen Pyles books but I love his restaurants. I have several Mark Miller books and have eaten at his restaurant in Santa Fe. All good. Love your taste!

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