Chef Talk Dallas: Chef Stephan Pyles

Stephan Pyles
Chef Stephan Pyles

Now you can travel with one of the most influential chefs in Dallas! This summer, Chef Stephan Pyles in collaboration with David Morris International presents “Provence Culinary Discovery” an eight-day cruise along the Rhone River through Provence onboard the Scenic Sapphire. The journey will include an exclusive luncheon at Paul Bocuse in Lyon and a cooking presentation by Chef Pyles. Also included on this magical journey are cocktail parties and a special chocolate presentation and tasting from Dude, Sweet Chocolate founder and award winning chocolatier, Katherin Clapner. The tour will begin in Nice and culminate in Chalon-sur-Saône. Filled with breath taking views and rich cultural experiences, this trip will be an unforgettable culinary experience to rival any epicurean’s wildest dreams. Pyles’ tremendous love for international travel and sharing culinary experiences inspired him to follow up his first, sold out tour to Cuba last year.

France is a special place for Pyles and his experiences there heavily influenced his career path and shaped his cooking techniques. He apprenticed under Michelin 3 star chefs, Michel Guerard, Jean and Pierre Troigros, Alain Chapel, Paul Bocuse and Gaston Le Notre. He even had the opportunity to work closely with the renown Julia Child and remained a friend until her passing. Amassing all of his knowledge in 1983 he opened Routh Street Cafe and was the first chef to use local ingredients prepared using a classical French technique.

Chef Pyles, Founding Father of Southwestern Cuisine, is a fifth generation Texan with a rich repertoire of expertise as a restaurateur, cookbook author, philanthropist and educator. Among his many accolades he was the first chef in the Southwest to win a James Beard Award for Best Chef and the first Texan to be inducted into Who’s Who of Food and Wine in America. He has created 22 restaurants in 5 cities over the past 30 years including local favorites, Routh Street Café, Baby Routh, Star Canyon, Stephan Pyles and Stampede 66. He is the author of five cookbooks featuring Texan and Southwestern Cuisine and has been accredited by Bon Appetit magazine as single handedly changing the cooking scene in Texas. With decades of captivating Dallasites with his innovative cuisine, everyone eagerly awaits his newest venture.

How did you go about choosing Provence to be the location for your culinary experience?
This is a very special trip for me as I would not be a chef today had I not taken an incredibly inspirational trip to France in my early 20’s. It was where I experience Haute Cuisine for the first time. French Cuisine was the very basis of my culinary training and it will be a delight to lead guests through Provence to experience some of France’s brightest food and wine origins.

Spending more than 25 years in Dallas’ restaurant industry, what’s next for you?
Flora Street Café is what’s next. It will be fine dining and a more upscale and really refined Texas food. I’m calling it Elevated Texas  because it’s kind of an ode to the evolution of Southwestern Cuisine. I’ve done something called Modern Texas and New Millennium Southwestern so now I want to return to the roots of the first restaurant I ever opened, Routh Street Café. The new space will be clean, crisp and contemporary in design and appropriately located in the heart of the Arts District. From any table in the dining room there will be stunning views of the breathtaking architecture of the Meyerson Symphony Center, Windspear Opera House and the Wyly Thearter. It will literally be an open window into the Arts District. Carrying some of the elements over from Stephan Pyles, it will still have a cooking class, although much smaller because its a more intimate space. There will also be a ceviche bar and area where people can pop in before the theater and opera for a glass of champagne or to grab a quick bite.

What do you credit for your longevity and success in an industry that is constantly evolving?
Staying fresh and constantly being inspired by different things; new techniques and new restaurants. This past year I really took the time to travel and went to the top restaurants in the world because seeing what others are doing is important. I went to Copenhagen’s, Noma restaurant among many others. You have to have passion in this business as well as dedication, time and energy.

When you first opened Routh Street Cafe in 1983 it was classified as the “New American” Cuisine. How did it evolve into Southwestern Cuisine?
What we were calling New American, was really French Nouvelle Cuisine but done with American ingredients. It wasn’t long before we realized that we couldn’t do that very long without incorporating local ingredients. So new American cuisine quickly became Southwestern Cuisine.

Signature Dish:
It changes all the time and its like asking someone who’s their favorite child! I have four items that my patrons have made my signatures dishes. One of them is my Heaven and Hell cake. The Heaven and Hell cake is a dessert that I invented for the opening of Star Canyon in 1994. My inspiration was from cakes that I loved when I grew up; angel food cake and devils food cake. It’s a slice of each of those, sandwiched with peanut butter mouse and milk chocolate ganache. My other signature would have to be my cowboy bone in ribeye with red chili onion rings.

What do you feel is missing in Dallas’ culinary culture:
There used to be so many amazing fine dining experiences that you could have in Dallas. Today the culinary scene is more casual, very noisy but with creative, farm to table, local cuisine that’s really great but not about a refined old school fine dining experience.

What do you think is something that is emerging in the Dallas culinary world?
What I am seeing today is a reinvention and new excitement for incredibly diverse types of cooking. Young chefs are embracing farm to table and local. People are embracing local foods and there is a renaissance of texas and southwestern foods. I see a new emerging identity of Texas cuisine.

If you weren’t a Chef what would you be doing?
I can’t even imagine! I had an interest in design and architecture at one time. I could certainly see myself being a musician because it’s what I studied and I have a love for music. But honestly I really can’t imagine being in any other field than what I am now.

Having the opportunity to cook for HM Queen Elizabeth and former President Jimmy Carter, is there someone you haven’t cooked for that would be on your bucket list?
I have not cooked for President Obama, although I did cook for First Lady Michelle Obama. I’ve cooked for 5 American Presidents including Carter, Reagan, Clinton and both Bushs’ and all of their first ladies. I would love to cook for Mozart but that may just not happen!

Do you have any mentors and if so what did you take away from them?
My biggest mentor is Julia Childs. I was her assistant at The Great Chefs of France Cooking School at the Mondavi Winery and scared to death! Having been exposed to her at such an young age and then having the opportunity to cook with her was pretty incredible. Several French chefs of the day, Alain Chapel, Roger Verge, Michele Guerard have also influenced my cooking.

And what would be your last meal?
Honey fried chicken with buttermilk biscuits and an ice tea.

Sommelier or Mixologist?

Single one thing that has influence your cooking the most?
Certainly travel, but it has been a combination of having my experiences of growing up in Texas but also having traveled and seen different techniques and ingredients all over the world. Both influenced my cooking a great deal and became the mosaic of who I am as a chef and restauranteur, and more importantly helped add to the relevance that I hopefully have today.

In 2001 you took a five year sabbatical using that time to travel, educate, teach and write. How did your travels and this time off influence you personally and your career going forward?
It’s been remarkable in helped me stay fresh. But seeing what was going on in the world and gaining different cultural perspectives also brought along with it its own challenges in staying true to the particular cuisine that I am doing. For instance I would travel to India and come back wanted to use the incredible spices I came across there. I had to be careful to not let my travels filtrate too much into my cooking but just let it influence me stylistically and use it as an overall inspiration. It influenced me by reemphasizing the passion for food that is relevant in all cultures.

Through the years you have diligently worked to create awareness for programs supporting the education of youth in making wiser and healthier food choices. What influenced and inspired you in supporting these efforts?
In 1986 I went to the 50th Anniversary of the March of Dimes in Washington DC and met two people who were started Share Our Strength, which at that time was a group that was formed in response to the Ethiopian famine. Today it’s America’s largest private source of funding for hunger relief. They approached me to become a collaborator in their efforts and if there was one charity that I wanted to help it was hunger relief. For me, it just made sense for someone that makes their living feeding people to give back to those that can’t feed themselves. Poverty has always been an issue in America but hunger is a relatively new phenomena and we turned our efforts to domestic hunger. I had an event in Dallas called Taste of the Nation and we had simultaneous events in other cities and which benefitted local food banks. In Dallas the North Texas Food Bank was our beneficiary and I became more involved with them and started a Perishable Food Program called the Dallas Hunger Link. We started to looking at other issues around hunger and began to address child hunger. One in every four children is at risk of hunger in the state of Texas and awareness is key to finding solutions and combatting this. Today I remain active in combatting hunger as a founding board member of SOS and a lifetime board member of the North Texas Food Bank. Unquestionably, its become part of my fabric as a chef and a human.

What do you think the relevance of “Southwestern Cuisine” nationally?
It’s extremely relevant and is why Southwestern Cuisine made such a mark. It successfully created a depth, culture and heritage in Texas. It’s relevant because its what the cooking of this area should be. When you go to France what you do you eat? You eat Italian food in Italy. If you go to New Orleans, hopefully you are eating some Creole food. Southwestern food is what you should be eating with you come to Texas. You should have barbecue or a modern Texas meal.