IN THE RAREFIED WORLD OF SUPERCHEFS, Stephan Pyles is a player. The trim, neatly bearded fifth-generation Texan is the creator of two of Dallas’ most lionized restaurants—frontier-sleek Star Canyon and splashy, Caribbean-cool AquaKnox. He has written or coauthored four cookbooks and is the star of his own cooking series on public television. He helped invent Southwestern cuisine and is in demand for lavish charity dinners and cooking classes all over; the big wall-calendar outside his office has notes like “ S.P. in Spain” and “ S.P. in Mexico.” When he has a few spare days to just hang out, he can call up hotshot chef pals like Mark Miller of Santa Fe’s Coyote Cafe and John Sedlar of Abiquiu in San Francisco. Not bad for a kid who started out rolling tamales at his parents’ Big Spring truck stop.
But being a player is one thing; being a Player with a capital P is another, and six months ago the 45-year-old chef’s already high profile took a decidedly uppercase turn. In March, Carlson Companies—a $20 billion Minneapolis-based group whose subsidiaries own nearly a hundred corporations around the world, including Radisson Hotels and T.G.I. Friday’s—bought Star Canyon and AquaKnox from Pyles and his two partners. The selling price was a secret, though the two sophisticated restaurants are expected to gross $10 million this year. The plan is to take them international, with Carlson providing the wherewithal. Pyles will stay in place as chef at large and mother hen of the expansion and will also generate new concepts, such as a string of Mexican taquerias already on the drawing board. For his part, Pyles seems exhilarated at the new opportunity if a bit exhausted by the negotiations: His face, wreathed in smiles, twitches ever so slightly as we talk. Right now he’s fretting because some customers and a local food columnist have voiced fears that he’ll never pick up a whisk again. “I understand that people take Star Canyon to heart and think of it as their own place, and they’re afraid it has gone commercial,” he says. “We’ll have to prove to them that we can expand and still keep the quality up.” If all goes according to plan, in five years travelers to Las Vegas, Chicago, Orlando, London, and Hong Kong could well be dining at Star Canyons or AquaKnoxes (although the latter’s name, with its reference to Dallas’ Knox Street, may be changed for other cities). Ventures in Sydney and Paris are not out of the question.
In the midst of all the hoopla and hype, no one seems to have noticed the quiet revolution that has occurred: Thanks in large part to Pyles, the term “Texas cuisine” is no longer an oxymoron. Though Texas food has never lacked for brand-name recognition, the restaurants that have served it nationally have tended to be of the yeehaw variety: Lone Star Cafe, Texas Land and Cattle Company, Chili’s. High-level, innovative Texas cooking has been concentrated primarily at restaurants in Dallas and Houston and thus has been mainly for local consumption. Carlson Companies’ move changes that equation. “Texas will always have that Western cachet; there’s just an aura about it,” says Pyles. “But Texas is a far more sophisticated place than it was twenty years ago.”
In the year 2000, when customers in Chicago open one of Star Canyon’s big leather-bound menus, their horizons and their notion of Texas cuisine will expand. They will of course find the restaurant’s fantastic, mammoth Cowboy Ribeye, but there will also be Pyles’ silky salmon in a hot-sweet chile-molasses glaze with a plantain—sweet potato mash on the side and his rosy seared duck breast with a savory herbed bread pudding jazzed up by pumpkin seeds. Patrons at the London edition of AquaKnox will discover the likes of lemongrass prawns with a purple sticky rice tamale and coconut curry sauce. Texas cooking of a certain level has entered the global arena, something that was not imaginable a generation ago, and Stephan Pyles has done a lot to make it happen. These days when people talk about Texas food, the conversation may begin at the barbecue pit, but it definitely does not end there.