Texas Food Conquers the World!

From Riyadh to the Rio Grande, Southwestern cuisine is sweeping the globe, thanks to the skill—and salesmanship—of a group of ambitious Texas chefs.

February 1996By Comments

IT WAS TWO SUMMERS AGO IN ANN ARBOR, as I stood on State Street, staring at a menu taped in the front window of the Red Hawk Bar and Grill, that the full force of the realization struck me. Listed there among the usual soups, sandwiches, and pasta salads were—crab cakes grilled with red and green chiles in red mole sauce. Here I was in Michigan, home of—well, I’m not sure what, but definitely not mole sauce—and I could walk into a restaurant and order as if I were in Dallas or Houston. A dozen years ago, this would not have happened. A dozen years ago, Southwestern cuisine barely had a name. To the degree it existed at all, it was a glint in the eyes of a handful of young chefs in Texas (plus a couple in California) who were holed up in their kitchens inventing amazing new things to do with jicama and habaneros. Today the culinary craze that started in the Lone Star State is a national, indeed, an international phenomenon.

There was a time, and it wasn’t that long ago, when cilantro was just a weird Mexican herb. When a chile relleno was a bell pepper stuffed with spiced hamburger meat. Now, the popular Zagat restaurant guides routinely include a category for “Southwestern.” In March Dallas’ KERA will air the pilot of a potential thirteen-part public television series by Dallas chef Stephan Pyles on his style of Southwestern cooking—and this, mind you, comes hard on the heels of PBS’s “Southwestern Supper” by Moosewood Cookbook author Mollie Katzen. The Great Southwest Cuisine Catalog mails out 40,000 to 50,000 copies a year hyping its salsas, turkey chorizo, and piñon brittle. Last year a United Airlines in-flight video featured Dallas’ Southwestern virtuoso Dean Fearing as one of the top reasons to visit the city. In October the Hotel Al Khozama in Riyadh held a Southwestern food festival. In its winter 1996 catalog, the William Morrow publishing company announced three new cookbooks on “the cornerstones of Southwestern cuisine.” Santa Fe’s Coyote Cafe chef and owner, Mark Miller, reports that his cookbooks are selling like tortilla chips in, among other places, Australia. Not only that, the peripatetic Miller is now massaging a deal to do Coyote Cafe spin-offs in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur.

Southwestern cuisine is everywhere. Even restaurants with other national affiliations will slip a little tequila-marinated salmon or ancho linguine onto the menu, or use “Southwestern” as a buzzword to hype dishes that have precious little to do with the genre. It all made me wonder, how did the real thing actually start, and how did it become a national rage? And so it was that last November I found myself once again standing in front of a building, except this one was not in Ann Arbor but in Dallas, on University Avenue. The edifice was a generic duplex of orangy-brown brick with fifties-style casement windows, and yet in a way it was a historic building because it was here that the idea for Southwestern cuisine was born, or perhaps I should say hatched.

Beside me in the circular driveway was Anne Greer, a petite, energetic blonde in a red blazer, spotless white turtleneck, and black-and-white-checked skirt. A cookbook author and restaurant consultant who seems to operate on perpetual fast forward, Greer lived in this house in the eighties, and as the five o’clock traffic swirled past us, she told me, “This is where we met. We would have dinner out back by the grill and then we’d plot about how to get people to notice us.”

The “we” that Greer referred to was herself and a loosely knit group of six other young Texas chefs, and the bond that united them was the realization that each, in his or her own restaurant or hotel kitchen, was doing something exciting and very new with Texas food. “We started meeting in about 1984 because I could see that we were all doing something similar,” Greer told me later over ceviche at Café Pacific as we leafed through her file of old clippings, “and we wanted to get the word out about it.”

The group that came together at Greer’s and several other homes over the next few months read, in part, like a future who’s who of Southwestern cuisine. Five of the participants were from Dallas: Greer, then 40, was a consultant for the Loews Anatole Hotel and the author of The Cuisine of the American Southwest. Dean Fearing, 29, was the chef at the Anatole’s Verandah Club. Kevin Hopkins, 30, headed the Anatole’s Nana Grill. Avner Samuel, 28, was in charge of the restaurant at the Mansion on Turtle Creek hotel. Stephan Pyles, 32, was the chef and co-owner of Routh Street Cafe. The other two attendees were from Houston: Robert Del Grande, 29, was the chef at Cafe Annie, and Amy Ferguson, 28, was at Charley’s 517.

The meetings centered on dinner, a kind of glorified potluck at which all the dishes were fabulous because all the cooks were pros. The seven of them ate what they had brought, hoping to impress each other, and traded tips, but mainly they schemed and plotted ways to get attention. They knew each other only vaguely, but they had traits in common that were to prove the foundation of the nascent cuisine. They were roughly the same age, they all had classical training, and they all were fascinated and inspired by Mexican food. They knew The Cuisines of Mexico by Diana Kennedy, and some of them had taken her classes. Indeed, the influence of the feisty ex-Brit on the Southwestern phenomenon cannot be overestimated. In the lessons she gave across the country and in the harangues she delivered on authenticity and purity, she paved the way for a generation of cooks. Even though the newcomers’ riffs on Mexican cuisine overstepped what Kennedy deemed acceptable, she was the one who showed them that there was life beyond the No. 2 Dinner.

The eighties were, moreover, a time of tremendous ferment in the culinary world. In France nouvelle cuisine had dethroned, or at least shaken up, that country’s classical cuisine, and in America, the so-called new American cuisine was bringing to regional dishes all over the country a respect that they had never before enjoyed. Heretofore, “serious” restaurants had served a stuffy, vaguely European repertoire known as continental cuisine. But with the rise of regionalism, suddenly it was not only acceptable but chic to put biscuits, smoked pork, cheese grits, and absolutely anything with pomegranate seeds on the menu.

Given their backgrounds and the heady climate of experimentation, it was almost inevitable that this group of ambitious young professionals should turn to Texas dishes. Why couldn’t French methods be married to the traditions of Mexico and Texas? Suppose you added a purée of ancho chiles to a classic demiglace? Why not take a corn husk and make a tamale of rice pudding with crème anglaise? The only possible answer to these questions was another question: Why not?

As Greer and I finished lunch, she passed me a yellowing photograph from the August 5, 1984, Dallas Times Herald showing the gang of seven lined up behind a table, looking like a bunch of baby boomers at a suburban dinner party. It was surprising to see, in retrospect, how un-Southwestern the table appeared, with its white china and sedate presentations. Similarly, the story, by Michael Bauer, shows a trend still in its infancy. Bauer wrote, “Greer dabbed oil on her hands to protect them from the [jalapeños]. The technique was new to Ferguson, who appreciated the tip.” But the menu he described—swordfish in achiote, grilled corn salad with poblanos and cilantro—was already getting with the program.

All told, the Algonquin Round Table of Texas cooking met perhaps half a dozen times. Greer, who had a natural instinct for public relations, took the lead and engineered a number of events. It was she, for instance, who saw to it that Bauer was invited to dinner, and the series of three articles that he subsequently wrote were some of the earliest to recognize what was happening. In fact, the name “new Southwestern cuisine” seems to have been first used in print on August 7, 1983, in a story that Bauer wrote on Greer.

Over the next several months and years, the group—collectively and individually—cooked for anyone who would do a story. As newspaper food sections and magazines chronicled the spread of Southwestern cuisine, it became apparent that the idea had simultaneously occurred on the West Coast, where John Sedlar (then at Saint Estèphe in Manhattan Beach, California) and Mark Miller (then at the Fourth Street Grill in Berkeley) were serving jazzed-up posole and blue-cornmeal dessert crêpes to flocks of customers. This both reassured and spurred the Texans on. They got themselves invited to entertain food writers like Ellen Brown of USA Today, and they asked famous chefs like Jean-Louis Palladin to come see what they were doing. In October 1984 Marian Burros, the well-known New York Times food writer, was interviewed by a local magazine, in which she said of Dallas restaurants, “There’s a real revolution going on” with the emerging Southwestern cooking. Times restaurant critic Craig Claiborne heaped praise on Pyles and Fearing. In a major coup in 1985, the Mansion hosted the American Institute of Food and Wine’s dinner honoring Julia Child, at which the menu included whole catfish and blue-corn tamales. The Mansion’s waiters were horrified at what they were asked to serve the grande dame of cooking in America, but Child loved it.

Of all the activities that garnered national recognition, though, one of the most significant was the Hill Country Wine and Food Festival. Started in 1986 by Ed and Susan Auler, the owners of Fall Creek Vineyards, the festival grew in a matter of three years to be a major American food event. Wine and food professionals from all over descended on Austin each spring, where they attended seminars and took time out for creative lunches prepared by, among others, Del Grande, Fearing, Pyles, and Greer. The press took to calling the four young cooks the “Texas mafia,” a name that fit their friendship and single-minded focus.

The final ingredient that boosted Southwestern cuisine onto the national stage was oil—not the extra-virgin stuff but Texas crude. The oil boom of the early eighties not only provided legions of Texans with disposable cash but filled grocery and specialty stores everywhere with exotic imported foodstuffs from Mexico, Europe, and Asia. The boom also fostered an attitude conducive to creativity. Dean Fearing, who has observed Dallas in high times and low from his vantage point at the glitzy Mansion on Turtle Creek, says, “When the economy is good, your customers are open to new things. When they have expendable money, they’re willing to experiment.” Judged by this yardstick, the eighties were exactly the right time to launch a daring and unproven culinary style.

It has now been twelve years since Southwestern cuisine began. Of the original group who plotted around Anne Greer’s grill, four have kept in touch with the Southwestern style but basically moved in other directions. Amy Ferguson relocated to Hawaii. Kevin Hopkins is a partner in a Dallas Thai restaurant, Toy’s Cafe. Avner Samuel is at the Landmark restaurant at the Melrose Hotel in Dallas, cooking in a “global eclectic” style that incorporates Southwestern influences. Greer dropped out of sight for several years to care for her son after a devastating car accident. These days she does restaurant consulting and is planning another Southwestern cookbook. As for the other three mafiosi—Pyles, Fearing, and Del Grande—they have ridden the movement to national culinary stardom and beyond.

Southwestern cuisine is now a mature master, an elder statesman. It has created its own classics, including jicama slaw, cilantro pesto, tomatillo-poblano sauce, roasted-corn salad, mango pico, and more. It has also been copied far and wide, though not always with integrity. As Pyles says, “In the past five or six years this whole style has filtered down into restaurants that are certainly more approachable and less expensive than ours. Restaurants like Chili’s and Bennigan’s all serve something that screams ‘Southwestern cuisine.’” Which is why the Texas trio are at pains to put some distance between themselves and the mainstream, dumbed-down versions that populate mid-level eateries all over the country.

They are also at pains to emphasize that they have moved forward and expanded their repertoires. Del Grande jokes, “I look at older menus—tamales-stuffed-with-achiote-shrimp-and-ancho-poblano-jalapeño-serrano-mole—and they seem like a cartoon.” Of the three, his style remains the most Mexican and rustic, but over the years it has softened and become more subtle, with multinational highlights. Fearing’s style has taken off in Asian, Middle Eastern, and North African directions. And Pyles has developed what he calls the New Texas cuisine, with sophisticated spins on traditional Southern, Mexican, cowboy, and Cajun dishes.

Southwestern cuisine has been very good to Texas. The state’s romantic, rough-hewn image provided a ready-made backdrop for the movement, while the style’s finesse dazzled critics, who never expected such refinement from the land of cactus and Cadillacs. It trained a national spotlight on the state, and over the years it has done as much to raise the status of Texas culture as have institutions like the Kimbell Art Museum and the Houston Grand Opera. Southwestern cuisine has permeated the country like mesquite smoke, but as Fearing says, “One of the most marvelous things about that whole explosion is that everyone’s eyes are still on Texas.” If you want the real thing, you still have to come here to get it.

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