And They Said, “Let There Be Cilantro”
The Texas culinary scene, you may have heard, has been cooking at a rolling boil. Every time you turn around, another of our chefs is winning a James Beard award or appearing on Top Chef or making Food & Wine’s annual list of the best new cooking talent in the country. Hometown heroes like Dallas’s Matt McCallister and Houston’s Chris Shepherd need no introduction (but in case you’ve been living under a crockpot: they are the chef-owners of white-hot restaurants FT33 and Underbelly, respectively). Three years ago, Austin—a late bloomer as far as restaurant meccas go—snagged a national food and wine festival. And then there’s the modern cult around our most iconic meat, barbecue. If you haven’t yet caught a glimpse of pitmaster Aaron Franklin at his Austin joint or in that Chase Sapphire TV commercial, just wait—he has a show on PBS coming up in January.
But what you might not realize is that the present moment has been long in the making. Thirty years ago the Texas food scene seized the spotlight with a feisty, spicy movement known as Southwestern cuisine—think black bean and corn salsa, goat cheese quesadillas with cilantro pesto, lobster tacos, grilled antelope with cactus-pear glaze. Espoused by a cadre of young, ambitious chefs, Southwestern cuisine was far more than a bunch of recipes—it was a revolution. It embraced notions such as eating seasonally and locally decades before the word “locavore” was coined and “farm to table” became a catchphrase. It kicked hoary classic dishes off their pedestal. It promoted an unparalleled creative freedom in restaurant kitchens and turned chefs into rock stars.
How can you pinpoint the beginning of something as sweeping as a culinary movement? You can’t. But a key incident occurred in August 1984, when seven classically trained Texas chefs, joined by a journalist as witness, came together for a now historic potluck, to cook, eat, and talk about dishes inspired by Texas native traditions. To appreciate the radical nature of that act, it helps to remember how stratified restaurants were then: there was fine dining, defined by French food and “continental” cuisine, and there was everyday dining, and the two seldom overlapped. Yet at their very first dinner meeting, the Texans recognized one another as kindred spirits who believed that our state’s humble foods—enchiladas and salsas, smoked meats and fried chicken, okra pickles and chowchow, buttermilk biscuits and peach pies—were not just homey favorites. Treated with imagination and refinement, they could equal anything the Old World had to offer.
From that potluck came an explosion of creativity that ultimately grew to be the biggest regional culinary movement in the history of the country. Though Southwestern cuisine also had creative centers in California and New Mexico, its roots ran deepest in Texas, captivating the public, turning critics’ eyes to the state for the first time, and setting the stage for the kind of inspired, dynamic cooking that has continued to the present. This is the story of how it all happened.
In the early eighties, Texas was riding the tail end of a huge oil and real estate boom. An unfolding recession, caused by falling petroleum prices and an imploding savings and loan sector, was slowly shredding the state’s economy, but in Dallas and Houston, newly minted millionaires still ate out at upscale restaurants, where chefs served refined European dishes such as beef Wellington and trout meunière. A few of these chefs, however—mostly twentysomethings working at the Loews Anatole Hotel, the Mansion on Turtle Creek, and Routh Street Cafe, in Dallas, and Cafe Annie and Charley’s 517, in Houston—were growing bored with the fancy food of the day. Around the country, their peers had begun to challenge the French hegemony and play with a more native approach to cooking: in New Orleans, Paul Prudhomme was making a splash with Cajun cuisine; in California, figures such as Alice Waters, Wolfgang Puck, Mark Miller, Jonathan Waxman, and Jeremiah Tower were championing locally influenced dishes; and in New York, Larry Forgione captured the sentiment when he named his new restaurant An American Place. The Texas chefs found the trend enthralling.
Dean Fearing was the chef at Agnew’s and then the Verandah Club, at the Loews Anatole Hotel, in Dallas. Everybody was buying Dom Pérignon in the early eighties. The oil and real estate boom gave people the money to travel—Chicago, New York, Paris, Madrid. I had customers who would actually fly to London for the opening of a new restaurant.
Michael Bauer was the editor of the Gourmet section of the Dallas Times Herald. At the time, most fine-dining restaurants were still into classic dishes like they served at the Old Warsaw, in Dallas, or Maxim’s, in Houston. All the best restaurants in American cities were run by French chefs.
Robert Del Grande was the chef at Cafe Annie, in Houston. Hard to believe, but back then, Americans thought foreign was better than local.
Brendan Walsh was a sous chef at Stars, in San Francisco. But then American chefs began to distance themselves from the European model. It was as if they were saying, “Look what we have here, look at all the incredible influences that have come to our country and affected our foodways. They’re deep, they’re broad, and the rest of the world should be jealous.”
Mark Miller was a chef at several restaurants, including Chez Panisse and the Fourth Street Grill, in Berkeley, California. An awakening occurred. The United States had been moving away from Europe and defining itself for a very long time, in literature and poetry with Walt Whitman, in philosophy with the Transcendentalist movement, in music with jazz, and in art with abstract expressionism. There was a sense that America had arrived and was mature. What was the one art form left to develop? Our cuisine.
Jimmy Schmidt was the chef at the London Chop House, in Detroit. It was like, “Hey, this is American, this is ours. We can do anything we want with it.” It was a license for creativity.
Ellen Brown was the founding food editor of USA Today. When I started at USA Today, in 1982, what I noticed right away was that there were pockets of super-innovative chefs in different parts of the country, even though few of them knew about each other. There was this movement called New American cuisine.
Ruth Reichl was the restaurant critic and food editor of the Los Angeles Times. New American cuisine showed us food writers that there was actually such a thing as regional American cooking. It said, “See, we have something more exciting than hamburgers in America!”
Dotty Griffith was the food editor of the Dallas Morning News. In California, the movement began with Alice Waters and Chez Panisse—the idea of using locally grown or at least indigenous kinds of foods in ways that reflected your climate and your culture.
Jeff Blank was the chef and an owner of Hudson’s on the Bend, near Austin. Regional American cuisine was just getting its legs—Larry Forgione with An American Place in New York, Paul Prudhomme with K-Paul’s in New Orleans, Norman Van Aken with a bunch of places in Florida—everyone was cooking regional. In Texas we began to look in our backyard: venison, quail, duck, rabbit, beef, even rattlesnake.
Stephan Pyles was the chef and an owner of Routh Street Cafe, in Dallas. I had just come from the Great Chefs of France cooking program at the Mondavi Winery in California, where I had worked with the Troisgros brothers and Alain Chapel and these people who were championing nouvelle cuisine. It had started in France, rebelling against heavy, old-school French dishes. It very much anticipated what was happening in America. When I opened Routh Street Cafe, in 1983, it was initially New American cuisine. It was strange, though. People didn’t get it at first. They said, “What is that, fancy meat loaf?” And along the way, we realized what American cuisine was—it was about seasonality and region.
Fearing: The more I read about Wolfgang [Puck] and Larry [Forgione], their regional products and finding farmers, the more I wanted to do regional cuisine. In 1982 [restaurateur] Tom Agnew and I decided we would do the first American restaurant in Dallas, Agnew’s. I wanted to put Texas products into a more sophisticated form using French techniques. Pure French was getting boring.
Del Grande: At Cafe Annie, we wanted to say, “We do Texas food,” and be on an equal footing with a European restaurant. We felt that our hometown cuisine shouldn’t have to come in last.
Bauer: The time was right, the economy was good, people were willing to experiment, and you had these young Texas chefs.
Pyles: We may have learned from the French, but we were here to claim our birthright.
A MEETING OF THE MINDS
In 1984 a spirited chef and culinary consultant in Dallas named Anne Lindsay Greer, who had been hired by the Loews Anatole Hotel to give its menus a makeover and raise its national profile, took a pet project to the next level. For months the 44-year-old, who had recently published a cookbook, The Cuisine of the American Southwest, had been convinced that chefs in Texas should be talking to one another about trends. She had been on the lookout for others who were interested in indigenous Texas ingredients, and she had already organized a few informal meetings and chats. In August she acted on an idea she had been toying with: get up-and-coming chefs to cook and brainstorm together. She organized a potluck and invited a who’s who of talent from Dallas and Houston: 30-year-old Kevin Hopkins and 29-year-old Dean Fearing, both at the Anatole (Fearing’s stint at Agnew’s had ended); 32-year-old Stephan Pyles, at Routh Street Cafe; 28-year-old Avner Samuel, at the Mansion on Turtle Creek; 29-year-old Robert Del Grande, from Cafe Annie; and 28-year-old Amy Ferguson, from Charley’s 517. The potluck inspired several more get-togethers, and Greer, who was savvy about PR, always asked a reporter to come too. (Editor’s note: Hopkins died in 2003, and Samuel could not be reached for an interview.)
Fearing: Anne had been on book tours and traveled the world. I remember when she came to Agnew’s for the first time and fell in love with the food. I came over to introduce myself. She says, “Listen, I have an idea.” I’m going, “Uh, yeah.” I didn’t know her from Adam. Anyway, she says, “There are these other chefs and all of us are doing this regional cuisine. We need to get together so we can get some press coverage.”
Pyles: At the Anatole, Anne was bringing in great chefs from around the country to do special wine dinners—Wolfgang was one of them, and Bradley Ogden and Larry Forgione. That’s where Dean and I got to meet them. And she called the food Southwestern; that was the only place in town I knew of that was calling it Southwestern.
Amy Ferguson was the chef at Charley’s 517, in Houston. Robert and I almost didn’t make the meeting. It was a rainy, cloudy day in Houston, and we missed our first flight to Dallas. I was speeding across town in my little Toyota Celica, trying to get us to the airport—I think he was scared for his life—but we made the next flight and rented a car and went to the house. It was at Avner’s. I see a kitchen with granite counters and a big island.
Del Grande: Amy said, “A bunch of chefs are going to get together in Dallas, you wanna go?” She and I were already friends. I had met Dean once and had just heard of Stephan. I said, “Sure,” but I had no expectations.
Pyles: I remember a fireplace. I think we rigged up a smoker.
Fearing: It was like a picnic kind of thing, very informal.
Anne Lindsay Greer (now McCann) was a culinary consultant for the Loews Anatole Hotel. Everybody who came to the dinner that night was playing around with different spices and things. There were these little snippets of Southwestern and Texas ideas everywhere. I figured it was going to take well-known chefs to get recognition, though.
Del Grande: I remember walking into the kitchen. Dean looked up and saw me and said, “Robert! How are you!” and gave me a big bear hug, like I hadn’t seen him in twenty years. We became friends right then.
Ferguson: Most of us had just met, but it was kind of like, “Well, let’s cook.” I did grilled salmon and a beurre blanc with a Mexican mint marigold pesto garnished with toasted pecans. It was hard to decide what to bring, because I had so many regional things on the menu at Charley’s: gumbo and dirty rice, a sort of spoonbread, stuff with masa and salsas. It was a blend of everything I had eaten growing up in Houston. I just thought of it as Texas cuisine.
Del Grande: I brought some ancho chile jam I had made.
Bauer: Avner Samuel made a grilled corn salad with scallions and poblanos and cilantro. Kevin Hopkins brought achiote—that was new to everybody—and used it in a marinade for swordfish.
Brown: I came to the second potluck. After we ate, we sat around and talked and talked. It was one of those wonderful things where everybody’s ideas were bouncing off of each other. We’d talk about a typical dish and then ask, “Okay, how can we jazz this up—keep the spirit of the dish but make it more exciting?” I remember Anne came up with an idea for a quesadilla that was done with crabmeat. And Robert with a cream of cilantro soup, because, remember, cilantro was new and exotic for 99 percent of the country back then.
Del Grande: We had all sort of had the same idea independently: spicy food in fine restaurants! I always felt like we were doing something illegal, that we were outlaws. Anne kept saying, “You guys don’t all go off on your own, you’re gonna be better off sticking together.” In other words, it’s not just one lunatic out there, it’s a bunch of lunatics.
McCann: I had met Ellen Brown, who was one of the most influential food writers in the country, at a booksellers’ convention. She gave us national publicity, but Michael Bauer was the first to do a story, in the Dallas Times Herald.
Del Grande: This was before the Internet and bloggers and social media and people texting and tweeting about what they’ve eaten. We had to get the media to support us, or nothing would have happened.
Bauer: I can remember becoming really excited after the dinner. The lead to my story read, “A group of Texas chefs wants to do for the Southwest what California’s chefs have done for the West Coast: put their area at the forefront of the American culinary scene.”
But what exactly was Southwestern cuisine? The chefs all knew the basic elements of the state’s heritage—Southern and cowboy recipes, Germanic traditions—but they found that their customers loved another Texas tradition most of all: Mexican food. It soon became apparent that this would be the most pervasive and interesting part of their repertoire. There was just one problem: none of the chefs knew much about Mexico’s spices or cooking methods. They quickly began to play catch-up. For knowledge of true regional Mexican food, they read and took lessons from esteemed cookbook author Diana Kennedy. For practical tips and techniques, they turned to the Mexican line cooks in their own restaurants. Little by little they began to figure it out.
Ann Criswell was the food editor of the Houston Chronicle. The thing about Texas is it’s so diverse, it’s like four continents—East Texas is Southern, with black-eyed peas and fried chicken and cream gravy. West Texas is more cowboy. South Texas and the Rio Grande Valley are more Mexican, of course. And Central Texas has German and Czech traditions, like smoking and barbecuing. I always thought of Southwestern as an original fusion cuisine.
Bauer: At first it was baby steps. Early on they did French sauces with, say, jalapeños in them and called it Southwestern. Many dishes with masa, like tamales.
Del Grande: Initially there was this cuisine-transposing. “I’m gonna take a hollandaise and add chiles to it.” The joke became “Oh, just put some black beans on top.” A lot of things didn’t work at first.
Fearing: Wanna hear my first Southwest dish? It was at Agnew’s. I say to Tom Agnew, “We’re gonna move into a more regional cuisine.” So—you’re gonna die laughing—I do fettuccine in poblano crème with smoked chicken and a Gruyère sauce melted under the broiler. Tom takes it out. Five minutes later he brings it back. The lady doesn’t care for it. I was like, “Oh. Um, I’ve got to think. What is Southwest cuisine?”
Pyles: I would struggle to explain, and I would say, “Imagine a cross between French and Mexican,” and people would say, “Oh, I kind of get that.”
McCann: But Southwestern was not just fancy Mexican food. It encompassed the foods of the whole Southwest, including Texas. We might have a quesadilla with Brie and papaya, but there was more to it. We smoked things with mesquite, like salmon. We had wild boar sausage. We had Texas cheeses.
Criswell: It was partly defined by methods like grilling and smoking and partly by ingredients: chiles, corn, squash, cilantro, pinto beans, black beans, rice, cumin, and other Mexican spices.
Fearing: Obviously I didn’t have a clue. I was pronouncing jícama “gee-ca-ma.” After the fettuccine disaster, I started relying more on my Hispanic crew. “Okay, how do I do this?” They showed me salsas, tacos, enchiladas—they were teaching me what their moms did. Then I could take my own thoughts and ideas and run with them.
Bruce Auden became the chef at Charley’s 517 and later at Polo’s, at the Fairmount Hotel, in San Antonio. Our cooks would explain how to sauté herbs, like Mexican oregano, to make them taste different.
Pyles: So much of our vision came from the people who worked for us and what they cooked for staff meals or for themselves. They had come directly from Guanajuato, from Puebla, all over. They would raid the walk-in at Routh Street for cilantro, serranos, chicken thighs, whatever, and they would whip up a great salsa or dish in no time.
David Garrido became the chef at Routh Street Cafe before going to Polo’s. He later became chef at Jeffrey’s, in Austin. One time I was in the kitchen at the Fairmount, in San Antonio, and I see that there’s a piece of cord leading to a large pot. I started pulling on it, and a whole pig’s head comes out! I just screamed. What the hell! The cooks were using it to make pozole. I couldn’t eat pozole for a month.
Del Grande: A turning point for me was when Diana Kennedy—she can be as critical as anybody, but she was nice to me—said, “You know, you need to study Mexican cooking. They know how those ingredients behave. Just don’t take a European recipe and drop something into it and expect it to work.”
Auden: Diana Kennedy’s books were bibles for us. I think we all read them from front to back.
Del Grande: Diana was sort of the Julia Child of Mexico in terms of “Do this the right way or don’t do it at all.” Be precise, no shortcuts. Do your homework. Don’t buy mole paste from the store. You had to find the original way of doing it. To move forward, you had to go backward.
Miller: I took classes from Diana when I was living in and around Berkeley and she was there on a book tour. I had read about her when Craig Claiborne was writing for the New York Times. He was the first food writer to say we really need to be looking at ethnic food in its full complexity, and he was a great friend and promoter of Diana’s.
Del Grande: In her cookbooks, she was documenting Mexican culinary history. She would hear that some woman in a distant village had an incredible dish, and she’d go there, on a second-class bus, meet the woman, and record the recipe by hand. That impressed me.
Fearing: Diana was very Mexico, strictly Mexico. But I was taking Mexican items and turning them into something more modern, so I don’t think she considered my cuisine very authentic. She was hard, you know? It was her way or the highway. We never caught fire with each other. Stephan was much more in her wheelhouse.
Bauer: I took Diana to Routh Street Cafe because I wanted her to see what Stephan was doing.
Pyles: I was so damn nervous when she ate at Routh Street.
Bauer: I figured she would hate it, but she actually loved it. I was so surprised.
Diana Kennedy is the Mexico-based author of The Cuisines of Mexico and eight other books. I had no idea they were reading my books until I met them! They just burst on the scene, all these young chefs, so energetic and experimental. Of course, I didn’t always agree with them. There was one herb they loved—Mexican mint marigold—that I thought was absolutely horrible. If I was in one of their kitchens, I would shout, “For God’s sake, hold the Mexican mint marigold!” But Southwest cuisine was a very valid movement. They started a new wave.
A FIELD TRIP TO REMEMBER
By the late eighties, thanks in part to favorable reviews, Southwestern cuisine had spread rapidly, and not just in Texas. In California, John Sedlar pioneered a very French version at his Manhattan Beach restaurant, Saint Estèphe, while Mark Miller and others had begun to incorporate elements of it into the menu at Fourth Street Grill, in Berkeley. Miller then went on to open Coyote Cafe in Santa Fe, while Brendan Walsh opened Arizona 206 in New York and Jimmy Schmidt opened the Rattlesnake Club in Denver. For all of these Southwestern cooks—Texan and otherwise—it became imperative to experience Mexico’s diverse culinary culture firsthand. In 1989 a caravan of chefs set out on a memorable trek to visit noted cooking teacher and author Patricia Quintana.
Walsh: I used to cruise down to Mexico to travel and taste. I would rent a car and find little local restaurants so I would understand the food more, because I was really intrigued by it. I was taken by all the beautiful flavors and colors, plus there were healthy aspects to the food that appealed to me—the spices and the fresh herbs. Somehow in Mexico they obtained incredible flavors using minimal ingredients and mostly simple techniques.
Miller: I had been taken to Mexico when I was young. As a teenager, I could make chorizo from memory, just from having visited the markets in Guadalajara. By the time I was more or less 21, I was pretty proficient at cooking Mexican food.
Auden: My first wife was from Mexico, a small town called Ajijic, and I had tried menudo and pozole in people’s homes and little cafes, so I knew what they should taste like.
Del Grande: Patricia Quintana was, and still is, quite an ambassador for Mexican cooking. Her cookbooks also had these spectacular pictures, which were very helpful, because most of us couldn’t read Spanish. She wasn’t the critical type, she was more, “Let me show you the things I know.”
Auden: Patricia was very upper-class. She lived and worked in Mexico City, and she also had a place in the state of Veracruz.
Pyles: Several of us had become friends with her, and in February 1989 she invited a bunch of us to visit her rancho in Chapapote. We all went—Dean and Robert and their wives, Mark Miller, Lucinda Hutson, several others too.
Lucinda Hutson is an Austin cookbook author and Mexican cooking instructor. We flew to Veracruz, as I recall. It was a big group—it included John Sedlar and Steve Garcia, from Saint Estèphe, and Tom Gilliland and Miguel Ravago, who owned Fonda San Miguel, in Austin. Patricia was doing some consulting at their restaurant; in fact, that’s how I’d met her.
Pyles: We rented cars at the airport. Patricia had given us maps, but she wasn’t good at directions, and at some point, some of us got lost.
Del Grande: The map was basically two dots with a squiggly line. On top of that, the weather had turned bad.
Hutson: So it’s cold, it’s pouring rain, and all we have is this little map that’s not helping. I was in a car with several people, and we were all laughing and singing, and then, all of a sudden, we were like, “Where are we?” No cellphones, pitch-dark, couldn’t see. I mean, this was out in the boondocks.
Pyles: We kept stopping at places along the way for Lucinda to ask directions, because she spoke Spanish.
Hutson: But no one had heard of this rancho, because Patricia lived in Mexico City and nobody recognized her name.
Auden: We could barely see. And the road—it just dropped off on both sides. We kept almost going into the ditch. I wasn’t worried, though. At that young age, that’s excitement.
Pyles: At one point, Lucinda came back from a store or gas station with a bottle of homemade tequila. That warmed us up considerably.
Del Grande: The car I was in made it to Patricia’s by pure luck, because one of the locals pointed out our turn. In fact, we’d driven past it several times. Eventually the car with Stephan and Lucinda showed up. Lucinda was having a party! Stephan looked like death warmed over.
Hutson: Patricia’s rancho was lovely and huge. Very contemporary and simple, but with wonderful carved doors. Saltillo tiles everywhere. We woke up the next morning and had coffee and beautiful pan dulce.
Auden: It was a fantastic house.
Hutson: In the afternoon, we took a walking tour of the village and saw the bakery where they made the pan dulce in a clay oven. Another day we drove to Veracruz and ate shrimp cocktails. And we went to a tiny, ancient factory where they ferment vanilla beans. We got lost on the way there too.
Auden: Two things stick in my memory about the trip. First, for the final dinner they butchered a pig, and I never will forget that squeal. Pigs seem to know when they’re about to be slaughtered.
Hutson: They tie the pig upside down by the hind legs, so it’s not a happy camper. But they killed it quickly. Several of us watched. A lot of others turned green and disappeared.
Auden: The other thing I remember to this day is that Patricia’s people made an absolutely huge tamal for us. It must have been at least a yard long.
Hutson: The tamal is called a zacahuil, and it was incredible. They wrapped it in big banana leaves and cooked it in a red chile sauce for hours. We were going to spend more time at Patricia’s, but some of those in the group wanted to go on to Mexico City. You know chefs. They’ll go to six restaurants in one day. So we left, but what a culinary anthropological expedition!
Pyles: That trip was transformational. It was the first trip that all the “Southwestern chefs” had taken together, so we got to know each other. And we were exposed to the authentic culture and food of Veracruz. Patricia had five or six women from the countryside cooking for four days. We learned about garnachas, caldos, and these wonderful mixiotes, which are stews, or pit barbecues, cooked in a thin, papery layer from the maguey plant. I went back later and brought some of the paper home with me and used it to cook achiote-seasoned red snapper.
Del Grande: I remember Stephan saying, “Which one of us will be doing a zacahuil at the next big food event?” I had asked Patricia how old the dish was, and she said it had been around for at least four hundred years. I thought, “Wow, not a flash in the pan.” That’s what we all were after—tradition and some sense of authenticity. Over the years, I’ve done many dishes based on that idea.
Auden: It was one of the best trips I’ve ever taken.
ON TOP OF THE WORLD
As the chefs came into their own, their dishes attracted even more critical praise, and soon the cuisine was catching on like wildfire across the country, inspiring food festivals, television series, and even the Great Southwest Cuisine Catalog, which hyped salsas, turkey chorizo, and piñon brittle to its more than 40,000 subscribers. The chefs, who were in demand at symposia, cooking events, and dinners for heads of state, discovered they were suddenly national celebrities. Three of them in particular—Fearing, Pyles, and Del Grande—became the Texas face of the movement. (Their potluck cohorts evolved in other culinary directions.) Their restaurants—Fearing took over at the Mansion on Turtle Creek in 1985; Pyles oversaw Routh Street Cafe and a new offshoot, Baby Routh; and Del Grande continued to run Cafe Annie—helped bring attention to a wave of other Southwestern-inspired destinations around the state, including Polo’s, in San Antonio; Hudson’s on the Bend and Jeffrey’s, in Austin; and Michaels, in Fort Worth. Meanwhile, up-and-coming chefs from outside Texas, such as 23-year-old Bobby Flay, made pilgrimages here to learn what all the fuss was about.
Griffith: Southwestern cuisine in Dallas got an early vote of confidence when the New York Times’ Craig Claiborne came and ate at Agnew’s in 1983, when Dean Fearing was cooking there. Then Claiborne came back to Texas in 1986 and visited Routh Street. That really gave us a boost nationally.
Pyles: There’s no question that Southwestern put Texas on the map. I would go to a festival or on a book tour around the country, and people had no idea that there was anything here but barbecue or chicken-fried steak. This was an opportunity to show the world that there was something elevated going on here.
Fearing: We got an unbelievable amount of press: all the food magazines, newspapers, TV.
Wolfgang Puck was the chef and owner of Spago, in Hollywood, among other restaurants. I consulted at the Mansion in the mid-eighties, and at least one time, maybe more, we entertained German chancellor Helmut Kohl. Dean and I wanted to give him a taste of the Southwest, so we made barbecued Gulf shrimp, quail with honey-chile glaze, and a dessert using Texas ruby red grapefruit. And then Dean invented the lobster taco—and the rest is history.
Pyles: An especially big deal for us was being invited to cook at Wolfgang’s annual Los Angeles benefit for Meals on Wheels, which was on the back lot of Universal Studios. Food writers would seek us out. Ruth Reichl was in Los Angeles then, and she wrote about it.
Reichl: I watched the movement unfold across the country. For those who had no tradition—or didn’t recognize that we had one—it was groundbreaking. The Texas guys were making such wild and delicious food—personally, I couldn’t get enough of it. I was stunned too by what John Sedlar had been doing at Saint Estèphe. And when Mark Miller opened the Coyote Cafe in Santa Fe, all the California food writers flooded down to the opening, we were so eager to see what he was up to. I still have photos of the contingent that showed up.
Del Grande: The celebrity thing was crazy. You know, we were just a bunch of cooks.
Cheryl Jamison was a freelance food and travel journalist in Santa Fe. Coyote Cafe hit like an earthquake. There was tremendous enthusiasm, even though a lot of local people felt, “How dare a guy from California come here and tell us what to do.” I credit Mark Miller greatly with bringing in a lot of new ideas. Nobody here was being talked about before Coyote Cafe.
Brown: Mark was also a trailblazer for a certain look, like, “Okay, let’s make this a stunning Southwestern space. You’re going to know this is a Southwestern restaurant from the moment you walk in the door.”
Schmidt: When I opened the Denver Rattlesnake Club, we wanted the name to define what it was about—it was part of the Southwest, with snakes and that type of thing. We were in an old brewery with copper kettles still in place. We added some modern elements, some turquoise accents.
Auden: The presentations also had a certain style: a large white plate painted with zigzags of different colored purées and sour cream, all done with squeeze bottles—we must have had a dozen of them on the line—and we would decorate the rim of the plate, which hadn’t been done before. We got a lot of ideas from John Sedlar. It was a New Mexico and Native American look.
Del Grande: The look was adapted from nouvelle cuisine. They had used an oversized white plate and gorgeous, artistic presentations. It was very different from traditional French.
Bauer: John Sedlar was famous for his refined techniques and presentations. I still remember one he did in the shape of a coral snake, with red and black caviar for the stripes. It summed up the movement in one image.
Bobby Flay was the chef at Miracle Grill, in New York. I was this young kid who wanted to see what the three godfathers of Southwestern cuisine were up to. I had been doing some Southwestern dishes at Miracle Grill, in the East Village. I said, “Would you mind if I spent some days in your kitchens?” They totally allowed me to hang out with them, and I spent about a week or so at Routh Street and Baby Routh, then the Mansion, and also at Cafe Annie. They were doing things with chile peppers and corn and corn masa and beans that I had never really seen before. I remember how vibrant the colors were, how flavorful the food was.
Fearing: Bobby and I became lifelong buddies after that.
Flay: What other experts in a competitive field would let somebody from another city into their secret laboratory, so to speak? Nobody.
Del Grande: We all got along. If we had hated each other, it would have been very different. But we were all always happy to see each other. How to be like a band but not compete? Well, you partition things off. You don’t tread on each other’s toes. Dean was doing lobster tacos, so I’m not gonna do that. Stephan’s cooking was refined, so I’m rustic.
Paula Lambert founded the Mozzarella Company, in Dallas, in 1982. It was this magnificent moment in time. Everybody was excited, they were all meeting everybody else. Plus, it was great for me, because they would use my cheeses! I got customers all over the country, even around the world, because of Dean and Stephan and Robert.
Susan Auler founded Fall Creek Vineyards with her husband, Ed, in the Central Texas town of Tow, in 1975. Southwestern cuisine even got the Texas Hill Country Wine and Food Festival off the ground. When Stephan and the rest of them cooked at events in Hollywood or New York, they would use Fall Creek’s wines and invite Ed and me to come along. It was great publicity for us. So one day I said to them, “I need a favor. We’re thinking of starting a wine festival, and I’d like you celebrities to be my draw. Then our winery can get some press, and the Hill Country will become known as a viticultural region.” That was my whole reason for starting the festival, period.
Kitty Crider was the food editor of the Austin American-Statesman. I well remember when the Hill Country festival began, in April 1986. It always happened during bluebonnet season, which is the best time of year to visit Texas. Suddenly food and wine pros from all over the country wanted to come here.
Lambert: Susan and Ed brought all these people out from New York and California for the festival. There were chefs and winemakers and writers from all over, floating in and out of the scene.
Criswell: It was a real gathering point. The guys started appearing at a lot of other festivals too. They were rock stars.
McCann: The Hill Country festival always closed with a big wine dinner, and I would collaborate on it with Dean and Stephan and Robert. We really wanted everyone to see that Texas had this wonderful style of cooking.
Auler: On Sunday, the chefs and winemakers would all go on a riverboat cruise on Lake Buchanan. Then we’d come back to the winery and the guys would play their guitars and sing until very, very late. One year I got a square-dance teacher to come out and give them all lessons. You’ve never seen anything so funny in your life.
Auden: You know how on your computer, pictures sometimes come up on the screen? On mine I keep seeing this picture of a young Bobby Flay at Fall Creek Vineyards, getting off the lake. He would never have opened Mesa Grill a few years later if Southwestern hadn’t been such a big deal.
Brown: It wasn’t just newspapers and magazines and festivals. All the chefs ended up on national TV too. A dozen years before the Food Network started, there were the Great Chefs shows on PBS. John Shoup, in New Orleans, was running them, and I said to him, “You really should do one on the West. It’ll be from Texas to California, a huge market.”
John Shoup was the founder, in 1981, of Great Chefs, a production company specializing in cooking shows. Southwestern cuisine was the new thing. All the chefs in Houston, Dallas, San Francisco were talking about it. We put all the big names in the series—John Sedlar, Stephan Pyles, Anne Greer, Robert Del Grande, Jimmy Schmidt, Mark Miller, Dean Fearing, Jeff Blank, you name them. Great Chefs of the West ran in 1984 and 1985—26 parts, 60 chefs and cooks and artisans. Millions of people saw it around the country.
A LASTING LEGACY
Texas’s place on the national stage was secured when Pyles, Del Grande, and Fearing each won an Oscar of the culinary world—a best regional chef award from the James Beard Foundation—in 1991, 1992, and 1994, respectively. This marked the first such recognition of Texas chefs. By that time, however, the flush economy that had jump-started Southwestern cuisine was over, and the novelty had begun to wear thin. Diners and chefs alike turned to new fads and whims.
Still, the principles the Southwestern movement had unleashed—valuing what’s in your own backyard, reaching across cultures, challenging tradition—freed subsequent generations to innovate as never before. In the past four years alone, Texas chefs have won three James Beard awards and landed five spots on Food & Wine’s annual list of best new chefs. As for the leading lights of the movement, they’re going strong: Pyles currently has three Dallas restaurants (Stephan Pyles, Stampede 66, and San Salvaje); Del Grande closed Cafe Annie to open RDG + Bar Annie in Houston in 2009; and Fearing left the Mansion and opened his own place, Fearing’s, at the Ritz Carlton in Dallas in 2007.
Pyles: Texas had been chic, you know—the clothing, the boots, it was all one big wave—so when the economic bust happened, it all sort of fizzled. There is this hunkering down in a bad economy, people not wanting to spend money. Creativity happens when there’s a market, so maybe the bust eventually slowed down the Southwestern movement.
McCann: Restaurants took a hit after the real estate bust. People weren’t buying $200 bottles of wine anymore—that would be $400 or $500 in today’s dollars.
Griffith: After it went mainstream, Southwestern cuisine lost its glamour and integrity. It kind of ran out of gas. And then the chefs became their own narrative and brand, as opposed to the style of cooking they did. With the rise of food TV and superstar chefs, the personalities became the show.
Miller: There was so much richness and depth, it could have continued to this day. There is great, great Southwestern food that has not been cooked. But the newer chefs lost interest. They didn’t go to Mexico, they didn’t learn the salsas or the chiles, they didn’t know corn or masa. I don’t know why.
Fearing: I would go to restaurants around the country, and the chefs would bring me out their interpretation of Southwest cuisine, and it would be pretty godawful because they didn’t understand the flavors. They were just using the ingredients.
McCann: Things changed. Routh Street closed. Stephan then opened Star Canyon, in 1994, which was much more pure Texas. Dean was still doing Southwest at the Mansion, but he also introduced Asian dishes to his menu.
Del Grande: Someone once asked me, “Whatever happened to Southwestern cooking?” And I said, “What do you mean? It’s called American cooking.” When you look at the spice levels today and the ingredients you can find in supermarkets and salsa replacing ketchup as the number one condiment, a huge percentage of American cooking is Southwestern cooking in one way or another.
Auden: When you take your kids to a Chili’s or some other chain now, you see dishes like something we had on our menus twenty or thirty years ago.
Walsh: At the Culinary Institute of America [where Walsh is now the dean of culinary arts], we teach a course that’s about the cuisines of the Americas, and it touches on Southwest cuisine. The style influenced restaurants all around the country; everywhere you went, you saw a chipotle this or a jalapeño that or a black bean the other. It is probably the most influential American food movement of the past thirty years.
Flay: Honestly, I don’t think Southwestern fizzled. I think it evolved. It became part of the American fabric, a real regional cuisine of America. It’s not the hot topic because, frankly, it’s not new anymore. But it’s here to stay. Southwestern made my career. It’s the language I dream in, you know?
Chris Shepherd, who won the 2014 James Beard award for Best Chef: Southwest, is the chef and owner of Underbelly, in Houston. I’d never be able to do what I do if Robert hadn’t kicked that door wide open with Cafe Annie. The freedom to cook the food you want to cook, establishing a sense of place—in Houston, that started with Robert.
Matt McCallister, who was named one of Food & Wine’s best new chefs for 2014, is the chef and an owner of FT33, in Dallas. I focus on regional cooking and ingredients; I can cook in any style I want to. That sort of liberty is something I learned from Stephan when I worked for him at Stephan Pyles.
Fearing: It was huge. I mean, it was a new American cuisine, it really was. We had a great time. It was a great ride.
Pyles: And now it is part of our lexicon. When I’m introduced as “one of the fathers of Southwestern cuisine,” I can see people thinking, “Oh, yeah, I’ve heard of that,” even though they may not be exactly sure what it is. To have started a whole movement—that’s something worth celebrating.