Dean Fearing on menu planning and home cooking.
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Evan Smith: Your restaurant, Fearing’s, at the Ritz-Carlton in Dallas, was just named number one in the country in hotel dining by the Zagat Survey. What does recognition like that say to you?
Dean Fearing: The great thing about Zagat is that it’s the people’s award—people vote on it—unlike the AAA and the Mobil guides, where one or two critics come in, eat one or two meals with you, and decide your fate for the next year. This is the way people want to eat: No rules, come as you are, but let’s eat off of Rosenthal bone china, let’s drink out of real glassware, let’s eat with German silver.
ES: It’s about the experience as much as the food.
DF: Yet what woke me up for so many nights before we opened was, were we doing the right thing?
ES: What were you worried about?
DF: Would people get it? Would people come in and go, “This is the goofiest idea in the world. Why would you have four different atmospheres with one menu all under one roof?” What makes me sleep better at night now is the fact that people are saying, “Yes! This is the right thing!” You want to get dressed up? Come on in. You want to be in a T-shirt and flip-flops? Don’t forget your wallet. You want to be in a white-tablecloth room? We have that. You want to be in a kitchen room, loud and wild? We have that. You want to be in a glass pavilion with a gorgeous chandelier? We have that. What’s funny is that everybody has their room now. It’s like any other restaurant.
ES: Did you ever consider doing different menus?
DF: For half a second. That would be the nightmare of all time. I’d need a kitchen three times as big as the one I have now. The Royal Arms up in Toronto did that: three different rooms, three different menus, one kitchen. I remember going up there one time, and the guy said, “This is the worst mistake I ever made,” and I learned from him. Our menu fits in all the rooms. You go outside, and the menu fits. You go to the bar, and the menu fits. I finally figured out, after leaving the Mansion, that you can have a menu that’s fun and approachable and doesn’t cost an arm and a leg but everybody can find something that they want. Cutting-edge people can have their food. Regular Texans—all they want is buffalo and chicken-fried anything.
ES: When you’re opening a restaurant and have to build a menu, what do you do?
DF: You need something the customer can relate to. What I never want to do is the cross-cultural thing, where you have tempura, Southwestern, and Mexican all on one plate. But what you can have on the menu are cultural differences throughout the dishes. You can have a Japanese dish. You can have a curry dish. You can have a Southwestern dish. You can have a Mexican dish. And you need keywords to catch the eye. I knew a year before we opened that chicken-fried lobster was going to be a hit, because it catches the eye. I’ve heard it for fifteen months now: “Wow, chicken-fried lobster. Now, that’s interesting.” Jalapeño grits. Butternut-squash taquito. Chicken-fried lamb chops.
ES: The fact that you’re in Texas is obviously a framework for you.
DF: Oh, my God. It’s what everybody loves. Twenty percent of our customers come out of New York City, and what do they like? The food they could never get in New York City. They could go to Nick and Sam’s and get a steak. What they want is what they can’t get.
ES: You could always open a Fearing’s in New York City.
DF: That’s not me. I’m going to work at one restaurant.
ES: What do you mean “work”?
DF: I knew a lot of customers at the Mansion, but the problem was that I was stuck in the kitchen. This time I told everybody, “Listen, I’m going to do it different. I’m going to be on the floor—Mr. Restaurant, shaking hands, telling people what they want to eat. I’m going to hire the best people in the kitchen. We can all agree this is the menu we want and this is how we want it to taste, and everyone is going to be able to produce that nightly. But, you know, it’s not going to be me back there expediting.”
ES: You’re doing some cooking, of course.
DF: Oh, every day. But along with it goes the menu planning, because that is the magnet. There’s also the [responsibility] of attracting the people. We had great folks at the Mansion; most of my great customers today are from there. But I was only getting the top tier. I wasn’t getting below that. I kept saying, “One day I’m going to be able to capture people my age and younger, the young professionals who would never go to their parents’ restaurant, the old fuddy-duddy.” They understand the food just as well as the top tier, because they’re in the food period of their lives. You know, it all revolves around food now.
ES: These days, especially, it also revolves around price. Where would those young professionals spend more money on an average meal: the Mansion or Fearing’s?
DF: The Mansion. I had to put the food at a higher price just because we were the Mansion. I mean, we were set in stone with that price. It’s not like we were going to go cafeteria/coffee shop after our budget had been this for 28 years. That was never going to happen while I was there. What I got to accomplish [at Fearing’s] is that everybody is here. I’m grabbing the steakhouse guys and girls who would only go to the big steakhouses, because now the food is approachable. Some things that are more plain and some things that are more intricate. It’s dish by dish.
ES: What’s the best thing on the menu?
DF: Man, I’m telling you, it’s a tough one. This weekend we’re going on our fifteenth menu change. It’s big—it goes from ten dishes down to six. What never changes is the buffalo and the chicken-fried lobster on the main course side. What never changes on the starter side is the tortilla soup and barbecued-shrimp taco and barbecued oysters, which have become a new mainstay. Anything else can change whenever we get tired of it, which is in about three weeks. What’s great is that if you came in three weeks ago, you come in tonight and you go, “Wow.” I think this is the best menu we’ve ever done. Of course, I’m just like the guy promoting a CD or a book: The new one is always the best.
ES: Okay, but you didn’t answer me, so I’ll ask it a little differently. What’s the best thing on the new menu?
DF: We have this Block Island swordfish, from off the coast of Rhode Island. I have not been a swordfish lover for ten years. I just got tired of it. In the eighties I couldn’t get enough of it—it was like steak to me—but then I turned cold. I hated the texture of it and the feel of it. I didn’t have it at the Mansion for years. So Joel Harrington, my chef de cuisine [at Fearing’s], brings in swordfish, and I roll my eyes back, and he goes, “What?” And I say, “I hate swordfish.” And he goes, “Well, try this.” We put it on the grill, and I’m telling him, “You know, swordfish is out of my vocabulary now.” Then I eat the swordfish, and I’m like, “That’s different. I love the texture, and I love the taste.” I’m in love. So we do this dish all around the swordfish. We grill it over mesquite, we mop it with an ancho-honey glaze, and we put it on vegetable chilaquiles sitting on top of a corn purée. Then we do an almond-poblano relish on top of the fish. It’s just an upscale, Southwest-style dish.
ES: Do you ever eat anywhere else?
DF: That’s all I do. It has to be good food, and that goes for every level and every price point in this town. I love Primo’s Bar and Grille, a Mexican restaurant on McKinney [Avenue, in Dallas]. I met my wife there—got to like that. After all these years, it’s still one of my favorites and one of my kids’ favorites. I have two boys, nine and ten, and they’re not shy about food, because they grew up in this business. As much as Lynae and I would like to go to Charlie Palmer’s, the boys go to restaurants with us, and they get a little bored sometimes. We go to Houston’s—
ES: Dean Fearing eats at Houston’s!
DF: We love it, and I’ll say that to anybody. Here’s the thing: I was born and raised in eastern Kentucky. I wasn’t born in downtown Paris. What do I love? I love Southern food. I love soul food. I love barbecue. I learned about food in dives. I have my best inspirations in dives rather than in any of my chef friends’ top-tier restaurants, because it’s all about how you twist the food to make people really understand it. I go to the restaurants of some of my better friends, and they stand over me at the table and I’m in a cold sweat, because I don’t want truffle whipped potatoes. Let’s get current: Using white truffle oil, which is not even real truffle, in a good mashed potato is passé. That’s not real food. Put corn in the potatoes, put some cheese in with it, make it a little white trash—that’s a potato people can sink their teeth into. That’s a potato we sell every night in this place.
ES: Do you cook at home?
DF: Oh, yeah. All I do is think about and eat food seven days a week. I never get tired of eating. My quest in life is never to eat a bad meal. And so, even at home, I challenge myself. I don’t do intricate food, but it has got to taste good, because I have three people at the table. Lynae and the boys are my worst critics. If I goof off and do something stupid and it’s not going to taste good, I get called out pretty fast.
ES: What kind of dish might you make at home for your family?
DF: It’s all rustic. It’s roast chicken—but let me tell you, it’s basted roast chicken. I baste it with garlic and herbs and all of that. My wife is a potato fanatic. She loves mashed potatoes, so some kind of mashed potato is on that plate. And then, you know, we’ve got growing boys, so I try to be good about it. There’s always a vegetable with wild mushrooms or whatever. And there will be a twist in there somewhere along the lines of a sauce because I’m a sauce guy from my growing-up-in-the-kitchen days. Today at lunch, I was with our general manager, Mike Gluckman, and we got this Tasmanian sea trout. I said, “Mike, you hungry?” And he goes, “Yeah.” And I said, “You know what? I’ll cook lunch.” So I get behind the line—
ES: You weren’t cooking for the entire staff?
DF: Just the two of us. He wanted to try this fish. I said, “Hey! Let’s do something.” And I sautéed some green beans with shallots and garlic—lots of it—and I put the trout over the mashed potatoes with corn and cheese. Then I said, “Mike, give me two seconds. I’m gonna make a sauce.” I julienned this sage and lots of shallots and garlic and lemon juice and chicken stock and olive oil, and I made a little pan sauce with all of it and poured it over the fish. And we’re eating, and Mike turns to me and he says, “This is really good!” And I say, “Yeah, this is kind of like the old French style: made in the pan, a fish-sauce thing.” And he says, “No, no, I’m telling you: This is really good. We have to put this on the lunch menu.” That’s how you get people excited. Good cooking will go a long way. And, hey, I was taught by the best—the best French guys in the business.
ES: A word or two about how you learned all this. As you say, you grew up in eastern Kentucky. The legend is that your family was in the hospitality business.
DF: In ’65 my dad met this guy out of Memphis, Tennessee, who was starting up all these Holiday Inns. He saw the light and joined up, and I think we lived in every city in the Midwest—wherever there was a Holiday Inn. From the time we were in junior high, my brother and I had to report to the Inn after school, and my dad would put us to work in the kitchen. We hated it until payday.
ES: The great chef got his start cooking in the kitchen of a Holiday Inn—that means there’s hope for us all. And only a couple years later, you’re safely ensconced at the Mansion.
DF: I’d been working for about a year as the fish cook at the Pyramid Room, at the Fairmont Hotel, in Dallas, when our sous chef, Bernard Molfit, brings in the newspaper and says, “Read that.” And I’m like, “Who is Caroline Hunt and what is the Mansion?” He said, “This is an oil baroness lady, one of the richest ladies in Texas, and she’s gonna open this incredible restaurant. I’m not going anywhere, and you need to move up, so you should go over to the Mansion and get the saucier position.” I said, “Really? Do you think I can get it?” And he said, “Yeah, you’re gonna get it. Just go over there.” So the next day, no joke, I go over there, and the chef asks me what I want to apply for. I said, “The saucier position,” and before I even say anything else, he looks at my résumé and says, “You got the job.”
ES: Just like that?
DF: Just like that. Eight-fifty an hour. More money than I’d ever seen in my whole life. I was, like, rich! I could go to Neiman Marcus every six weeks and buy a shirt. And I did.
ES: After all these years, you’re still excited about what you do.
DF: You can’t work [at Fearing’s] unless you have a high personality, like me. That’s the honest-to-God truth. If you come in here and someone is a dud, you need to tell me, because they’re fired. Everybody’s going to be happy, and everyone’s going to be grateful that somebody walked through that door and is spending money. And it starts with me. I shake hands and truly thank people for coming in: “What can I do for you?” and “If you need anything, let me know.” In this day and age of recession, you can get away from all your problems for a couple hours, come in and talk and eat food and drink wine, and it doesn’t have to be expensive. You can enjoy life, and that is what restaurants are doing for us now. It’s the way we get away.