When you visit chef Paul Petersen at the historic Gage Hotel, in the West Texas town of Marathon, it isn’t long before he escorts you out back to see his favorite toy: a mammoth, soot-blackened smoker and grill. The interior of the contraption is so shiny with grease it looks like patent leather. Petersen, who is a boyish 37, has been grilling every chance he gets since the day he took charge of the 81-year-old hotel’s restaurant, Café Cenizo, in 2006. In the intervening two years, he’s accomplished what many thought would never happen: He has restored the dining room’s faded glory. In October 2007 he received the most prominent in a string of critical accolades, a shout-out in the Esquire 100, the magazine’s annual feature on emerging talent nationwide—or, as its cover memorably touted, the top “ideas, trends, discoveries, products, people, and obscene gestures you should know about before everyone else does.”
Petersen has embraced his role as city-boy-turned-cowboy-chef—witness a custom-made scarlet-and-black chef’s jacket with Western detailing and a menu that lists not only bison ribeye but medallions of elk. He didn’t map out his career in advance, of course, but his path to Café Cenizo sounds almost preordained. To his Texas roots—he was born and raised in San Antonio—he added a diploma from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, in 1999. After that, he took three years to get clogs-on-the-ground experience at three highly regarded Manhattan restaurants (An American Place, Union Square Cafe, and the Red Cat). Then he came home to try his wings.
His first venture was the Little Texas Bistro, a fine-dining venue he opened with his wife, Beth, in Buda, a small town south of Austin, in July 2003. Despite media recognition, however, not enough foodies wanted to drive the fifteen miles from Austin to eat there. He closed it in April 2006, but just as that door slammed shut, another one opened in the form of a want ad for an executive chef at the Gage. A month later, he and Beth and their young daughter were in the Texas outback, where people don’t bat an eye at driving fifty miles for dinner.
Petersen’s menu at the Gage is elevated enough to impress the urban dwellers visiting Big Bend National Park and the art galleries in Marfa but rootsy enough to attract