Friday, November 18, 2011
Interview: Chef Dean Fearing of Fearing’s in Dallas
Fearing talks about how Dallas culinary culture is viewed, how it can grow, and what's next for him.
It would be reasonable to say that Dean Fearing knows Dallas – and Dallas dining – fairly well. When he took his first job here, as a fish cook at the Pyramid Room, Roger Staubach was the quarterback of the Cowboys, and Ronald Reagan had yet to be elected president.
Since then, Fearing has done a few things of note, among them bringing The Mansion Restaurant to prominence, starting his own eponymous restaurant at The Ritz Carlton, and being hailed as the Father of Southwestern Cuisine – not to mention that 2007 Restaurant of the Year award from Esquire, among many other accolades. So yes, when we got the chance to talk to him about his thoughts on the Dallas restaurant and culinary culture, we figured he might have a couple thoughts on the matter. We were right.
Oh, and evidently he’s got a secret he’s waiting to tell, too.
Entree Dallas: What are your thoughts of the national perspective regarding the Dallas culinary culture?
Fearing: I think what is happening now and the last four years has put Dallas on a whole new map. And it’s not just that Stephan (Pyles) opened his own restaurant, I opened up my own restaurant, or that Kent (Rathbun) still has Abacus. What has really helped Dallas is the smaller neighborhood restaurants scene; the Neighborhood Services, or Tiffany (Derry of Private Social) opening down the street from us here, and all of what’s going on in the Bishop Arts area. That might not support the national scene, but it’s what is supporting Dallas as a great restaurant city.
In fact, let me tell you a quick story – I walked in as a fish cook, a poissonnier, to one of the greatest restaurants in 1978, which was the Pyramid Room. That’s a bygone day, but when I walked in here in ’78, that was about as much money as you could spend in any restaurant in the country. I think people here said, "we want to compete with New York, Chicago, San Francisco," and though we didn’t – and still don’t – have as many restaurants as in Chicago or New York, we had great restaurants within our city. And I think I walked into one of them, being the Pyramid Room. And then within nine months, I walked into another one called The Mansion, which has held its stride for an amazingly long time.
And now you see what’s happening, what I just talked to you about, those neighborhood restaurants to fill it all in. And that’s what we didn’t have four years ago. And I’ve always said that we’re not going to be the complete restaurant city until we start getting the smaller restaurants, the neighborhood restaurants, and the restaurants that are just great restaurants on their own. And they don’t have to be Downtown – they can be within NorthPark Mall or Highland Park Village. I think we’re moving very smart as we’re moving forward.
In your mind, are there specific recent events that have helped foster that movement forward?
Well, I love the fact that the Omni Hotel opened up last week. Wow, is that going to help us: It’s going to bring in citywide conventions. And that’s what we needed 10 years ago.
In fact, I remember being at the Mansion 15 years ago and having a citywide convention on a Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, and we were packed – like, 300 people. Well, my goodness, let’s get that back! That’s what makes a restaurant city. It’s great that we take care of ourselves within our cities, but what will give us the national status is when people come in from out of our city and eat, and go "Wow, these restaurants are great!" You and I could say that all day long; we could sit here and go "Yeah, we have some really great restaurants." But you know what? No one knows it until the outside country knows about it more. And I think that’s the next step that we will march into with the convention hotel opening up.
Then, of course, we have everything that goes along with it: We have sports, we have shopping, we have the arts, and of course we have the restaurants. All of that that can supply convention people and their interests beyond being at the convention center. I think we’re great in the sense that we have great restaurants now, and we’ll have better restaurants in the future. I think it shows that we don’t sit on our haunches.
So how does it grow internally? Is it that chefs focus on educating the next generation?
Well, shoot, I was always a teacher, and I still am. You know, I think part of being a chef – a major part – is being a good teacher so that people learn how to cook well and cook well on their own. So yeah, I think that’s a very important part. But also, think about all the cooking schools that have come in. Oh my goodness, there was just El Centro when I first started. Now not only have you got that, but all these other schools and classes, too. It’s great.
Also, you’ve got to believe that the public is much more educated on food now than five, ten, or 20 years ago. And I think it’s bigger than ever. I think the mass media, from blogs, TV, radio, to magazines have taken this whole food movement to a new level. I see it every night when I’m out of the floor. Everybody has gone online and looked at the menu before they come in to the restaurant.
So what are your thoughts on that mass media food movement?
Well, I’m an old dinosaur when it comes to looking at the websites – you know, I don’t know if I’ve done that yet in my whole life. Even if I go to New York, I’m kind of guy that wants to be surprised by it. But I think 95 percent of the people don’t want it to be a surprise, and it boggles my mind, but it’s true. I come up to the table, and I said my little spiel, you know, "let me know what I can do to help or if I can answer any questions," and nine times out of 10 they go, "I’ve already looked at the menu online and I know what I want." I’m like, "Wow. If they are doing it with Fearing’s, then they’re probably doing it with every restaurant that they’re going in."
And I think that’s a whole new scene that will never die now. I think that whole mass media movement is what it’s all about. It’s what really informs people now, and Dallas has always been good about staying informed, especially about any new restaurant opening: Dallas loves new restaurants. They all flock to it for six months, and if you’re not good you better pray for rain because it’ll leave you fast. You have to be well prepared for the onslaught of Dallas people coming in for that first six months because everybody’s going to try you out. And everybody’s going to have an opinion, of course. That’s Dallas, too.
But that’s what I love about it. You know, even in my early career – I remember the day, July 27th, 1980 – when we opened the Mansion, Dallas couldn’t wait. And that, at least, hasn’t been any different. Tiffany’s restaurant opened up, and everyone’s running in there. Del Frisco’s Grille is going to open up next week, and everyone’s going to run in. It’s what Dallas does.
We’d be remiss if we spoke with you and didn’t ask if you’ve got any big news. So, do you have any big news that no one knows about yet?
Well, I’d love to tell you (laughs), but I think the future is bright, I really do. You know, I think that’s what you’ve got to love about the restaurant business, is it just keeps on growing. I will hopefully have some good news for you in the upcoming year, and all of that bit. But I can’t tell you now.
Well, suspense makes for good copy, too.
(Laughter) Well let’s just say that I feel that we’ve been very fortunate and very blessed, and I just hope that we can keep moving forward in our restaurant scene.
Pegasus News Content partner - Entree Dallas
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