11 Questions with Chef Dean Fearing
The father of Southwestern cuisine, who continues to burnish his reputation at his eponymous restaurant at
The Ritz-Carlton, Dallas, chats about the city’s dining renaissance, the food he craves on his day off and the best advice he ever got from Wolfgang Puck.
You moved to Dallas in 1979 as a young chef and never left. What do you love about the city?
Most of all I love the people, and the spirit of “can do” in Texas. Folks have a true personality here. They’re friendly, they’re considerate, and they go out of their way to help others. All of those attributes are important in life, and all of those attributes are abundant here. Dallas is a good place to be because it’s full of good people.
Downtown Dallas has been undergoing a dramatic renaissance of late. What’s your perspective on that?
There’s a great energy here at the moment. That’s the best thing about it. The restaurant scene just keeps growing and growing. There used to be this little group of decent restaurants — now there are great restaurants all over the city. There’s a restaurant on pretty much every corner. It’s fantastic. There’s so much choice, it’s almost ridiculous.
Everything’s bigger in Texas. Are your dishes?
They tell me that! Some people say, “Wow, that’s a Texas-sized portion,” when their order arrives, but they all finish their plates, so I guess we’re doing something right. Maybe the appetites are bigger in Texas too!
You’re a keen guitarist and have performed all over the country. To what extent do the worlds of music and cooking overlap?
I see them very much in the same vein: They’re both about creativity. Whether I’m creating a new dish or writing a new song, I love the idea of putting together something from scratch that didn’t exist before. An empty plate and an empty page are the same thing. It’s about creating something from nothing, and I love that process.
Where does your inspiration come from?
You know what, it’s like falling dominoes. One idea leads to the other, which leads to the other, and it’s always worked that way for me. That first domino can come from anywhere: a magazine article, a TV show, a song, a conversation with colleagues or simply something I see as I’m walking down the street. You can spot those little dominoes anywhere, but you never take the first one straight away. You allow it to lead on to another and another. That’s how you get fully formed ideas — you allow those dominoes to fall.
What’s the secret of a successful menu?
For me, it’s when I go to a table and I hear somebody say, “I can’t make up my mind between x, y or z.” That’s when we’ve done our homework. You know, I can still go into restaurants and can’t find anything to eat, because nothing interests me on the menu, and that makes me sad. I love a menu where I open it up and I’m like: “I want to try that, that and that — but I only have one night.” That’s the kind of dilemma you should be having in a good restaurant.
What do most restaurants do badly?
The biggest pitfall is when the chef doesn’t think about his customer — when it’s all about his ego, and he’s cooking for himself. The golden rule is to cook for the people who are actually going to be doing the eating. Customers know how they want to eat, and they know what tastes good.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
When I started coming up in the restaurant scene, Wolfgang Puck sat me down and said: “Dean, I want to tell you one thing. You’re going to see a lot of your friends jump onto the ego boat and sail off. I want you to be humble and stay humble. Everything will come to you, just as long as you stay humble.” That always stuck with me — and has always stood me in good stead.
What’s the best thing on the menu at Fearing’s right now?
The nilgai antelope off the mesquite grill. We marinate it in achiote paste — a mixture of achiote seeds, orange juice, garlic and jalapeños — then grill it and serve with red mole, braised rabbit enchilada and this great green chile sauce, over winter squash. The meat is mild, tender and delicious, and I love the combination of flavors with it.
What’s your favorite thing to eat on a day off?
Curry. It’s hard to find good Indian food in Texas, but I recently discovered this little gem in Dallas. It’s called Mughlai, and their buttered chicken is out of this world.
Do you ever get bored with food?
Never. I wake up in the morning thinking about food, and I go to bed at night thinking about food. Everything for me revolves around food. I love to cook it and I love to eat it. I have to be careful because I could literally eat food all of the time. I have to control myself or I’d be 400 pounds. I mean, I’d be a happy 400 pounds, but still …