Stephan Pyles is a fifth-generation Texan, founding father of Southwestern Cuisine, and chef–owner of Stephan Pyles Concepts, which manages six restaurants — with more on the way. He is a super cool guy and a passionate chef who continually amazes with his innovative cuisine.
Pyles’ impressive culinary journey has spanned nearly three decades, and his accolades read like an awards show. He was the first person in the Southwest to win a James Beard Award for Best Chef and the first Texan inducted into the Who’s Who of Food & Beverage in America. Bon Appetit credited him with “almost single‐handedly changing the cooking scene in Texas,” while The New York Times called Pyles “an absolute genius in the kitchen.” Esquire named Pyles Chef of the Year in 2006 and included his eponymous restaurant, Stephan Pyles, in its list of Best New Restaurants. Texas Monthly named Pyles one of the “20 most impressive, intriguing, and influential Texans.” Stampede 66 was on Esquire’s 2013 list of top 20 new restaurants in the country, and Pyles was named 2014 Restaurateur of the Year by the Dallas Morning News. Both the chef and his Latin restaurant, San Salvaje, were nominated for the 2015 James Beard Awards for Outstanding Chef and Best New Restaurant, respectively.
I recently had the privilege to dine at all three of Stephan’s Dallas restaurants and chat with him about his career, cuisine, and charitable contributions.
The Daily Meal: You were born in Texas and have created 15 restaurants in four cities over the past 25 years. Aside from Dallas, which city was your favorite city to live and work in, and why?
Stephan Pyles: Las Vegas was certainly the most constantly stimulating city I have worked in. It has a culinary depth rivaled by few other cities, but Minneapolis has a vibrant music, art, and theatre culture that was really rewarding, too.
Is it true that you wanted to be an opera singer at one point in your life? How did cooking become your passion?
I did. I double majored in voice and piano in college. I took a trip to France after university, having barely been out of the state of Texas, and fell in love with the whole French culinary culture, which emphrasizes regionalism, seasonality, and quality of ingredients and presentation. The seeds were planted!
Your culinary roots are in Southwestern cuisine. How do you combine new ideas with respect for those roots?
Texas and the Southwest are such a part of my fiber. It’s not difficult to bring everything new and exploratory back to that essence.
Do you see a trend with diners seeking “better for you” options on the menu?Texas and the Southwest are such a part of my fiber. It’s not difficult to bring everything new and exploratory back to that essence.
Health issues and trendy diets ebb and flow in the restaurant industry. One year there's an emphasis on low carbs; the next, no gluten. As a chef and restaurateur, I am in the game of "yes," not "no," so we are prepared to design a unique meal for any guest who asks for it. My cooking has always been pretty healthy anyway because my flavor carriers are based on smoke and spice (chiles, lime, wood-fired cooking, etc.) and many fewer fats, such as butter and cream.
What is your favorite dish on your own menu, and why?
I would probably have to say the honey fried chicken at Stampede 66. I've often said that would be the main course of my last meal.
Dallas is a very artsy city and there are a lot of beautiful art pieces in your restaurants. Do you choose the art for your establishments?
Not only do I choose all the artwork for my restaurants, I design them as well. I have architects and designers of record, but the design is primarily mine.
You have published a few cookbooks… do you have another one in the works?
Yes, I've published four cookbooks and have been working on one now for about five years. I certainly need to bring it to the front burner, pun intended.
You have locations in two airports: Dallas Fort Worth International Airport and Love Field Airport. Is that a whole different ball game as a restaurateur? How?
Three of my six restaurants are license agreements. What that means is there is no financial risk and another entity operates the business. I have to train the chefs, and they can only use my recipes. However, I just treat them like one of my regular restaurants, because ultimately they are using my name, and it's my reputation at risk. I believe the restaurants at the airports are actually great marketing for my restaurants in Dallas and San Antonio.
You are a founding board member for Share Our Strength and are involved in multiple hunger-fighting charities. Tell me about this.
I met the founders or Share Our Strength in Washington, D.C., in 1988, when I was a guest chef for the 50th anniversary of the March of Dimes Gourmet Gala. Later that year we started Taste of the Nation in 30 cities around the country. It has become one of the most respected, successful, and best-attended chef's tastings in America. I'm also a life board member of the North Texas Food Bank and co-founder of the Hunger Link, Dallas's perishable food program that links restaurants and hotels to soup kitchens and ministries. Today my primary focus is on childhood hunger, so I'm very supportive of and raise significant funds for our "No Kid Hungry" programs.
What is new and exciting in your world these days?
I'm moving my flagship restaurant across the street from the Symphony Hall and Opera House when my lease ends at the end of the year. The interiors will be contemporary with unique modern art installations. The food will be a bit more refined than the current Stephan Pyles, and I will call the fare "Elevated Texas Cuisine." Additionally, I am in negotiations with a group from China to do a Stampede 66 in Beijing.