When you go to your local grocery store, you might take cilantro, red bell peppers, dried chiles and tortillas for granted. What you might not realize is that four Texas chefs and a cookbook author had a lot to do with making that possible.
"In 1982, you couldn't get cilantro," said Dallas chef Dean Fearing (of Fearing's at the Ritz-Carlton, Dallas), one of three panelists who regaled the crowd at the Buffalo Gap Wine & Food Summit Saturday with an oral history of Southwestern cuisine.
"There weren't dried chiles, except at Fiesta," he said. "No red bell peppers. [Today] you can literally find everything you want that we could never find."
He, Dallas' Stephan Pyles (Stephan Pyles, Stampede 66, San Salvaje) and Houston's Robert Del Grande (RDG + Bar Annie) swapped stories and shared juicy tidbits of how Southwestern cuisine came about in the 1980s. The panel discussion was expertly moderated by Pat Sharpe, Texas Monthly's restaurant critic.
The same crew will reprise the discussion May 11 in Dallas in a panel titled TM Talks Food: Southwestern Cuisine. They will be joined by Anne Greer McCann, who until recently wrote a column for The Dallas Morning News.
This new cuisine "awakened the American palate," Pyles said, "to spicy, big, bold flavors."
Before the three chefs (and fellow founders cookbook author McCann and chef Avner Samuel) came on the scene, white-tablecloth dining in Texas was defined by French and Continental. Nouvelle French cuisine opened a door to rebellion that the Texas gang swung wide open.
"When Dean and I came along, we were young punks bastardizing the cuisine," Pyles said. "We made every effort to bastardize French."
At first, they experimented with "American cuisine" as other chefs around the country were doing, from Alice Waters at Chez Panisse to Larry Forgione at An American Place.
But the inspiration for Southwestern came from an unlikely place - their restaurant kitchens: Fearing at Agnew's, Pyles with Routh Street Cafe and Del Grande's Cafe Annie. One of the herbs that illustrates the tale is cilantro.
"We took the cilantro and picked off sprigs - super-refined," Del Grande said of their first forays into a kind of French-Mexican hybrid. "We gave the [cilantro] sticks to the people in back who made better things than us. They knew where the flavor was: in the stems."
"We'd do lamb loins with coriander [another name for cilantro]," said Pyles, "and the dishwasher would cut it up, sauté it and bring tortillas and make salsa from tomatillos."
From that back-of-the-house inspiration, the three built a bridge to regional cuisine at their white-tablecloth restaurants. That's how Fearing created his famous lobster taco.
If you'd like to get more of the back story, which took them to the kitchens of Mexican cooking authorities such as Diana Kennedy and Patricia Quintana and many others, check out the Dallas event. It and the Buffalo Gap session grew out of Sharpe's 2014 Texas Monthly story about Southwestern cuisine.
By Kim Pierce, Special Contributor
Plan your life
TM Talks Food: Southwestern Cuisine is at 6 p.m. May 11. $25. PIRCH Showroom, NorthPark Center, 8687 N. Central Expressway, Dallas. For tickets, go to Eventbrite.com and search for the event by name.