Restaurants: Stephan Pyles, Samar, Stampede 66, Fuego (Dallas)
Experience: Chef's Assistant at The Great Chefs at Robert Mondavi Winery (Oakville, CA); Truck Stop Café (Big Spring, TX); The Bronx (Dallas)
Recipe you are most famous for?
It’s a toss-up between the bone-in cowboy rib eye with red chile onion rings, and the Heaven and Hell Cake. My two favorite cakes growing up were angel food cake and devil’s food cake. So I combined those into one cake, with 10 alternating layers sandwiched between layers of peanut butter mousse, which we glaze with milk chocolate ganache.
What ingredients are your current food obsessions?
Chiles, but that’s hardly a current obsession. The varieties I use change every year. I’ve moved away from chipotles to ají mirasol, this beautiful yellow chile from Peru. We use dried ones because, unfortunately, we can’t get them fresh. I love chile purees, and how the smokiness from the chile can penetrate a dish. I use them in ceviches and sauces for meat and poultry. I love an ají puree with orange juice: You get this brightness from the citrus and a beautiful heat from an ají that you don’t get from something like a habanero, where it’s more upfront. The ají just kind of lingers on your palate and builds.
What will we always find in your fridge?
Milk, for lattes and cereal. You might find Dr Pepper, which is from Dallas, so that’s the only soft drink I drink.
What do you eat if you come home from work starving?
Shredded Wheat. But it’s rare that I come home from work starving. It’s usually the other way around: Why did I eat that last thing?
What’s your guilty pleasure snack at the restaurant?
I love to go in at lunch and grab different components off the line stations to make a new sandwich. The other day I grabbed some slow-roasted, shredded short rib, put it on a bolillo bun meant for another sandwich, spread on some mayonnaise, added some tomatoes, a little vinaigrette and some bacon preserves. I thought, This should go on the menu!
Favorite cookbook of all time?
It would probably have to be one of Julia’s, maybe The Way to Cook. I’m such a Julia devotee. Another from 30 years ago that I learned a lot from and still have, just because it feels good, is Jacques Pépin’s La Technique.
Who is your food mentor?
Jacques Pépin, Julia Child and Gaston Lenôtre. I say that because I taught myself how to cook out of their books. I was a voice and piano major in college and had no intention of cooking. My family had a truck stop café out in West Texas. Cooking was the last thing I wanted to do—and that they wanted me to do. I took a trip to France in the late ’70s, when I was in my late 20s, thinking that I was going to teach music. But I fell in love with food. I couldn’t afford to go back to school, so I read cookbooks. Back in Texas, I’d come home from my day job at the bookstore or wherever and read La Technique. I taught myself to do pastries from Lenôtre’s first book, Faites Votre Pâtisserie Comme Lenôtre. Finally, I got some jobs in restaurants peeling onions. I did an apprenticeship with a French chef here in Dallas, and got a job as an assistant at the Great Chefs of France cooking school in the early ’80s. That’s when I met Julia. She inspired me to be brave and creative while honoring tradition.
What’s the most important skill you need to be a great cook?
Being gentle: knowing when to be tough and when to be a little softer in dealing with young cooks. I see so many people lost when they’re ridden hard. I want people to say that about me: “He’s tough but fair.”
Do you have any pre-shift rituals?
I like quizzing folks on the line. Every once in a while, I like to have a little fun and ask them a question I know they’re not going to know, like, “What was the name of the hostess in my truck stop growing up?” (It’s Myrtis.)
What is the most cherished souvenir you’ve brought back from a trip?
Back when I first started, in 1981, Robert Mondavi gave me a signed bottle of his 1968 private reserve Cab. I held onto the wine forever, and still have the bottle.
Who do you follow on Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest or Facebook?
I don’t follow that many people: Rachel Maddow, Patricia Quintana, Grant Achatz. He doesn’t tweet much, but when he does, it’s fun.
What is your talent besides cooking?
Singing and playing piano. I have a piano at my house and play it when no one’s around. I sing in the shower. I have season tickets to the opera and the symphony. I’ve always had this love for song. I see a lot of similarities between music and food.
What music are you listening to now?
Right now I’ve got all this country music throbbing in my head that I’m trying to get rid of, because I just did the playlist for Stampede 66. I do all the playlists for my restaurants. I just listened to Willie Nelson’s “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before.” Now you’re going to be humming it, too.