Dean Fearing
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Dean Fearing

Katherine Gregor / April 2009

Food Arts presents the April 2009 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Dean Fearing, the chef and restaurateur who helped define Southwestern cuisine as a vibrant branch of the American food tree. A quarter century ago, Fearing and a band of intrepid fellow chefs introduced the radical vision that a white tablecloth hotel/restaurant could serve tacos—albeit lobster tacos—and put salsas and homey fare at the culinary forefront they continue to enjoy. But what's truly special about the Dallas chef is the warmth, upbeat energy, and big-hearted friendliness he brings to everything he touches.

Fearing, 54, had followed the emergence of regional cuisine in the early 1980s after graduating from The Culinary Institute of America. With an eye toward Alice Waters and Wolfgang Puck on the West Coast and Larry Forgione's An American Place (originally in New York City, now transplanted to St. Louis) on the East Coast, Fearing seized the moment to define American cuisine for the Third Coast. Starting in 1985 as head chef at The Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas, Fearing launched a revolutionary menu braiding together three separate regional traditions—barbecue, Mexican food, and Southern cooking--then elevated them to fine dining status using classical French techniques.

An early Texas champion of regional, farm-to-market seasonal foods, Fearing defined and sustained for over two decades at the Mansion an enduring vein of the American food movement. Cookbooks, a line of food products, television appearances—all the trappings of the modern celebrity chef followed—along with awards and accolades. But the Lucchese-booted chef's strong personal connection with diners was always key to his success.

More recently, Fearing set—and reached—the highest possible bar for himself by launching his own restaurant. After his long tenure at the Mansion, many assumed Fearing's relevance and popularity had leveled off. But proving he was no 1980s wonder boy, Fearing made national news again in 2007 with a new restaurant created in his image. As the chef/owner of Fearing's Restaurant in the new Ritz-Carlton Dallas, he created a venue with seven distinct dining areas. "What scared me the most is what worked out the best," he says. "Everybody who comes in, we're killing them with kindness." Diners responded: in the 2008 Zagat Survey Fearing's catapulted over long-established restaurants to attain the top ranking (at 29/30 points) for hotel dining anywhere in the United States.

"I'm probably out in the dining room more now," muses the gracious and garrulous chef. "I see the joy on people's faces that I'm there. People say it's so friendly and so personable. There's not a lot of chefs working the floor these days—but it keeps people loyal. That's important in these times. And I love coming to work! It's like having a party in your own house."