Billy Surface

Food & Drink

Stephan Pyles’ Life of Leisure

The surprise kitchen retiree discusses his pending memoir, which of his 25 restaurants he’s most proud of, and Dallas’ standing as restaurant city of the year.

When you closed Flora Street Cafe at the start of the year and announced your retirement, was that really just a genius way of getting out of honoring the $200 gift card that I still have from your restaurant? It really was. I thought about it long and hard, and I said, “How can I screw Tim Rogers?”

How difficult a decision was it not only to shut the place down but to retire? Yeah, it looked sudden, and that was the whole intent. But I’ve been thinking about this for the last six months. So it was all planned in detail. It was time.

You look really good for 57, much less the 68 years that you really are. What’s your secret? My secret is olive oil. That and I’ve always tried to do lots of Bikram yoga and weights and cardio and meditation.

You started your culinary career at the age of 8 busing tables at your parents’ West Texas truck stop. Any chance that in retirement you’ll take it full circle, maybe open a Buc-ee’s? You know, I’ve learned to never say never. As David Bowie said, “I don’t know where I’m going from here, but I promise it won’t be boring.” Who knows? Maybe I’ll do a diner.

I’m talking to you in January, and you’re about to leave for a long trip to Vietnam. What’s on the docket? I’m going to Shanghai for three days to eat. I’m going to a once-in-a-lifetime restaurant that I’m doing twice. It’s a single-table restaurant called Ultraviolet, and I’m taking two people there because it was on their bucket list. And then I meet the rest of the group in Ho Chi Minh City, where we do a couple of restaurants and some tours, then get on a boat on the Mekong River and see three villages in Vietnam and three villages in Cambodia. This year, I’m leading four culinary tours like this one. I think I’ll probably do five or six next year.

You’re working on a memoir. Do you have a title yet? You know, I don’t. Do you have a suggestion?

Are you ready? It’s Stephan Pyles: A Chile Reception. Get it? [laughs] I get it all too well. I’ve got another one that I just came up with. I was opening Stephan Pyles after a five-year hiatus. It was like the first or second week, and I was really packed, and I was in the dining room talking to folks. And there was a server who was next to me. He comes to the table and says, “Good evening. Welcome to Stephan’s Pyle.” Not good. So that’s maybe the title of the book. Stephan’s Pyle.

Since Routh Street Cafe in 1983, you’ve opened 25 restaurants. Which one are you proudest of? That’s hard to say. I think it was probably Star Canyon because I’d had some practice and developed a style of cooking by the end. It was really all my own and was entrenched in the American cuisine culture. It was an opportunity to give Dallas something they’d never seen. It was so much in the moment.

What sort of trophy do you get for a James Beard Award? You get a nice certificate and it’s frameable. And then you get a medallion that you can wear around your neck if you’re that sort.

Where’s your medallion right now? Uh, that’s a good question. I don’t even know. I know it’s packed away somewhere. I’ve got it. I just don’t know exactly.

Last year, Bon Appétit named Dallas the restaurant city of the year. Do you think they did that for shock value? I don’t know. It shocked me. I mean, not that you can relate reality necessarily to the James Beard awards and the nominations, but if that’s a harbinger, then Dallas is not nearly as important as Austin or Houston. So I was just a little surprised, I guess. We’ve come light-years, and it’s a very exciting, vibrant time. But I’ve always thought of Dallas as kind of moving from third tier to second tier. You know, we’ll never be New York, San Francisco, even L.A., Chicago.

In your retirement, you have to eat one Dallas dish at least three times a week until you die. What’s that dish? You know, I think it would probably be sour cream chicken enchiladas made by Mico. 

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