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October 2008

The Evolution of Fine Dining in Texas

There’s more to Texas than just barbecue.

by Michael Castellon

The stereotype goes something like this: Texas cuisine is rooted in little more than meats cooked with smoke, usually in a steel pit, almost always outdoors. (Any self-respecting Texan should now pause and smile with pride.)

But our culinary traditions and tastes have greatly evolved alongside our economic prosperity over the last century and a half. As our economic opportunities grow, so does the sophistication of our tastes.

Texas is strong in attracting businesses and workers from around the world, so it’s natural that our cuisine would reflect traditions beyond just our own.

If food is our culture, then we are no longer limited to being home to just the finest barbecue in the world, or side dishes that are, for all practical purposes, so comforting they remind us of a childhood blanket.

The Texas restaurant market has done well in recent years. Star Chefs, a leading culinary magazine, published a survey in May 2008 that examined how Americans’ restaurant spending habits had been affected by the slowing national economy. Nationally, 57 percent of owners said business was down by 10 percent. The news was brighter in Texas, where just 47 percent reported the same downturn.

Upscale dining establishments, loosely defined by the industry as those places where the average price of an entrée is $15 and up, remain big business in Texas.

“Our culinary landscape has changed 1,000 percent in the last 30 years,” says Patricia Sharpe, a food critic whose reviews and analysis of Texas restaurants have appeared in the pages of Texas Monthly for more than 30 years. “Fine dining used to be hotel cuisine. It was much more Anglo and old-fashioned Tex-Mex. The ethnic cuisines wouldn’t be there.”

Style and Simplicity are at the cornerstone of Maiya's success.  Photo courtesy of Maiya's

But beginning in the 1970s, the Culinary Institute of America and other leading schools developed visions of becoming less focused on being just a place where chefs would learn their chops and began to evolve into advanced academies of culinary design and sciences.

Many of those chefs, Sharpe says, would find their way to Texas to meet success with a growing population of diners seeking something beyond the ordinary. Because of Texas’ strong economy, it remains a desirable location for some of the nation’s top chefs, such as Dean Fearing of the always-elegant Fearing’s in Dallas, and Maiya Keck of Maiya’s in Marfa. Fusion cuisine, which combines elements from different culinary styles, became the norm rather than the exception in many parts of the state.

“Generally, the best opportunities for upscale restaurateurs are those places with the most disposable income,” Sharpe says. “Texas has three very large cities that help maintain demand, and cultural and tourist centers like Marfa, which has tremendous caché and panache, are helping drive some of those opportunities out into unsuspecting places across the state.”

Creativity Drives Success

Maiya Keck opened Maiya’s seven years ago on not much more than a hunch that Marfa’s resident artists, writers and tourists would provide demand for upscale dining. Many were surprised when she decided to develop an upscale concept so far from the state’s urban centers.

“I did this without investors and not much capital,” she says. “My plan had to work. I kept it on a small scale. What happened was people were delighted and grateful. They saw the work I was putting into this and they were appreciative.”

In recent years, Keck has been recognized as a rising star on the Texas culinary scene. To the surprise of many, her elegant, simple fare became a sensation.

“People in this area are genuinely independent and creative spirits,” says Keck, who studied painting at the Rhode Island School of Design before moving to West Texas in the 1990s. “It’s part of the ranching lifestyle. Every day is a challenge. That’s something many artists identify with. I’m attracted to the feeling you can do whatever you want here.”

Fine Dining in a Downturn

Keck’s creative approach has been helpful, especially during economic downturns. Restaurants continue to be a competitive business in Texas. Many fail within a short time of opening. But such challenges haven’t caught Keck off guard. It was two years before the restaurant achieved true stability, and during that time she worked diligently on a razor-thin budget.

“We’re in a remote area, so we’ve always dealt with limitations,” she says. “We’ve had to be creative. To get goods in a timely fashion is difficult. It requires creative ordering and a lot of preplanning and creativity. As a result, we’re flexible in this economy. The cost of shipping is always a challenge, and for many people, eating out is becoming a luxury, but that’s something we deal with.”

And she’s dealt with it remarkably well. Tradition told Keck that Maiya’s needed aggressive public relations and marketing strategies. Virtually all big city restaurants pour thousands of dollars into perfectly crafting the community’s perception of their concept. Not long after opening, however, Keck called off her traditional means of advertising and routed those funds into the community, supporting several causes and athletic teams.

“In our area, word of mouth is very important,” Keck says. “This type of giving not only goes a long way in supporting causes we believe in, but it’s also a creative way to let people know we support our community and the people in it while still spreading word about what we’re doing.” FN

Pat Sharpe - Photo courtesy of Texas Monthly.

Factors of Success

Longtime Texas Monthly food critic Patricia Sharpe has an idea what it takes to make an upscale restaurant succeed in Texas. She’s traveled the state endlessly in search of the finest of Parmesan polenta, handmade dolmades and pumpkin seed pasta. We asked Sharpe what fuels success for Texas’ top dining spots:

“Location, location, location.”

Practical factors like adequate parking make a huge difference. Also, being close to other restaurants where people are used to dining plays a major role.

Follow the trends…

It’s important for a restaurant to match the concept to its audience. In a way, that’s obvious, but it’s often overlooked. What demographic are you going to draw from? Local dining, which is not necessarily a trend but more of a philosophy, is big now. And with the exception of Mexican, Mediterranean is the dominant cuisine in Texas now.

…but not too closely.

While we generally follow national dining trends, many concepts never take. The raw food movement, for example, has never caught on in Texas.

Consistency

Diners expect their experience to be the same on each visit. If the preparation of a menu item has changed, or there’s some other inconsistency, many people will immediately turn away.


Red Hot & Cool

Chef Maiya Keck is defining a new blend of cool sophistication at Maiya’s in Marfa.

Read our exclusive interview with Maiya Keck, one of Texas’ top chefs, to see how business becomes art.

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