Spago Chef Wolfgang Puck has always been gracious toward fellow chefs who wrote an outstanding cookbook. Some months ago he held a book-signing dinner party for French Chef Daniel Boulud at the restaurant, Wolfgang Puck at the Hotel Bel-Air, where guests got to dine on some dishes from the new cookbook, DANIEL: My French Cuisine, and received signed copies of the cookbook from the chef himself. So when Wolf invited me to a dinner this week at the Bel-Air to meet Chef Dean Faring and enjoy a meal from his new cookbook, THE TEXAS FOOD BIBLE: From Legendary Dishes to New Classics (Grand Central Life&Style Publishing), I immediately accepted. Actually, I had eaten several times at The Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas during the 20 years when Dean cooked there, although I have yet to enjoy a meal at Dean's new restaurant, FEARING'S, at the Ritz-Carlton, Dallas. Dean Faring is the father of Southwest cuisine. He won the James Beard Award as Best Chef in the Southwest in 2007. He pioneered the use of Texas spices and flavors in fine dining, and along with other chefs such as Robert Del Grande and Stephan Pyles, made Tex-Mex/Southwest cooking popular throughout the world. Ever since I was stationed in New Mexico as a young soldier during the Korean War, I have been passionate about Tex-Mex food, and found the book to be a fascinating compilation of history and anecdotes about its development. He brought back many memories as he writes about Navajo Fried Bread and Sweet Potato Spoonbread, from Truck Stop Enchiladas to Barbeque Shrimp Tacos. I was fascinated by his step-by-step instructions for grilling, smoking and and braising in the Southwest manner. Of particular interest was a section called "Fearing's Texas Pantry," which demystifies Southwest ingredients, and is a source section on where to find them. My Huffington readers well know of my passion for the original Wolf's Texas Chili from Terlingua, Texas...of course, with NO beans or tomatoes. (On page 256 of Dean's book are the lyrics for a song, "If You Know Beans About Chili, You Know Chili Has No Beans," by Kent Finlay., which says it all.)
I had a chance to sit with Dean and he told me that his mother had been an Eastern Kentucky country cook. He trained in classical French techniques, but when he got to Dallas as young poissonnier (fish) chef 35 years ago, he quickly learned new things from the Mexican cooks in the hotel kitchen where he worked. "I bet you didn't know that the word 'Texas' come from the native American word 'tejas' which means 'those who are friends.'?" He learned to cook enchiladas salsas, tamales, moles and tacos. It was a stepping stone to the evolution of modern Texas cooking. He told me, "Did you know that salsas now outsell ketchup in this country?" He said that early on he had begun to keep a diary of the recipes and ingredients he was learning, which proved to be the basis for the new book.
I then asked Wolf about his relationship with Dean and he responded: "I experienced Dean Faring's modern Texas-inspired cuisine for the first time about 25 years ago. Just the thought of it still makes me want to put on a pair of cowboy boots and kick up my heels at the astonishing flavors and beautiful presentations Dean creates by combining his classically-trained techniques with local ingredients and ethnic traditions. I can't wait to try some of the recipes from The Texas Food Bible., including Gulf Coast Crab Benedict with cilantro hollandaise, Pork Tenderloin with watermelon japapeno glaze, East Texas Seafood Jambalaya, Mexican Rice Pudding, and Parker County Fried Peach Pies. Dean is not only an excellent chef but he is also a kind person who is full of contagious enthusiasm. His big-as-Texas talent and hospitality shines from every page."
At which point we all sat down for a Texas dinner. (My lovely companion, who has been on a gluten-free diet for several years, was graciously accommodated by the kitchen.) We started with an Oyster with heirloom tomato gelee and pearls, along with a bacon-wrapped jalapeno Quail. Albacore Crudo with Santa Barbara Uni was followed by a Barbeque Shrimp Taco (utterly delicious) with pickled red onion and mango salad. The Columbia River King Salmon which followed was dressed with chanterelle mushrooms, fennel puree, black garlic and red pepper emulsion, somewhat salty for me. For all of us, the highlight of the meal was the Maple-Black Peppercorn Buffalo Tenderloin, with jalapeno grits and tangled greens. If you have never had buffalo/bison, you must try it....it is leaner than beef, with a slightly livery flavor, totally different and interesting. (My companion Sonata told me that she actually likes liver, which stunned me...the first womanI have ever met who liked liver.) We all scarfed down the Butternut Squash Taquita with it, a crispy succulent wonder. It ended with Parker County Peach Buckle, with blackberry sauce and brown sugar creme fraiche. Wolfgang Puck wines accompanied the dishes....smooth and mellow vintages.
We've written several times here on Huffington about how Chef Puck has somehow changed his appearance for the better.....he looks so much more 'fit' and healthy. Whenever I questioned him about this, he laughed and said he was watching his diet and exercising more. But as we left, Wolf handed me a copy of his new book, WOLFGANG PUCK MAKES IT HEALTHY: Light, Delicious Recipes and Easy Exercises for a Better Life (Grand Central Life&Style Publishing) and then I understood. Later that night on he phone, he modestly told me: "I never ever expected to write this book. If you had suggested to me ten years ago, or even five, that my next book would focus on healthy recipes and fitness, I would've said you didn't know me very well. I'm a chef, not a doctor or research scientist or a registered dietician. Of course I read a lot about food and cooking and eating, and i combine that with a lifetime of experience which comes from working in the kitchen, running restaurants, and seeing what people want and how they like to eat. But in recent years I've become more and more concerned with ways to eat that will improve my own health and energy, as well as that of my family, my friends, and the many guests in my restaurants. I have figured out where I can modify ingredients to make a healthier dish. And today I can eat all of my faviorite foods without overeating anything. I feel good because of the combination of eating well and exercising I've developed. So I wrote this book to help you all achieve the same goal, to feel healthy and happy, with plenty of energy to do the things you love to do." Okay, friend Wolf, I'll buy that. Now I have to read your book.
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