Our appointment with Dean Fearing to watch him prepare a catfish recipe at his Dallas restaurant came at a fortuitous time. The very next evening, the charismatic celebrity chef was scheduled to include catfish on the menu at a dinner he’d prepare for 250 partygoers at a big ranch in nearby Kaufman, Texas.
It was all in a couple of days’ work for Fearing, chef/partner at his award-winning Fearing’s Restaurant at the Ritz-Carlton, Dallas, and a leading pioneer of Southwestern cooking. Along with fellow chefs Stephan Pyles and Robert Del Grande, in fact, Fearing has been called “The Father of Southwestern Cuisine.”
The moniker is somewhat ironic, since he was actually born in eastern Kentucky. He grew up with grandmothers who knew how to prepare all manner of Southern food, Fearing says during an interview before fixing the catfish, and his grandmothers remain a chief culinary inspiration.
After earning an associate degree at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., Fearing found his way to Dallas in the late 1970s. He worked first there at the Fairmont Hotel’s Pyramid Room, then later in the restaurant at the iconic Mansion on Turtle Creek luxury hotel.
It was at The Mansion, where he served as executive chef from 1985 until about 2006, that Fearing made his bones developing distinctive cuisine with the likes of Texas-grown cilantro, chili peppers, wild game, fish and venison. Among his signature Mansion dishes, which ranged from lobster tacos to raspberry crème brulee, he may have been best known for his tortilla soup—a spicy blend of tortilla strips, avocado, cheese and chicken.
He brought the famed soup with him to Fearing’s Restaurant, which he opened in Uptown Dallas in 2007. But the soup’s iteration there, he says, is “more Mexicano, like a back-of-the-kitchen” version of the original. Fearing’s, which offers dishes including Barbecued Shrimp Tacos and Maple-Black Peppercorn-Soaked Buffalo Tenderloin, is a lively spot offering seven different dining areas, including an interactive display kitchen with ringside seating. Esquire magazine named it Restaurant of the Year only about a month after it opened.
Famed for his mile-wide smile, 48 pairs of Lucchese boots, and crisp white chef’s coat with its red, yellow and blue cowboy-boot insignia, Fearing also is an accomplished musician. He has about 20 Telecaster guitars in a 1,000-square-foot “band room” at home, and sings and plays rhythm guitar with his Dean Fearing & The Red Souls group, which specializes in alternative country and rock ‘n’ roll.
“It’s just another talent,” he says, explaining the connection between music and cooking. “I’ve always had a little creative spark in me.”
At age 64, the author of 2014’s The Texas Food Bible, which Amazon called “the ultimate cookbook for foodies and simple home cooks alike,” seems to have as much energy as ever. Fearing says 2018 was a record-breaking year for the restaurant in terms of gross sales, and he has a new producer and distributor—Frankie V’s Kitchen—for his line of sauces, soups, and dressings. Dean’s Tortilla Soup and Texas Mop Sauce, among others in the line, are available at Central Market, Neiman Marcus, and fearingsrestaurant.com.
The interview completed, Fearing jumps to his feet and makes for the display kitchen. He’s promised to prepare the catfish recipe for Hook & Barrel, and the Father of Southwestern Cuisine is eager to get to it.
Smoked Pecan Crusted Catfish on Lobster/Sweet Corn Gravy
4 6-ounce catfish fillets, trimmed of skin and bones
Salt to taste
4 tablespoons olive oil
1⁄2 cup Roasted Garlic Mayonnaise (recipe to follow)
3/4 cup cold smoked pecan pieces (method to follow)
2 cups Lobster/Sweet Corn Gravy (recipe to follow)
Preheat oven to 350.
Season catfish to taste with salt. Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a large skillet or sauté pan over medium heat. Carefully place fillet in pan, presentation side down. Brown for 1 minute and turn each fillet and sear in pan for 1 additional minute. With a brush, generously cover the top of each fillet with the Garlic Mayonnaise. Sprinkle the pecan pieces in a thick layer on top of the mayonnaise.
Place pan in oven. Depending on the thickness of each fillet, allow no more than 4 minutes in the oven for each 1⁄2 inch of thickness at the thickest part. Do not overcook. The fish should be very moist. Remove pan from oven and keep warm.
Spoon a portion of the lobster/sweet corn gravy into the middle of each warm plate and place a fillet on top.
Roasted Garlic Mayonnaise
8 large cloves garlic, peeled, roasted
1⁄2 cup mayonnaise
In a food processor add both ingredients. Blend until smooth and place in a small bowl. Refrigerate until ready to use.
Lobster/Sweet Corn Gravy
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup small diced onion
2 1⁄2 cups corn kernels
2 cups chicken stock
1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme
1/4 cup heavy cream
Salt to taste
Lemon juice to taste
1⁄2 cup diced cooked smoked bacon
1⁄4 cup diced cooked breakfast sausage
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1 tablespoon minced jalapeno
1⁄4 cup diced roasted poblano pepper
1 cup large diced cooked lobster meat
In a large sauce pot over medium-high heat, add the 1 tablespoon of oil and the onions, sauté for 1 minute. Add 2 cups of corn kernels and thyme, sauté for 2 minutes then add chicken stock. Bring to boil, add cream. Reduce to simmer and cook approximately 20-30 minutes. Transfer corn mixture to blender and puree until smooth, season with salt and lemon. Keep warm until ready to use.
In a large sauté pan over medium high heat, add the remaining 1 tablespoon oil with the bacon sausage, garlic, jalapeno, and poblano. Cook for 2 minutes, while stirring occasionally. Add the remaining corn kernels and cook for 3 minutes. Add the corn sauce, bring to a boil and adjust seasoning as needed. Just before serving, fold in lobster meat. Serve hot.