Where There's Smoke
Dean Fearing savors the open-fire cookery of Nick Badovinus.
In 1979, just a year out of the Culinary Institute of America in New York, Dean Fearing drove into Dallas with everything he owned loaded into a Toyota Celica fastback. He immediately felt at home. “It was a brand-new city then,” he recalls. “It didn’t make any difference if you were blue collar or a millionaire—people would talk with you. You could have a conversation.” The dialogue between the chef and Dallas diners has not stopped since.
Fearing pioneered Southwestern cuisine at Agnew’s before moving to the more formal Mansion on Turtle Creek in 1985. Over the next two decades, he developed an elegant, idiosyncratic cuisine—a pot-au-feu of cowboy cookery, barbecue, Gulf Coast seafood, Hill Country German dishes, and even a few Asian accents. Determined to treat his diners to a breezier atmosphere, he opened Fearing’s Restaurant at the Ritz-Carlton, Dallas, in 2007. At Fearing’s, the classic rock playing in the background sometimes segues into the kind of alt-country that Fearing himself plays with his all-chef band, the Barbwires. Prices signal that this is still the Ritz, and the maple-and-black-pepper buffalo tenderloin stands firmly in the big-night-out tradition. But Fearing characteristically dresses down this main course with jalapeño grits, a butternut-squash taquito, and chili aioli.
Fearing hired Nick Badovinus in 1996, straight out of what was then Oregon’s Western Culinary Institute, to work at the Mansion. The two clicked immediately. They share the same swagger, the same offbeat sense of humor, and the same spirit of adventure that induced them both to show up in Dallas with all their earthly belongings in the back of a vehicle—a pickup truck in Badovinus’s case. Fearing, who groomed Badovinus as his protégé, selected his former kitchen hand as his nominee for this year’s Culinary Masters Competition.
After training under Fearing, Badovinus teamed up with the restaurateur Phil Romano to open Nick and Sam’s, and then with Consilient Restaurants to open Hibiscus, Dallas’s premier steak house, and the Porch, a gastropub where down-home cuisine is paired with uptown cocktails. In 2008, Badovinus ventured out on his own to open the first Neighborhood Services restaurant, which remains a casual spot where neighbors—Fearing included—stop in for bold, straightforward dishes with a Texas twang. He now runs three branches of this community favorite, along with the burger joint Off-Site Kitchen.
Fearing and Badovinus recently sat down in their chef’s whites to talk about their overlapping pasts and plans for the future. Fueled by double espressos, they were a boisterous pair of cowboys singing the praises of simple meat cookery and the sophistication of Dallas diners. Both professed their love of the reinvented neighborhood joint, and Badovinus acknowledged Fearing as an inspiration for his next project: an upscale restaurant called Town Hearth, due to open in 2015. This milestone, Fearing hinted, will represent the culmination of a journey the chefs have made together.
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