TexChefs1: Molecular Cowboys: Stephan Pyles and David Gilbert

It’s hard to figure out where Texas cooking is headed right now. There are a lot of different trends going on and they have little to do with each other. In fact, sometimes it seems like the chefs in Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and Austin arrived here from different planets. In this series, I’ll check out food from some hot Texas chefs and look for clues about the big picture.

Arctic Char with Bananas and Apple Slice

The title on the menu at the new restaurant in the Elian Hotel in the Hill Country outside of San Antonio reads: “Sustenio, Modern Southwestern Cuisine by Stephan Pyles.” The test tube full of melon puree had a capsule inside that exploded in my mouth as I drank it–it was melon juice. The flavor reminded me it would soon be time for Pecos cantaloupes. The crispy-skinned arctic char with creamy rutabaga puree, freeze-dried banana chunks and a glazed apple slice with a perfect star in the middle was wonderful. Though it brought to mind the question that restaurant critics and chefs in Texas used to grapple with: “What makes this dish ‘Southwestern?'”

Stephan Pyles was one of the founding fathers of the Southwestern cuisine movement. Traditionalists can still order such Stephan Pyles trademarks as tamale tart custard and cowboy ribeye at Sustenio. The surprise is that the kitchen serves ten kinds of Peruvian-style ceviche, imports oysters and fish from Canada, and dabbles in molecular gastronomy.

Gilbert & Pyles

Of course, Stephan Pyles is busy building a new restaurant in Dallas, so he’s not working at Sustenio full time. Sustenio’s Executive Chef David Gilbert is the mad scientist in the kitchen here. Raised in Dallas, the 34 year-old Gilbert graduated from the culinary arts program at Johnson and Wales University and externed at Michelin-starred Restaurant Vermeer in Amsterdam with Edwin Katz.

After working at some top restaurants across the U.S., Gilbert came home to Dallas to work at Luqa, where he became known for molecular effects like table side activation of rosemary aromas, having patrons suck mousses out of tubes, and encapsulating crème brulée caramel over the custard. In recognition of his cutting edge culinary techniques, Gilbert was the proud recipient of the 2007 Rising Star Chef award from Starchefs.com.

It’s worth visiting Sustenio just to get a tour of the new technology employed in the modernistic kitchen. You can follow Stephan @ChefPyles and Gilbert @beyondthekit on twitter.

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