A number of months ago I had the good fortune to have been asked by Heritage Magazine to interview Star-Chef Dean Fearing of Fearing's at the Ritz-Carlton in Dallas.
Chef Fearing, the son of an innkeeper from Kentucky, was raised around grandmothers that knew their way around the kitchen and still keeps true to his Southern roots. Known as the "Father of Southwestern Cuisine," Dean was the driving force that steered The Mansion on Turtle Creek to the top of U.S. culinary hot-spot lists for almost two decades and is resposible for popularizing such Southwestern ingredients as dried chilies, jicama, cilantro, tomatillos, and wild game, bringing the cuisine of the Southwest prominent national attention.
A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, his face has been on the cover of Gourmet Magazine and every national morning television show. The winner of The James Beard Foundation Restaurant Award for "Best Chef in the Southwest", the Mobil "Five-Star Award" from 1995-2001 and the AAA "Five Diamond Award" from 1990-present, Fearing has cooked for presidents, The Queen of England, rock stars and celebrities.
He has also been the host of two television shows, "Dean's Cuisine" and "A Taste of the Southwest", and is a published cookbook author. But when Dean is not in the kitchen (which is rarely), he can be found ripping it up on his vintage Fender Telecasters with his Chef-based band, The Barbwires, which also features Robert Del Grande, celebrity-Chef and owner of the World-renowned Cafe Annie (now closed) and R.D.G.'s in Houston, TX.
The Barbwires have shared the stage with musical superstars such as Wynonna Judd, Holly Williams, Tony Brown and Richie Furay, just to name a few.
Now here's where the interview takes a twists. I was asked to talk to Dean NOT about food, but about his guitar collection! When we contacted Dean, he jumped at the chance to talk with us about music, instruments, and the role that they play in his and his family's lives.
The following interview is reprinted by permission from Heritage Auction's Heritage Magazine For the Intelligent Collector - Spring 2011 Issue no. 13
DEAN FEARING ISN’T ABOUT TO KEEP HIS COLLECTION LOCKED AWAY. FOR THIS CHEF, IT’S ALL ABOUT PLAY TIME...
by Greg Holman and Hector Cantu
Dean Fearing spends most of his days at his restaurant Fearing’s at the Ritz-Carlton in Dallas, where diners make quick work of his legendary tortilla soup, barbecued shrimp tacos and ribeye mopped over live mesquite.
But Fearing’s passions include more than food. The award-winning chef, who’s had his own show on the Food Network, collects vintage Fender, Gibson and Martin guitars, and occasionally takes to the stage with his popular band the Barbwires. His love for guitars dates to high school, when he began purchasing guitars to play music by his favorite bands.
“When Crosby, Stills & Nash came out, we all ran down to the nearest music shop and got some Yamaha FG-70s,” Fearing says. “They were solid mahogany, solid spruce stock and 70 bucks! Unbelievable!”
Today, Fearing says he loves creating food and collecting guitars. “But I also love playing and I love the sound, and creating the music. I go to work every day with a big smile on my face. I go up to my guitar room with a big smile on my face, and life is pretty good.” What would you consider your first collectable guitar? It was a 1949 Epiphone jazz guitar, double “F” hole with one single pickup, which I wish I had that pickup now. It was one of the first ’40s style soap bar pickups. It was a big honker! I was living in Newton, Iowa, at the time and a farmer sold it to me for, I think, like 60 bucks. I probably sold it for something stupid.
How many guitars do you have? I used to have a bunch more than I do now, but after getting to know [vintage guitar experts] Jim Baggett and Dave Hinson really well, I’ve lowered my amount to go into unbelievable collectibles.
Decrease quantity to increase quality? Right! I just picked up a 1937 [Martin] D-18 from Jim that’s unbelievable.
|Elvis' Martin 000-18|
It’s a cannon! And then at [a recent Dallas-area guitar show], Jim brought down for me a 1942 000-18 [Martin] that looks like it was made last week. I mean, a real guitar that was bought, played for a little bit and then put away by the owner, and then his daughter put it away, and then gave it to Jim, and it’s like… unbelievable.
And then through Dave Hinson, a January ‘51 Broadcaster came into my life along with an August ’51 Nocaster, which are both like sticks of dynamite with a cord!
What pleasure do you get out of collecting guitars? What I enjoy most now is the history of these guitars. I’m a big “Custom Shop” fan and love all of their stuff, and have a bunch of those, but there’s something about feeling the history behind these guitars. There’s nothing more exciting than that … to me!
What’s your favorite guitar in your collection? I would have to say it is this ‘55 Strat. The funny thing is I’ve never been a Strat fan. I’ve always been a Tele guy, and when this ’55 came into my life, and Dave said it too … I’ve never played a Strat that’s more comfortable but that sounds as good as that. … It so silky. It’s an old honky-tonk guitar so the neck is broken in.
Is that the guitar you play the most? Yes. I like it because when I play it, I’ve never heard anything like it. Those three pickups on there are so amazing. I would have to say that the Broadcaster has a real growl though. I mean it really does. It amazes me every time I pick it up.
You actually play the Broadcaster? Doesn’t that make you nervous? [Laughing] Well, like Vince Gill said, ”If you’re gonna collect ‘em, you’d better play ‘em.”
Have you ever had any Gibsons? Many years back I had a ’69 Goldtop … and these are all of the horror stories. Now, why I thought that I needed to sell that I don’t know, because right after I sold it, that’s when the ’68 and ’69 Les Pauls all just jumped! I think I got $3,000 for it, which I thought was a hell of a lot of money at the time. But now they’re $18,000 and while mine was banged up and not considered a collectible, it would have been five times as much now.
What’s the longest distance you’ve traveled to look at a guitar? You know ... I’ve never had to make a long haul. All of the guitars have come to me through Jim and Dave. The beauty of knowing Jim and Dave is the fact that we’ve gotten to know each other over the years. They’re big food and wine guys. They love coming here so they kind of take care of me and know my interests, and they’ll call me and say, “Dean, you know this Broadcaster … you really don’t want to pass this one up.”
Heritage Auctions is starting weekly online guitar auctions. Will you be looking at these? You know, Heritage has a ’59 [Fender] Top-Loader that’s supposed to be pretty cool coming up. But I love it because [with online auctions] I can be here at work online on a Saturday and be looking at the guitars and placing bids. So I really haven’t traveled much to look at guitars.
|Top-Load Bridge Stratocaster|
Is there anything in particular that you have learned from working with guitar dealers? The history [of the guitars] has been a real important lesson, but also what makes that guitar “a history lesson” … the “real” parts, the correct guitar, the playability… the sound. You understand why the ’54 and ’55 Strats are sought out. That sound can’t be reproduced. It’s like a Stradivarius. It’s the aging of the wood and the way the instrument is stored… I think that there’s a whole molecular aspect to guitars. It’s how the wood comes together and how the tone works.
I had an unbelievable chance to play three Lowell mandolins at the last Dallas Guitar Show and they all had very different sounds. [Vintage guitar expert] Larry Wexler was there and he asked me, “Have you ever played a Lowell?” and I said “No,” so I played the first one, a 1924, and the second one and then the third one, which was the Holy Grail, a real monster. All of them were made within two years of each other and they all sound distinctly different. So there really is something about the way the wood comes together, how it was aged. Was one in a drier climate? Was one in a more humid climate? And that’s the interesting part I’m learning from these guys. My ’37 [Martin] D-18 at one time in the ‘60s, someone put in a pickup and volume and tone knobs, but it didn’t affect the sound of the guitar. It has a couple of plugs in it now, but the sound is incredible.
Is there any advice you would share with beginning guitar collectors? It’s to play them! The only guitars that I buy to collect … they have to sound good. [I’m not] at the “museum quality” level of collecting, where you just buy them and put them away in a case. I personally want a collectible that sounds unbelievable, and when you play it you say, “Oh my God!”
So you’re collecting more for playability than for investment? Right! I think that’s at the heart of a “real” collector, otherwise you’re just an investor. You’re absolutely right and I know that there are a lot of those people out there, and that’s OK , but I’m sure that some of those mint condition $20,000 Les Pauls aren’t as soulful as an old guitar that’s been played, and a prime example is my old honky-tonk Strat. It has the sound. Its neck and top are all full of black marks just from playing, and the guitar is in fine shape, but it’s certainly not pristine, but I love the fact that since 1955, this guitar has been played and kept in its original case.
Dean Fearing continues to collect guitars and wow patrons of Fearing's with his beautifully presented twists on Southwestern cuisine. He was recently a guest judge on Top Chef Texas and remains a bright and shining culinary (and musical) star. Dean is a wonderfully charming and pleasant person and takes the time to appreciate his patrons and all of the people that have helped to propel him to the chef-star status that he so richly deserves. I truly enjoyed my time with Dean and look forward to more musical and gastronomic adventures with him and you.