The Epitome of Excellence
● By Emma Comery
I'll be honest: When I walked in for our meeting, I was expecting Omni Executive Chef Dean Sprague to be wearing a full white coat, tall hat, and maybe even a stylish French mustache. But I clearly have an overactive imagination, because when I finally spotted Sprague at a picnic table, he was rocking a simple white tee and Ray-Bans. The coat and the hat (it’s called a toque, I learned) is his daytime look, he tells me. After hours, he’s one rolled-up sleeve away from a James Dean throwback.
We’re at the Executive Surf Club, one of his favorite hangout spots, and he blends right in. He may be a certified chef trained in classic French cooking, but give him some nachos and a beer and he’s happy. “I’m a cheap date,” he jokes. “And I get chatty when I drink.” Every writer’s dream, I tell him.
Since 2009, Dean Sprague has been serving up modern French-inspired eats at the Omni for locals and visitors alike. And now, he’s the 2019 ACF Texas Chef of the Year – the first ever to come out of South Texas. But he wasn’t always running the kitchen and winning trophies. Sprague started at the bottom, washing dishes as a high school kid in Aledo, Texas. “I just wanted to put gas in my Camaro,” he remembers.
So, what inspired him to work his butt off and make the shift from the sink to the grill? “The waitresses weren’t dating the dishwashers,” says Sprague. “They were dating the cooks.”
Oh, you can bet Sprague worked his way up to the grill. And when he got there, he fell in love. Not with a waitress, but with the kitchen … with the smells, the chaos, the shenanigans, the camaraderie.
It’s a love that has lasted a lifetime. From an apprenticeship under Chef Patrick Mitchell at the Southlake Marriott to Executive Chef and Texas Chef of the Year, Sprague has earned a name for himself over 20 years. In the early years, his career took him out to Colorado, where he quickly rose to Executive Chef and worked at some of the state’s biggest resorts in Crested Butte, Vail, and Telluride. Plate by plate, Sprague developed an exemplary culinary reputation that led him to cook for folks like George H. W. Bush, Tony Blair, and Condoleezza Rice. Don’t let the big names fool you – Sprague said there’s little romance in cooking while Secret Service and bomb dogs watch your every move.
In 2009, he moved back to Texas to take on the Executive Sous Chef position at the Omni in Houston. Within three months, Omni offered him the Executive Chef position here at the Omni in Corpus. “Omni is probably one of the last [hotels] that allows the chef in the individual property to write all the menus and develop the concept,” Sprague explains. “All that is very cool for me, because I get to look at, ‘Where are we, what do we have around us, what’s local, what’s available, what do our local clientele want?’ So I can be bold.”
Moving to Corpus was a change of pace, to say the least. “I had to learn island time,” he says, matter-of-factly. “I came from a very intense culture of five-star dining, and I was not a very patient person.” He was also used to being heavily involved with the American Culinary Federation chapters in Colorado and Houston. The ACF is a professional organization that works to promote the image of American chefs at a global level through education for culinarians.Sprague gained training and became a certified chef. But when he moved to Corpus, there was no ACF chapter. It was only by chance that he met Chef Mike Stephens, who was working at the American Bank Center, and discovered he was working to revitalize the South Texas ACF chapter. Sprague jumped on board immediately.
For months, the South Texas ACF was a tiny four-chef chapter. But in the past five years, Sprague and Stephens, along with Corpus Christi Yacht Club Executive Chef Mike Smith, have made it grow. Today, they boast 45 chefs from Southside to Port A, and together they’ve been recognized as the most active chapter in the state for their community involvement.
The chapter works to support local chefs and help younger chefs get access to education and certification in an effort to support continued cultivation and development of a diverse, accomplished community of chefs. “We’ve kind of eased up a little bit on the hardcore French system. We’re still very serious about the path we do, but we’re not exclusive of other cooks who may not be classically trained. We get them involved.” It was Sprague’s own chapter colleagues who nominated him for the ACF award.
In November, the chapter teamed up with Del Mar culinary students for Chef Fest, a nine-course seafood extravaganza, and then again with Nueces Brewery to host a six-course beer pairing dinner.
Any money the chapter brings in from these events goes towards funding their programs and scholarships for young local chefs.
Getting out in the community and cooking for everyone and anyone is deeply important to Sprague. “You feed the world,” he says. “You feed whoever comes in the door and you take care of them, nourish them, and hope you give them something wholesome, nutritious, healthy, and beautiful.”
As he speaks, it becomes clear that Sprague is a born caretaker. For some, professional cooking is about the art, science, or money. For Sprague, cooking is simultaneously a privilege and a responsibility. It all comes down to one thing: hospitality. “Think about where hospitality comes from. Hospice. It means to take care of, nurture, revive,” explains Sprague. “So if you don’t have a serious care and affinity for people, there’s no reason to do this.”
Sprague is all about food as a vehicle for empathy, for connection. “It’s a huge leap of faith when you go out to eat. Eating someone’s food … feeding someone … it’s one of the most intimate things you can do with another human being.” Listening to him makes you rethink all the times your parent or partner ever cooked a meal for you. It makes you grateful.
Sprague came face-to-face with that intimacy, that trusting vulnerability, when Harvey crashed into the Coastal Bend in 2017. After the winds died down, he took a week off from work to go feed Rockport residents who had lost everything to the storm. He teamed up with Mercy Chefs (a nonprofit disaster-relief organization) and they set up mobile kitchens, unloaded semi trucks of food donated by H-E-B, and cooked day in and day out, three meals a day, for up to 8,000 people a day. “You’d see people who had lost everything,” he recalls, “and they would bring their families up and be in tears because they’d have nothing, absolutely nothing. They were just thankful to get a meal. It really puts you in your place.”
In a way, receiving the Texas Chef of the Year award has also put him in his place. “Because of this award,” he says, “I’ve got to work harder; I need to prove I deserve it.” Sprague is already looking to the next step: a live-fire competition for the United States Chef of the Year at the 2020 ACF Convention. For him, it’s an opportunity to show what South Texas can do in the kitchen. “I’m here to represent this chapter, this group of culinarians, this group of great chefs. We have something to offer the state and the country that no one seems to talk about. And I really want to see that change. I want to see the Corpus food scene become the topic of conversation.”