Richard Connor: Grady Spears is an original – and still originating

Grady Spears is the original cowboy chef.

I stole that line from Courtney Dabney, food writer for Fort Worth Business. Sorry, Courtney but it was too good to resist. Thanks for sharing.

Spears is an “original” in many other ways as well. Affable, fun loving, creative, and adventuresome, he’s never taken himself too seriously despite national and worldwide fame.

His new restaurant, the Horseshoe Hill Cafe, just opened in the Stockyards at 204 W. Exchange Ave. Dabney writes about the new restaurant in the July 27-Aug. 9 issue of Fort Worth Business.

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When Grady cooks one of his famous cowboy steaks it’s not so much a function of his renowned culinary mastery as it is a simple twist of fate. His real goal in life was to be on the other side of the beef supply chain. He dreamed of one day being a cattle buyer, even though he was a city boy who went to school at Arlington Heights.

His journey to becoming a cook and then a chef is an almost mythical story. He was working as manager of the restaurant at the Gage Hotel in Marathon one night when, in the middle of the dinner rush, the chef quit. Just walked out.

Grady quickly assembled the kitchen staff and said he’d take over. He then walked into the dining room and told the guests the chef just quit.

Most of them laughed at what they thought was a hilarious joke. When they realized that Spears wasn’t kidding, the customers grew gloomy, figuring they’d have to go home hungry.

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“Don’t worry,” said Spears, “we will cook everything just the way you want it. If it’s not prepared correctly just keep sending it back.”

Before he knew it, his emergency stint in the kitchen turned into a full-time, burgeoning career. He was now a cattle buyer of sorts, but the cows he was buying were coming to him ready for the grill rather than on the hoof.

When Al Micallef opened Reata in downtown Fort Worth, he brought Grady with him from Alpine to run the kitchen. At a soft opening at lunchtime, some of Fort Worth’s top businessmen and women sampled the fare.

One diner had known Spears for many years, so he didn’t hold back his assessment of the menu – or his prediction for the future of the restaurant, which was on the 35th floor of what was then the Bank One tower.

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“Food’s good,” he told Grady, “but the restaurant won’t work. Hard to get to way up here – and people won’t go for this cowboy food.”

How wrong he was.

Reata took off and blazed a trail for new restaurants to try the Fort Worth market. Take a look around today, starting with Del Frisco’s. None of these thriving businesses were here when Grady started.

His kitchen produced any number of today’s well-known chefs and his recipes for food from the range became legendary. Books were written about him and his food.

Grady, though, remained the good-natured, laughing, self-effacing guy he always had been. He has never wavered from being the same guy he was as a waiter in the mid-1980s at Fort Worth’s Epicure on the Park, where Michael Thompson was the high-energy and talented chef that he remains today.

Spears’ attention span has always been, well, “short,” which made Grady a hoot as a waiter. His mind jumps around faster than a frog in a frying pan. As a waiter in those days, he might get the order wrong or even take it to the wrong table. Didn’t matter. He could charm the clients, make them laugh, and send them home happy.

Occasionally, when he’d meet someone who was a rancher, or maybe just in the horse business, he’d ask if they would like to partner with him as a cattle buyer. He’d then talk about that onetime dream of being in the cattle business. Those who love food (and who doesn’t?) should thank their lucky West Texas stars that Grady found both a home and a career on the range.

One dream gave way to another and Grady has ridden the bronc that is the restaurant industry. Sometimes you make the 8-second ride. Sometimes you get bucked off. Always, you get back on.

Life is funny like that.

Richard Connor is chairman of the parent company of Fort Worth Business, DRC Media. Contact him at