The Cool Cook
By June Naylor
Photos by Nancy Farrar
Sean Hill looks to his family roots to bring a down-home flavor to Colleyville’s Stone House Restaurant
Inside the restored rock cottage off a busy thoroughfare in Colleyville, perfectly chilled martinis flow and expertly seared prime steaks stream from the kitchen to tables covered with starched linens. The service at Stone House Restaurant, opened last fall, matches that of fine-dining restaurants anywhere.
But beneath the crisp facade, we detect down-home warmth and soul thanks to menu items that include fried chicken and crawfish hushpuppies just as Instagram worthy as the hand-cut beef.
A sit-down with chef Sean Hill provides answers — sort of a culinary ancestry.com profile reveal. Raised on a farm in McGehee, a small town in southeast Arkansas, Hill grew up living off the land and eating food imbued with generations of tradition.
“We raised chickens, pigs and cattle; we hunted and fished,” says Hill, his broad, bearded face easing into a wide smile at warm memories. “I watched my grandmothers and aunts cooking, feeding everyone. We’d pick sassafras for tea and dewberries for jam that they’d make. We lived on greens we picked and our persimmon and pear trees. We caught crawfish in ditches to use to catch catfish. I think I took all that for granted before I moved away.”
A great-great grandmother named Midora bought the farm, which remains in Hill’s family, in 1864 when the family moved to Arkansas from Kentucky. Tracing his family tree to Florida and Africa before that, Hill became aware of the slaves — from whom he descended — who made their way through the South. Such exploration informs the cookbook he’s writing, Dinner With My Ancestors.
Just as his roots inspire him, he’s urging his own children — he and wife Jamie live with their two girls in Arlington — to find that bond, too: “I’ve sent my daughters to Arkansas to work on the farm so they can appreciate where our family is from.”
Helping in the kitchen as a kid gave him the chance to taste everything before it hit the table and the knowledge that preparing food can be therapeutic.
“Cooking is a peaceful thing for me,” Hill says. “Living farm-to-table was a necessity, and that’s why I like having our raised garden beds here, right outside the [restaurant] kitchen. We can just go out to pick our basil and jalapenos and cucumbers.”
Today’s Stone House menu reflects his passion and upbringing: He points to the crabcakes, which along with the hushpuppies and fried chicken are big hits on the menu. Granted, the version served here might be a little fancier than those back on the farm, what with microgreen garnishes and elevated accompaniments such as roasted lemon remoulade.
“We’re known for great steaks, but we’re really a neighborhood restaurant serving approachable food,” he says. “That’s why a lot of our dishes are a play on things I grew up eating. That fried chicken is my grandmother’s recipe, with a twist.”
Served on a stoneware platter, the chicken pieces are coated with a rust-colored crust that crumbles at the touch. Hill uses a rice flour breading to keep the seasoned coating extra-thin but flavorful. Inside, the juicy meat is the result of weeklong brining in buttermilk laced with Tabasco. The chicken is served with spiced honey, which provides a sweet-heat element, and finely chopped, firm collard greens zinged with sugar-kissed vinegar. The balance of comforting dishes, including the newly added Texas redfish topped with crawfish gumbo, and steakhouse gems such as chile-rubbed Akaushi flat iron steak with charred shishito peppers, keep a burgeoning audience well-fed. Even on a steamy Tuesday evening, a full house proves the diverse menu is a winner.
Hill didn’t join Stone House until about three months after opening, though. Owners Paul and Lisa Pardo, who renovated the 1945 landmark to create the restaurant, sought him out a couple of years ago when first hatching their plans. (Hill’s resume includes stints in Las Vegas, Minneapolis, Kansas City and Dallas.) The timing was off, however.
“I met with Paul and really liked him — he’s such a genuine person — but I needed to take care of a family health problem,” says Hill, referring to time he took to be at Jamie’s side during cancer treatment. He worked for himself as a caterer and then cooked take-home meals for families during the pandemic.
The Pardos started up with another chef, who — soon after opening — found a different opportunity that he wanted to pursue. So Paul circled back to Hill, and the timing was right this time. “It’s been a really good situation. We talk about everything on a regular basis. Sean says he’s happy to come to work every single day; he’s working for his future and his family’s future. He expects a lot and gives a lot to his staff. Sean’s been everything we had hoped for and more.”
“I was surprised to hear from Paul late last fall, but I talked to my wife and decided to go for it. I smoked 72 turkeys for Thanksgiving orders and then came to work here,” Hill says.
When time allows, Hill loves breaking out his smoker at home, using pecan wood to make everything from ribs and brisket to a recent summer corn salad topped with smoked shrimp in a basil vinaigrette. He dives into his stash of more than 1,200 cookbooks for ideas, often returning to his first love, a classic from Napa.
“French Laundry was the first cookbook I ever bought; it’s where I got my basics, and it’s dog-eared now,” Hill says with a laugh, adding that he enjoys dining around the area to find ideas to play with in his own kitchen. He encourages his staff to do the same. “I tell our cooks, ‘If you’re not teaching yourself something every day, you’ll get left behind. I want you to always be learning.’ ”
In fact, Hill’s mantra, at work and at home, is to look around and pay attention, whether to food or life. Taking those months off to spend with family clearly made an already sensitive guy more mindful.
“Sometimes you get so busy you miss the little things. You have to take time to step back, so you can take in more,” he says. “It’s like I tell my daughters — slow down and savor everything.”
Sean Hill Fun Facts
College Arkansas Tech and University of Arkansas; “I transferred to chase my wife.”
Perfect meal His grandmother’s meatloaf, mashed potatoes and green beans with his aunt’s sun tea and her lemon coconut cake. “I had her ship the cake to me at college.”
Favorite ingredients Fresh vegetables and wild game. “We’ll bring antelope, venison and wild boar on the menu this fall.”
Why cooking in Texas is best “We have so many influences here. We can do whatever we want, because we’re not limited to one style. We can wander into different cultures.”