John Tesar: From Self-Destructive
To Brilliantly Creative
With the crush of talented wizards working magic in Dallas kitchens, it pays to know just who is behind the saute pan at your favorite eatery. To help you keep track, City of Ate brings you Three-Course Meal, a three-part chat with some of the best, most inventive chefs in town. This week we begin with a profile of John Tesar, culinary director for Dallas Restaurant Group. Read part two for our Q&A with Tesar and part three for a how-to from one of his recipes.
Photo by Robert Bostick
"Jimmy was a brilliant cook. He'd come up with Brendan Walsh at Arizona 206, and the food he turned out in his brief time working there was so good. I'd stay after my shift was over, sit at the bar and order dinner and pay for it. Seeing what Jimmy could do in the kitchen really inspired me; I'd been slinging hash for way too long, and tasting a real demi-glace again, eating new, exciting food, seeing new presentations, made me remember what I'd enjoyed about food in the firs place."
--Anthony Bourdain, in his expose on his cheffy exploits, Kitchen Confidential.
In Bourdain's more recent book, Medium Raw, we learned that this "Jimmy" he refers to in his first novel is Dallas' very own chef John Tesar, who Bourdain claims is the "best chef but with a self-destructive streak".
To understand some of this highly creative nature we took a peek at who Tesar really is and where he has been.
Born in New York and raised in the Hamptons, Tesar was destined to cook. His father, although a banker, was a fisherman at heart and took the young Tesar fishing along the coastal waters where the boy would learn his first passion--surfing.
He would later start his cooking career plating lettuce and tomato on burgers at Magic's Pub in Southampton Beach, New York. It was a great time. "We had it all. There was rock and roll, beer and pretty girls. And we would work at night and surf all day," reminisced Tesar about his first cooking position.
"I was so inspired at that time. The early '70s Hamptons was more like an artist colony. I grew up eating fresh seafood and vegetables. I never ate a bad tomato because we simply didn't have them. That is where my cooking style comes from. Everything then had to be fresh and bright," Tesar says.
At 18, Tesar moved on to Pierre's in the Hamptons where he discovered French cuisine as prepared by the chef-owner, who took Tesar under his wing. After working his way through the line at Pierre's, Tesar left the States for Paris to study cuisine and embarked on a journey that would eventually lead him back home to Pierre's once again. Using a portion he had saved from his tuition he purchased Pierre's from the owners and worked the popular restaurant for another six years..
"After running the restaurant in the Hamptons...I sold it and moved to New York City, then ran some of the city's trendiest restaurants, among them 44 & X Hell's Kitchen, Vine and the Supper Club," Tesar recalls.
What happened next was the hard-partying rock 'n' roll insanity that Bourdain recounted in Kitchen Confidential. Teser and other soon-to-be famous chefs spent their time honing their skills and enjoying life perhaps a bit too much. Tesar was reluctant to discuss those self-destructive days, though they seemed to be bright inspirations in his career. Still, it's tough to be a great chef, or a great anything, and party the way many did then.
For seemingly nothing more than self-preservation, Tesar migrated to Las Vegas to work for celebrity chef Rick Moonen, owner of RM Seafood.
Photo by Robert Bostick
"Rick taught me about the 'agre dolce' approach to cooking -- looking at each dish from a sweet and sour perspective. These are the elements that make your mouth water," Tesar says.
Tesar would infuse these elements into his menu at the Rosewood Mansion at Turtle Creek. In 2007, he was chosen from among 500 applicants to renovate restaurant's kitchen and reputation as part of a $20 million redo that restored the five-star status The Mansion had earned under previous chef Dean Fearing.
"It was no doubt the pinnacle of my career, and I had the best of everything. This was just before the recession hit, and I enjoyed the perks of being a five-star chef. But it was also a bit restrictive. I was sequestered in this kitchen and felt a bit caged. I was able to travel a bit, but there are certain expectations that are associated with being the chef at the Mansion," lamented Tesar on his Mansion tenure, which ended in 2009.
He was, however, afforded the freedom to travel and represent the Mansion and create the 30-seat Chef's Room and Chef's Table where Tesar could cut loose with his creativity, allowing Dallas and the world to understand the scope of his talents in the kitchen. The time Tesar spends with his notepads and freshly procured ingredients is what makes this chef's heart ring with joy, and that's evident by his dishes.
After leaving The Mansion, Tesar opened Tesar's Modern Steak and Seafood Restaurant in The Woodlands in August 2009. The restaurant opened with a splash with the help of investors, but that quickly faded.
"I backed away to free the investors the burden of my salary, hoping it would flourish," the chef said. The restaurant closed in June 2010.
Tesar once again found himself in Dallas, this time working with Dallas Restaurant Group, owners of Dallas Chop House, Dallas Fish Market, and Top Chef Tiffany Derry's Go Fish Ocean Club.
Tesar was first brought in to consult with the group and work with the menus, but now finds himself employed full-time as culinary director. Currently, Tesar is retooling the Dallas Fish Market menu along side of DRG corporate chef Anupam "AJ" Joglekar, the former chef at Bengal Coast.
"Together [with chef Joglekar] we are tweaking the menu and making some cosmetic changes to the building. We want to make the dishes lighter and more creative," said Tesar on our most recent visit to Dallas Fish Market.
The plan is to unveil the newest incarnation of Dallas Fish Market by September 1, just after Restaurant Week. Until then, the restaurant is open, and it's business as usual.
Tesar prepared a few of the new dishes for us to preview and sample the fresh, simple style he is looking for in the new menu (fresh and simple for a chef who has twice been invited to cook for the James Beard Foundation).
Of the three dishes, we were most impressed with his tender charred octopus laden with fresh greens from Tom Spicer and gently sprinkled with flavor-packed droplets of oil.
He also prepared a beautiful grilled squid dish set on pickled watermelon rounds and decorated with tiny balls of heirloom tomatoes and fresh watermelon for contrast, then drizzled with a rice wine vinegar dressing and a homespun mint oil. Tesar shared the recipe for the grilled squid and we will share with the readers of City of Ate on Friday for the final installment of the Tesar interview.
Besides retooling menus for DRG, Tesar is planning a series of new concepts for the group starting with a grass-fed burger entry downtown next to the Fish Market. That concept will feature a handful of burgers, handmade onion rings and skinny fries, and will be unveiled in October.
Then there is the taco concept we hear so much about, but Tesar and DRG are a bit tight-lipped on tacos for the time being.
With Tesar's reputation, youthful good looks (he is 52), and stellar talent, City of Ate can't wait to see what this former bad boy can do with a taco.