After Being 'Most Hated,' John Tesar Is (Mostly) Playing Nice
Chef John Tesar's journey through the Dallas food scene has been, if anything, extremely tumultuous. As one of the few rabble-rousing figures in a market that has been driven by handshakes and friendly table interactions with the chef since Southwestern cuisine's peak in the 1980s, Tesar is both a take-no-shit type of guy and a brilliant chef.
There is likely no chef in Dallas with a story more interesting than Tesar's, going all the way back to his start as a line cook in New York kitchens alongside Anthony Bourdain. After being named the "most hated chef in Dallas" just three years ago, Tesar is now helming two successful, if relatively new, restaurants. (Knife is a steakhouse in the Hotel Palomar, and Spoon serves seafood in Preston Center.) I sat down to talk with Tesar about keeping up with Dallas' young corps of chefs, his thoughts on the Trinity Groves concept, and what it's like to be both famous and infamous.
You said that Dallas kind of turned on you after your tenure at The Mansion, and I think a lot of people would probably agree with that. What made you decide to stay here?
It's the land of opportunity, you know? I saw the revolution before the revolution even started. I'm not the kind of guy that wants to take credit for everything, but it really did kind of start with me in the sense that I'm from out of town, I wanted to move on from Southwestern cuisine, and I thought that so many restaurants were just mediocre. If The Mansion or wherever is going to be this five-star restaurant, it has to be competitive with Le Bernardin in New York or Mugaritz in Spain, or the French Laundry. They have to be similar on some basic levels. When I got there, that didn't exist. I brought that mentality of European foods and techniques that were already big in San Francisco and Napa Valley and New York, but they weren't really here. Don't forget, this was 2006. It was just the French Laundry. Le Bernardin wasn't even this mecca then. Eric [Ripert] was so shy and everything before Bourdain took him under his wing.
But I don't think Dallas necessarily turned on me. There was a recession, we were losing money at The Mansion, and we were going to lose the chef's room. So we just walked away. From my point of view, when I left, they wanted to save face and say that I was leaving the state. I was this rough and tumble New Yorker who got up in people's faces and I just didn't fit in here. But I think it was quite the opposite. I think I cared more than the people who were in charge did. If anything, I was getting up in people's faces and telling them to join the party. Now seven years later, Matt McCallister has been anointed by everybody, and he's really amazing. So I can sit back and know that I had some part in that. People really had to fight to get Matt seen by the Food & Wine and critics outside of Texas, but let's be honest. These kinds of trends, the modern food and everything else, is kind of already on the way out everywhere else. I think what's going to be Matt [McCallister]'s next challenge is figuring out how to keep evolving instead of just becoming an old image of himself.
How did you do that, figure out how to keep evolving?
I just dug down deep, you know? Whether it's hamburgers at The Commissary or planning Cedars Social, you have to roll up your sleeves and ask how you make that food appealing to the people in that city. Are they ready for it? Am I arrogant, and making this all about me? A lot of these young chefs are very ego driven, and as someone who's an old guy now, who's got the accolades and been able to reinvent myself in the last few years, I have a lot more ability to say "this restaurant isn't about me, it's about you." It has to be the whole experience for the diner, not what I want. If you go to Spoon, you have to feel like you're at the ocean. If you don't, I'm a fraud.
I've also always made it a point to work on the line. I worked 75 days in a row since Knife opened. I have to maintain my relevancy with all these Texas chefs that are being anointed by all the food magazines this year. And I think that's coming to me. When Hugh Atcheson can come up to me and say, "you know, fuck that show, you're a great chef and your restaurants are fucking hitting it out of the park," it resonates. I'm not trying to get my picture taken at these events, I just want to get a meter of what's going on in the culinary world. Some of these old school guys haven't changed their menus in 15 years, I feel like I have to change mine every five minutes.
Do you think that's kind of clientele driven, though? So many chefs that I've talked to have talked about having to keep certain dishes on the menu because people just demand them. Take someone like Stephan Pyles, who has at least three signature dishes. How do you evolve in that kind of situation?
It's just a different era of being a chef. I think of Stephan more as a restaurateur. You have to have that kind of familiarity -- you go to Stephan Pyles for the tamale tart or tobacco onion rings. That's a 1980s mentality of building a restaurant that is this monolith. If I want a tamale tart, I go to Stephan Pyles. It's like a childhood memory or special occasion restaurant or something. That mentality existed before this revolution that we've been going through in food, and now people want to check out new things. They're trying a new fish at Spoon or learning what real Italian food is like at Lucia.
That makes the storied restaurant kind of seem old fashioned, it's going away. People went to The Mansion for tortilla soup, lobster tacos and for Dean [Fearing] to shake their hand. It was amazing. The average person could go and see what the life of Larry Hagman or Jerry Jones or T. Boone Pickens was like. That time in cuisine history is gone. Dean can't recreate that at The Ritz. And that's why it should never be just about a chef. Chefs who are getting older and have multiple restaurants want to be teachers. They want to work with the new generation in this industry. But you have to balance that and evolve yourself. You can't just beat the same drum over and over again.
What do you think the restaurant landscape in Dallas looks like? Are things good or bad?
Oh, it's great. The only thing that's kind of screwing things up right now is that Trinity Groves thing. I don't think it's screwing up business, but it does kind of pull the wool over people's eyes.
What do you mean by that?
They own the concepts if you succeed. It does give opportunity to people who may not have been able to open a restaurant on their own, but to me, the whole thing seems like a good way to get people out there to eat so they can level it and build skyscrapers 10 years from now. It's a very ingenious project, and it has merit, but I want to see the politics of it, and who it really benefits. No one in the press has ever asked that question. They've danced around the subject, because I think people in Dallas want to just see something succeed. It's the Southern way - let's not talk about it, we'll just let it play out, and anoint someone who does really well. We need open up the discussion in this city about food and recognize the people who are making waves in the business.
So how do you make it here? How does someone become the next Dean Fearing or whoever?
You have to create a dining experience that Dallas hasn't seen before. The best compliment we ever got at Spoon was that being there was just like dining in New York City. I think what we're doing over here at Knife is great. I'm not taking any of this for granted. If one magazine likes it, that doesn't mean the next one's going to. I make the joke in the kitchen that I take all those magazines home and stack 'em up to put my soda on top. You have to realize that next year someone's going to be on the cover of that magazine. They can't be that important to you.
Do you think that you kind of got a bad rap? Being on reality TV doesn't exactly seem like a great way to make everyone love you. Unless, you know, you win.
But I got more fans from doing Top Chef. People saw my honesty, and they knew that I wasn't really going to be the pot-stirrer. I was 54 years old, and working around a bunch of viperish kids who didn't even deserve to cook yet. Some of them didn't even have their own restaurants. As a restaurateur, I don't want to knock anyone. I'm not competing. I've been doing this since I was 17 years old, and I think I should get a little respect for making some of the better food in Dallas. I don't command that respect, but I want everyone to come here and let me earn their respect.
So how does someone who isn't a "table-toucher" like Kent Rathbun or Dean Fearing make it in a place like Dallas?
I can be that person, though. With the right people. It's not my schtick. I don't try to win you over with my table-touching, I win you over with the whole experience from my sommelier to the food in the restaurant. Dean is the number one [table-toucher] in the world. He could serve you a burned piece of toast, and by the time he's done talking to you, you've forgotten he burned the toast. That's just not me. John Tesar is a line cook from New York City who started as a dishwasher and then became a chef. I'm probably not going to be the most-liked chef anywhere. I want to be a chef, and people just keep dragging me into the celebrity part of it. There's nothing wrong with a little passion and honesty to get you where you need to go.
Do you think that honesty and passion may turn some people off, though? You said it earlier - this is the South.
People may not like you to your face and they'll talk about you behind your back, but eventually they have to respect you. I've kind of been the Jack Russell terrier who's been biting at the ankles of the Dallas food scene since I got here. I'm not giving up. I love it here, and I love the people. I'll keep fighting until they like me. I think recently, I've been learning the fight. People were looking at me like I'm a huge Doberman or whatever, but I'm not. I'm a tiny, tenacious guy.
What is it like to see really young people in the restaurant business come up and own their own restaurants alongside someone like you with a 30-plus years in the industry?
It's amazing. But I'm watching and supporting at the same time. I don't tear them down, but I'm honest. When I don't like a meal, I don't go on social media or whatever and tell everyone. A couple of them have attacked me because I opened up a seafood restaurant and they had a seafood restaurant that was struggling. I don't want to get into that and start a revolution, but the same goes for what happened with Nick [Badovinus] and me at The Commissary. It's common knowledge for everyone in the city, but no one talks about it. That's the Southern way, like I said. We know something's amiss, but we just glaze on over it. Not me. But I don't want to make food a competition either. When you do that, it's just a reality show.
Why do you think everything in the restaurant industry has to be so competitive?
It's American culture. We're fucked in the brain. It all stems from insecurity. There are those of us who are creative, and those of us who are not. Universally, as I've gotten older, I've found that the simpler your life is, the simpler your food is, the simpler you approach things, the happier you are. But, we've come from the "American dream" where you have to have a bigger house, a bigger car, bigger everything. As food gets more popular, what we don't understand, we anoint. We make it a trend.
The most annoying thing to me is for any food writer in the world is to say "kale is in," then eight months later, say "kale is out." You want to talk about seasonality? You want to talk about farm-to-table? You want to talk about integrity? It's not my fault you fucking eat out every night and you've had kale and pork belly up to your eyeballs. My pork belly is fucking good and I'm not taking it off the menu just because you're tired of it, when six months ago, you said it was the greatest thing since sliced bread. I'm calling bullshit on that one. How about the farmer that was growing that kale? Are you going to support him when you tell everyone that kale sucks now?
Don't you think chefs are just as guilty of that, though?
There are some, but that goes back to insecurity. Insecurity and desperation make us do stupid things. I've been insecure and desperate most of my life, so I know. After The Mansion and being "Jimmy Sears" [in Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential], so everything that I've fucked up is pretty well documented. I'm not saying this arrogantly, but the simpler you are, the more pragmatic you are, the better your life is. If you make it "me, me, me," the world's going to turn on you, because it can't be about you all the time. Someone else is going to come along.
That sounds like something you may have learned from experience?
Heck yeah. It's maturity. I didn't deliberately set out to piss everyone off. It was my demons and my shortcomings and my insecurities that put my back against the wall. And I have empathy for those people who have their backs against the wall. I see these restaurateurs who struggle and young chefs who want attention. It's not easy working under someone who's been anointed. It's bad when a food critic, one person, can decide that a restaurant is suddenly one of the best new restaurants in America.
Is Knife one of the "best new restaurants in America?"
Who cares? If it is, great. But I haven't been to every restaurant and I just can't say that. Critics come through here and they're just disrespectful. One in particular came in to Spoon, put us in his top 10 list, and didn't even have dessert. We have a world class pastry chef. That's just disrespectful. So when the James Beards or the whatevers come out, they're just throwing us a bone. I don't think there's anything productive about saying what is "in" or "out." John Tesar was a scumbag until Spoon came out, now I'm a creative genius. What the fuck is that about? I'm just another cook, I just happen to do my job well.
Do you think that has something to do with our overall love of redemption narratives as Americans? It's almost like the celebrity who gets a DUI, goes to rehab and finds Jesus, and is suddenly America's sweetheart again.
Yeah. When we see someone we admire fall and come back, I think we see that we can do that ourselves. That's definitely true for me. When I was "the most hated chef," it was the greatest thing in the world. I could either keep this fight going on forever, and I would look like the craziest son of a bitch in the world. I had to go inside myself and figure out what makes me tick, get rid of the negative parts of who I am, and try to become a better chef.
I have to filter out the white noise and ignore the competition and the accolades and the awards. For years, I was chasing three-star reviews or five-star reviews, chasing Beard awards. Now I don't give a shit? It's like I'm under a pile of them. What list was Spoon not on last year, in the best restaurants in the world? It's in a little fucking strip mall in Dallas, Texas. Because it's good. There's some truth at Spoon. Knife is on fire right now. How many people have been fortunate enough to have that opportunity there, and be able to do it again nine months later? It's happening. I didn't plan it, but I knew that if I did my thing, I could get some real respect in this business. I don't want to be famous, I just want respect as a chef. I think I'm a decent chef.
It's got to feel better to finally be famous, and not infamous.
I'm both. It frees me to be a better person, have my mind open, and encourage everyone to do better. It's better to be the only one, and there's only one John Tesar. I used to be disturbed by that, but now I rest easy.