The famously hotheaded Dallas chef stays relevant, but what goes into making one of Dallas’ most influential figures in food?
John Tesar—the outspoken chef who is also a three-time James Beard “Best Southwest Chef” semifinalist and has been a repeat guest on Top Chef—is as complex as one of his multilayered dishes.
Indeed, what are the ingredients that make up the recipe that is John Tesar?
Once regarded as the most hated chef in Dallas, time has carefully aged the components a little bit. A dash of temper, a cup of passion, a New York upbringing with a touch of school in Paris, and a dose of humor and experience. Stirred and simmered, of course.
“I’m a bit of a hothead because I care about my work,” Tesar says. “Every chef is that way. I am 59 years old and still relevant—because I do the things that younger chefs do, not the older chefs.
And I think that is what makes me different.”
He has certainly had a tumultuous time in Dallas since arriving to helm the kitchen at the Mansion. Regardless, Tesar compares himself to a phoenix rising out of the flames each time something goes wrong. A bit of a smile plays across his face as he sets about solving a problem, turning around to ask “well, are you going to follow me or not?”
Follow him, and more often than not you will find his reinvention spells success.
Right now that success is at his restaurant Knife, which opened in 2014 in The Highland Dallas Hotel. Knife serves up modern American cuisine prepared with classic European techniques. In hushed tones, folks around town suggest that Knife has reinvented the steakhouse experience. Perhaps primed to expect an egotistical, arrogant, self-absorbed man, instead I find an almost Zen-like character in Tesar.
“I think I’m an accomplished cook and chef, and I have had a lot of critical acclaim,” he says. “Knife is just the latest thing I have done—and with that comes a lot more calm. Things run their course, and if you don’t see ahead and have the strength and the guts to try new things and walk away from something that is perceived to be pristine and perfect you will fade away. Everything fades away—we live to die.”
While the Zen state radiates from him upon first meeting, you can still feel a brisk intensity. That ire can also be mustered when up and coming chefs who have not paid their dues get a little too big for their britches. Tesar acknowledges it was easy for the viewer to see it during his appearance in the 10th season of Top Chef five years ago.
“I was much older than they were, and they will try to take your life away from you,” he says. “On the show I am 54 years old, and having to yell at those kids, and having to defend myself from what was building off set. I’d had enough of these two rabble-rousers telling me they know everything. These kids get a four-star review and they want to open their own restaurant across the street and have their own television show and they want a book deal. These are things I’ve waited 30 years for. I don’t want to be the old man who is screaming get off my lawn,” he says, “but sometimes it seems like this generation wants to erase the past so they can become somebody in the future—and it’s the biggest mistake, because without the past you really have no future.”
Tesar’s decision to get into the world of restaurants in the Hamptons, where he grew up, was mainly based on his desire to be able to surf during the day and work at night. At the time, the Hamptons were more artist colony beach resort than trendy wealthy hangout, but he still managed to meet the big names.
“I started washing dishes and putting lettuce and tomato on the plates and I learned how to make hamburgers and cook steaks,” he says of the meager beginnings. Over time he fell in love with the social aspect of the restaurant business, which eventually led him to buy a restaurant of his own.
“I became the chef and then I bought the restaurant,” he explains. “I worked there seven years and owned it for ten, and over time got three stars from the New York Times and lots of media attention. That molded who I was because of the response to what I was doing.” Fast forward to a number of ups and downs—from sleeping on a friend’s couch to being at the right place at the right time—and you can see the phoenix continuing to rise. With his rise came his passion for the work and that notorious temper, which he has fortunately learned to channel, resulting in 20 restaurants built from scratch over the years.
Tesar is the epitome of what happens when you grow up in the world of cooking. You find your own way and you listen to your instinct instead of the constant outside chatter. “When everyone thinks they know you, and they are so negative, or there is this urban legend reputation, I think it’s hilarious,” Tesar says, “because I know who I am. But if that bad-boy, difficult, blunt New Yorker image is going to bring people to Knife out of curiosity, the reward is that they’ll have the best steak the ever had—and they’ll learn that guy isn’t me.”
Despite the chatter, he has retained the natural ability to anticipate trends and navigate the restaurant business in Dallas. “I feel like a fish out of water here, but I will never leave,” Tesar says. “I’m enjoying my life here because I appreciate the fact that it allows me to be better at what I do. Folks can get so caught up in each other’s nonsense and self-promotion and adulation and hype, and I just try to look at it realistically.”
In short, he tunes out the white noise, which is where Knife comes in.
“I’m a lifer. You have to be able to stand alone and be independent, stand up to people, and not let the mob take you over, because then you are lost—you sold out. You have to be willing to look back at the mistakes to continue to reinvent for the future.”
Much like that phoenix from the flames reinventing itself, Tesar continues to rise. We’ll just enjoy tagging along for the ride.
By Rita Cook