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Hell's Kitchen: Celebrity Chef John Tesar

Celebrity Chef John Tesar, one of Dallas’ brightest culinary stars, has always been a magnet for trouble. But could he finally be sailing in smoother waters? John Tesar has a reputation.

Celebrity Chef John Tesar, one of Dallas’ brightest culinary stars, has always been a magnet for trouble. But could he finally be sailing in smoother waters?

John Tesar has a reputation. His contemporaries call him a visionary, a self-destructive asshole, a genius, a prima donna. He has appeared twice on Top Chef, “worked his ass off” at Rosewood Mansion on Turtle Creek to regain a five-star rating before leaving with flames in his wake, and opened Knife on Mockingbird Lane—all while earning the moniker “The Most Hated Chef in Dallas.” John Tesar does not mince words. He does not use hollandaise on his steaks. He does not care what you think of him.

It’s hard to schedule an interview with Tesar. But after weeks of emails, we sit down at Knife, his Dallas institution that has racked up accolades as one of the best restaurants in the state. Connected at the hip to the Highland Dallas hotel, Knife is decorated with cowhide rugs and chairs and a series of private, plush booths. The main dining room offers a peek into part of the kitchen, and the entryway has a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the meat locker where Knife’s famous 240-day dry-aged steak is kept.

Is John Tesar all that the rumors promise: a hotheaded genius whose cayenne-pepper fury can boil water from 20 feet away? Probably. But that’s not all he is.

After showing up for our interview 15 minutes late, John Tesar is content to be directed in an impromptu pre-interview photo shoot. There’s a puckish flicker in his eyes, but he stays straight-laced for the camera. When the photographer asks him to look pissed off—his signature move—he replies, “I don’t just conjure mischief up for nothing.” He doesn’t offer much, but isn’t exactly hiding either; nothing is off limits as long as you ask the right questions. Tesar is still fresh off of a stint on Top Chef, which was gleefully chronicled by D Magazine’s Alice Laussade, as fans everywhere waited on tenterhooks for him to “Hulk out.” Eventually he did, and the headline read: “Tesar Finally Explodes on Top Chef and Teaches Us New Bad Words.”

“My second time on Top Chef was awesome. The first time was…” he chuckles wryly. “The first time.” His first appearance was in the show’s 10th season. Fifty at the time, he was passionate and perhaps desperate to be acknowledged by his peers, a fan-favorite for the entertainment value alone. “When you don’t have something and you’re hungry, I think when you’re on TV, you don’t realize you look like a wild animal,” he admits. “Having the opportunity to do it the second time was a lot more fun. This season, I had four years of dealing with people’s opinions about who I was, so when I went back, I was like, ‘you know what, I’m just going to cook.’ This year I had enough validation and enough sense of myself that I could go back and be stronger in that environment. It’s all produced in the end.”  

He describes Elimination Challenges where each chef rushes to produce something amazing while judges watch from a booth upstairs via live feed. “They watch what you stress out over, they watch what you think you left out.” He guarantees that if they see you sweat, it’ll be brought up in your judgement. “So when something goes wrong you’ve just gotta keep smiling and working and think to yourself ‘okay, how do I fix this?’…It’s always more about storytelling. There’s so much that goes on in real time and when you see the story after the edit, it’s totally different.” He calls his own elimination over a pairing problem with his choice of a classic Dean Fearing Margarita “the most produced moment I’ve ever experienced.”

“I call it like it is,” Tesar says. It’s gotten him this far.

44 Farms 32-oz Bone-In Ribeye

Unnamed Knife Chef 1

What’s it like to work with John Tesar?

Is this live? Crap. [Laughs] The perception is that he’s a madman. But however you look at it, John Tesar is highly smart. I’m like the last man standing. I’ve lost count of how long I’ve worked with him…I love him and I hate him at the same time. But it’s fun, it’s highly entertaining. I like it. I like to have fun. I like to be part of a number one restaurant and a winning team.

On raw talent, drama and fire, Tesar has come a long way from his northeast roots. His parents raised him in New York City and the Hamptons, where he recalls having rich friends and knowing famous people, which led him to be skeptical of celebrity ever since.

“It all goes back to my childhood.” His mother learned to cook Italian food from first generation Italians, and the family spent weekends entertaining friends at the beach, frying up fish for dinner that had been caught that afternoon. Adopted, he has an Irish and Italian lineage and his parents are Slavic, an amalgamation of influences that set him on a path that would turn out to be radically unique. He enjoyed cooking, not just for the art but because it gave him the freedom to stay at the beach all day learning to swim and surf. He worked at Magic’s Pub in the Hamptons, where he learned to make The Magic, a burger with cheddar, bacon, lettuce, tomato and onion on an English muffin. It’ll surely be a feature at Knife Burger when the new restaurant concept opens at Legacy Hall. He is an expert in French food, having receiving classical training at La Varenne Ecole de Cuisine in Paris and rising in just a few years to Chef de Cuisine at Club Pierre in Westhampton. By the time he was 24 years old, Tesar bought Club Pierre with a friend. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, he was cooking with the best of them in Manhattan; he can tell stories of friends rising to wild success and others burning out in those days when French food was all the rage, gluten wasn’t a buzzword and no one cared about lettuce’s uglier cousin, kale. The restaurant world was rampant with drugs and alcohol, and while it’s been cleaned up a little now, he refers to those days as the Wild, Wild West. “This was New York City. If you were a chef in the Upper East Side in the early ‘80s you were making $1,500 to $2,000 a week and you could be 22 years old.”

Tesar’s early career has been chronicled by many fascinated contemporaries, including Anthony Bourdain, who wrote about him in his 2000 book, Kitchen Confidential, referring to him with a now-useless fake name, Jimmy Sears. He describes meeting him when he was “down-on-his-luck,” freshly bankrupt from a restaurant in the Hamptons which had gone under. Tesar was “sleeping on floors around Manhattan, dodging creditors and ex-girlfriends, and, in general, going through a rough patch.” Nonetheless, Bourdain praised his craft. “Seeing what Jimmy could do in the kitchen really inspired me,” he writes, “…it made me remember what I’d enjoyed about food in the first place.”

Tesar has feuded with Dallas Morning News’ food critic Leslie Brenner, burned bridges with fellow chefs and at times resembled a man clinging bare-knuckled onto one of those mechanical bulls found in country-western bars while it hurls him around. Maybe it’s the bull’s fault. Maybe the problem is that he’s still drinking Corona and climbing on its back. Either way, Tesar has always been surrounded by a mixture of praise and heated contention. He has always lived out of the frying pan and in the fire, so to speak.

“I’ve had lots of ups and downs in my career. At my age I can look back and I can say that adversity is probably the best thing that ever happened to me,” he says after some consideration. The conversation turns to the future. Soon there will be a Knife Burger in Legacy Hall and a Knife at The Shops at Willow Bend, and more are in the works across the country. “It’s amazing that a guy from New York has been allowed to go through all the stuff I’ve been through here. Now I’m like the steak guy in Texas, and we’re going to have this beautiful dream-restaurant in the fastest growing suburb in America. It’s awesome.”

Tesar in the meat locker at Knife

Unnamed Knife Chef 2

What’s it like working for John Tesar?

He’s definitely not afraid to speak his mind…and he changes his mind a lot which can be hard, but I really like him. He’s fun to be around. When John Tesar comes in, there’s no messing around. You never know when he’s going to pop in, so you stay on top of it.

Having seen trends be born and die, Tesar seems to be wary of following the latest fads like man buns and kimchi. Instead he believes in starting with honest quality and building from there into a crescendo, driven relentlessly not just to be acclaimed, but to be the best. It’s been his Achilles’ heel at times, and yet it’s the only reason anyone knows his name.

“I tell people it’s not arrogant for me to say that my endgame is ‘Franklin is to Barbecue like Tesar is to Steaks in Texas’…Aaron Franklin is so famous because he makes this brisket that’s exceptional and different from everybody else’s. That’s what puts us in the same league.” He isn’t the type to back down from that kind of self-proclaimed challenge; he’s more likely to drag the world toward it with both fists. “We’re taking steak, that same animal that’s indigenous to our state and that we’re famous for, and we’re making it better than—I can’t say everybody, but 90 percent of them.”

He shares his steak-philosophy in his new book, Knife: Texas Steakhouse Meals at Home, which teaches avid grillers just about everything he knows about steak, pork, the perfect burger and more. He goes into patient detail on how to pick the best cuts, what cooking methods he recommends and includes select recipes from Knife’s menu.

Even with the cookbook, a 240-day dry-aged steak simply can’t be done at home. Each steak is pan-seared, fired on the broiler, sous vide over smoke—a process in which vacuum-sealed meat cooks at a very low temperature for a very long time in a water or steam bath. For that, there is only Knife and the new location opening this November at The Shops at Willow Bend. The flagship location, Plano’s Knife will be a 6,500-square-foot passion project with a butcher shop on the backside and a view of the meat locker lining an entire wall. The tables will be intimate cubicles, each with refrigerators stocked with one or two pieces of aged steak. The project has been a year in the making.

“Instead of going to Albertson’s, you can come and get a flat iron from me at a reasonable price, and you’ll know that it’s an organic steak that came from 44 Farms, and we’ll teach you how to cook it with the book or by eating at the restaurant.” The new Knife will be a freestanding restaurant, completely Tesar’s, built on the strong reputation its Dallas counterpart already has.

“We’re small, so we’re an alternative to [other bigger places] and I think quality speaks for itself. How you do control what goes on in a 300-seat restaurant? You can’t. The meat is subpar, the sides are ‘meh’ because they’re just churning it out. In the older idea of steakhouse venues, there’s either too much on a plate or you’re hiding something that’s not good.”

It might raise a few eyebrows that even as he denounces large restaurants, he’s expanding his own concept with lightning speed. But he’s thought of that too. “As long as we have the product and the aging process and our techniques—it’s diligent attention to detail. If you have systems, there are layers of management and their job is to make sure it’s done the same way every time. It looks simple from the outside but it’s not. It’s just how you put it together. We got lucky. It’s been a perfect storm.” He’s confident that Knife could be picked up and placed anywhere in the country without disruption. He pulls out his phone to show me a string of texts discussing a new location in Denver. In fact, there are plans to put Knife outposts in Miami, Las Vegas, San Francisco and Houston as well.

“And then you won’t have to see me anymore because I’ll be gone,” he jokes. “You won’t have to worry where I am because I’ll be on the beach in Tahiti.” In his days at Spoon, a high-end and critically acclaimed seafood restaurant he closed before opening Knife, he practically lived in the kitchen, which couldn’t exist without his personal touch. Knife, however, is different. “The reason we’re able to duplicate this is that it’s not about seven guys around a table with pull-down lamps and tweezers; it’s really about the meat.” The chefs in the kitchen have been extensively trained in his techniques, leaving him free to cook around the country, and soon, rotate between multiple Knife locations. “I really just instruct, come and check, fix and add new things from time to time.” Knife was constructed to function without him, and Tesar leaves the restaurant on Saturday nights at 7:30 to spend evenings with his son.

From left, clockwise: 44 Farms Beef Tartare; Roasted Heirloom Cauliflower; Chef’s choice dessert; Yellowtail; Garden Salad; 44 Farms Filet Mignon 10-oz.

Unnamed Knife Chef 3

How is it working for John Tesar?

Definitely a good time. We have our work cut out for us. And you have to have a tough skin. We all know what’s expected of us and most of us have a culinary background anyway, we’re all pretty much self-starters. The whole kitchen is filled with experienced chefs. We all argue and curse each other out sometimes, but at the end of the day we all love each other and it’s a family.

Is he as mean as people say?

Sometimes, but we all know it comes from a good place. No one wants a white bread chef. We love working for John Tesar…It’s cool to see someone following his own dream. He hasn’t let anything stop him. It’s good and people are coming, so why not?

Tesar brings out flank steak, ribeye and filet mignon along with a host of sides and a very cool dessert, a sort of strawberry mousse courtesy of his pastry chef, Eric Cobb. There isn’t a single thing on the menu—from 44 Farm Beef Tartare to Bacon Tasting of Five Varieties—that isn’t cool. Everything is prepared and presented the best possible way after a lifetime of trial runs in the kitchen, seasoned with nothing more than salt and freshly ground pepper. It follows that even in a crowd of haters, no one can claim John Tesar can’t cook (at least, out loud, where he can hear them). His reputation doesn’t outwardly faze him. “When I wasn’t famous I was an asshole because I was tired of fighting to get to be a celebrity,” he explains. “Now that I’m basically a C/D list celebrity in the culinary world, I don’t care anymore. And I think as you get older and more successful you should just become more humble and giving instead of more celebrated and an asshole. This day and age you have to keep inventing yourself or you’ll get left behind. But that’s the great challenge of maturation and growing older.

“I’m proud of what I’ve done,” he goes on. “To anyone who’s ever called me a derogatory name or called me an asshole or something like that—I just laugh it off. This is American culture. If you fail, people stone you. Then you hit a certain level of success and people try to adulate you or kind of emulate you. Then there’s another layer where they want to stone you again. They build you up, and then want to tear you down and question if you’re real or hyped. I’ve always proved I’m above the hype. I’m not all talk and no action. I try to get better every day and bring things to Dallas that aren’t here.”

One of the sections in his new book opens “mistakes happen quickly; comebacks take a long time.” He’s certainly proven that. The John Tesar of today has mellowed out. He’s surrounded by a staff that genuinely seems to enjoy working for him and despite restaurant closures, disastrous falling outs and enraged appearances on Top Chef, he has climbed to the peak of his celebrity status in his 50’s and been crowned a controversial king of steak in the steak capital of the world. I suspect that John Tesar has what he’s been chasing and might be ready to call it a win. That’s not to say that he’s throwing in the apron; cooking is in his blood. I certainly hope he keeps at it. But for what it’s worth, his creed for success these days is, “You stay with it and you have integrity and talent, and you round off your sharper edges.” Surrounded by plates of unbelievably delicious steaks and discussing the future, it would seem he’s doing just that.

So is John Tesar really a genius but a hothead whose cayenne-pepper fury can boil water from ten feet away? Yes. And he may still have one or two of those sharp edges. But perhaps he’s also standing on the verge of a quieter life that offers some distance from the kitchen and the accompanying fire.

Originally published in the July 2017 issue.