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John Tesar: The Local Profile Interview

The famed chef talks about accolades, his upcoming Italian restaurant and Collin County

Iconoclastic. Maverick. And very, very talented. These are words — among others — used to describe Chef John Tesar, the Michelin-starred, James Beard-nominated and two-time Bravo Top Chef contestant behind Knife in Plano, Texas.

In the 1980s, Tesar cut his teeth in the New York dining scene, along with Anthony Bourdain, before arriving in Dallas in 2006 to take over The Mansion on Turtle Creek. Since then, he opened Knife Dallas and Knife Steakhouse in Plano, where Local Profile met Tesar on an unseasonably warm afternoon. 

Tesar, taking a break from signing piles of his book, talked about a range of topics, including the Michelin star he received for the Knife & Spoon at The Ritz-Carlton Orlando and his upcoming Knife Italian restaurant in Las Colinas, managed by Ritz-Carlton. 

Local Profile: Tell me more about your upcoming Italian restaurant, Knife Italian at the new Ritz Carlton at Las Colinas.

John Tesar: Yeah, this is really a dream come true. I mean, I've just been so lucky. And I know people say you make your own luck. To have an investment firm, you know, a billion-dollar investment fund and a major brand believe in you, you know, for the first time in Florida, and to get the Michelin star. And we're going to be able to do Italian food. 

I'm an Irish-Italian kid from New York. I just have fond memories and a lot of experience in flavor memories. And I think that's what's missing from a lot of these recent Italian restaurants shows that people don't have the flavor memory of, like, my grandma's food, or they emulate what they see in another restaurant and they do it. 

Even though we're going to be at the Ritz Carlton, it probably will be somewhat pricey. It's really just about the experience. We're gonna really make the room beautiful colors. Totally different for Dallas. And then really, if it's eggplant parmesan, it should be like the best one you've had. We have a pizza oven there, and we've really worked hard on that. 

So you have to have a vision of what you really want it to be. And then it's a collaboration because you have an investment firm, you know, $60 million renovation of a somewhat iconic four-star/five-star hotel. And it's changing brands. 

Las Colinas has always been well-frequented by people from Dallas as a staycation place. 

LP: I hadn't been out there in years and went out there earlier this summer. It's great out there. 

JT: Oh, it's beautiful. And it's a great place to escape. You can really, you don't feel like you're in Dallas out there at all. And it's only 20 minutes away. So we would hope that people come from Dallas and all around to see it, but we know that that's not going to happen every night of the week, so you have to kind of keep guests in the hotel and build a reputation and try to hopefully make it a destination restaurant and that's our goal. 

In everything I do, I take what I do in multiple locations now with the integrity of anything that I would do myself and I do that with young talent. I have a lot of people that have worked for me and what I've done is built relationships as a chef with other professionals who trust me with their lives in their futures and pay their bills. That's the way I look at this business. Glamour for me is so far over with and so far ridiculous, but necessary in a sense. I'm not poo-pooing it, but I do raise an eyebrow when it comes to awards and things like that. I'm not just saying that Michelin is a little different because it's anonymous, but it is still random and you still have to pay for the guy to be in your area, because you're not really comparing all 50 states. 

LP: There's not a Michelin guide for Texas. 

JT: There's not one in, I think, 46 states.

LP:  Do you think that the chefs and restaurants in Texas, there's enough of them that could pull out a Michelin Guide? 

JT: Sure. More than I think with the restaurants in Texas if you add Austin, Houston, and Dallas, and even San Antonio, because you get very Hispanic and you'd like authentic. It all depends on Michelin, you know, I don't know, their rating system. I mean, I know kind of what they like, but you never know what they do like and they're always a little to the side of fancy because that's their clientele. So that's what I think would be limiting is that I don't think they're gonna give my Steakhouse in Dallas, a Michelin star, but they might give Knife Italian at the Ritz Carlton a Michelin star. 

LP: Do you think Texas deserves a Michelin Guide?

JT: If they're willing to pay for it. You know, it's Michelin, and Michelin is like inviting an accounting firm to audit your company and give you an assessment of its value. And its value to its customers as a guide. If you're going to invest in an investment firm, and then, you have an independent accounting firm come in and just see the real sheets. You know, that's what Michelin is like. If you really want to have a great restaurant or a great meal that night, though, their guide is that restaurant wouldn't be in there unless it was notable to them and the long history of their reputation. So that's the way I look at it. It's different, and you have to obtain it every year. Awards like James Beard have just become a sob story — a whole bunch, I don't even know what it is anymore. It's a mishmash. I've burned all my James Beard nominations and notices.

LP: Wow, you burned them all?

JT: I did the other day. I was moving — my house was destroyed by the flooding, I had to move and I moved to a nice house. And I was looking at this and why am I saving these things? Because they just, they just mean nothing to me anymore. I just don't think that when you're forced to give out something every year, it kind of loses its value. And I don't know, I'm not begrudging anyone that's ever had one. It's not like a diss on the recipient? It's really just a mockery of what used to be something that was special. Because they have to give it out. And then when you get to this inclusion and this woke mentality in the world we live in, it's kind of absurd, because then all of a sudden, people are getting inserted in, like, racially profiling. And I'm, you know, I'm a very liberal person, and I do believe in equality myself. I was raised like that. My mother was a civil rights activist. We live in a melting pot in this country, right? And people have to understand that. 

But to include someone just because they came from a place or they have a sob story, or they've been around for a long time when their grandmother was somebody special. That's not an award to me. It's a story. I'd rather read their story or, you know, let's let somebody do a 15-minute documentary on their life so we can understand who they are and what they went through. Because that might be interesting. 

I don't want the lifetime achievement award when they finally get around to me one day right after they're over being pissed off because I’m speaking outwardly. I'm not dissing the recipients. I'm not even dissing James Beard. I think the system is just gone sideways. Yeah. And it's meaningless.

LP: You actually burnt them or just …?

JT: They weren't awards — just like the notification dinners at the house or acknowledgments for doing things or nominations. Yeah, I have a fireplace in the new house, and I threw them in there. It’s a cathartic thing for me. 

LP: So the name is Knife Italian?

JT: The ambiance of the restaurant is kind of like Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni go to Milan and buy a villa and decorate it together. And Thomas Schoos who did the restaurant down in Orlando is doing it again. 

LP: And you’re going to run a restaurant in the Hamptons. Why the Hamptons? 

JT: It’s where I grew up. I'm coming full circle. Success for some people might be having a rocket ship or buying a sailboat. I'm gonna buy the restaurant where I learned cooking and where this all started. It kind of makes me, you know, tear up a little bit now that it's actually happening. Yeah, that's the first time that I've actually like talked about in the sense of like, sentimentality and like, return to childhood and memories. And being able to go back and recreate it your own way. It's still gonna be called Magic’s, which is what it was called, out of respect. 

LP: It's like the conquering hero returns. And there's going to be kids in there who are sixteen, seventeen, eighteen years old. 

JT: Just like I was. I mean, I'm 65 years old. And I have this youthful nature to me, right? And I feel I have to be a mentor, you know, even for my own self-serving ways. But I look at that experience will become more valuable in the next 10 years. Because, you know, we're a dying breed, we really are dying to be around in the 1970s and the ‘80s. And to understand that, right? Because you can hear stories or listen to Bourdain rattle on, but it's nothing like living it. There's there was nothing like the ‘70s and ‘80s in New York in the restaurants business because it was crazy. It was really like scenes from Goodfellas — the way how fast it was, how busy it was, how sometimes corrupt it was, how crazy — you know, drugs, alcohol and sex among staff. It doesn't exist anymore because corporate America frowns upon it. 

LP: So going through that, and then coming to Dallas and then Plano, what was that like?

JT: I looked at [the Mansion Restaurant in] Dallas as a golden opportunity, because, first of all, I had never gotten paid what they paid Dean Fearing. I mean, they had to pay me the same amount of money. So I was motivated by the security of a hotel and an opportunity to have an iconic position, right? Even though you can't replace Dean, right? If I could accomplish what Dean did, 2.0. They would have to pay to give me the same amount of attention as a chef or just, you know, like, recognition, or acknowledgment that I'm, you know, I'm capable of doing this. We did it. I got the five stars back to the hotel. I defied all the odds. That was very different 15 years ago. Very, very different. And there was a lot of spotlight on it. I couldn't just, you know, I couldn't just come in to do my job. I think the first week I was in Dallas, I met T. Boone Pickens, Jerry Jones. You name it. 

And then the recession came. And I didn't want to be a hotel chef. And we found a reason to part ways. There was a long that story was never really told properly. I resigned because I could have sued them. And I would never sue anybody. I like to work in this business. So it was like one of those sordid things, that for no reason, happens in hotels. And it was a shame. How do replace that job? And then again, how to replace that salary that you're living on. Right? And then how do you go out and explain to people why you left The Mansion, right? Yeah, like it was just, yeah, it was a dead-end street at that point. You know, I overcame that as well. And it's just perseverance. I mean, I've had no choice in my life at certain times. That's why I'm so mellow now. It's like, and so appreciative. Because yeah, when you don't have to have those worries. 

It's like, I'm probably living another ten years It's just because I'm not going to grind it out and my body. Yeah, I don't know if I want to be doing this after 75 years old. Then you become like a caricature of yourself. And I'm not the guy to walk around with the big white chef coat, get parties thrown for me just because I'm 75 years old.

LP: What was it then like going from Dallas and then coming out to Collin County? Because they’re different, you know? 

JT: Coming out here, you just have to make it more of a suburban experience. And I've already proved that I can cook at certain levels. So every restaurant just has to be qualitative and value for the money. Because it's your money. It's your experience. It's for me to provide it if I don't, then go home. Read the Yelp review. Let us know. But like, I prefer that people let us know if they're having a bad experience while they're having it. Like, I don't know why people wait eight years to complain about something, you know? You could tell somebody.

LP: At your Knife & Spoon pop-up dinner in fall 2022, I just was amazed that we're in a shopping mall in Plano, eating like a Michelin-starred meal, when, in the past, people would expect something like that only in Dallas, in a hotel. That's, like, punk. And rock and roll. 

JT: We got to do it, man. You know what I mean? But that's overboard. That's why I get along with Dave Grohl, too, because like, he's a punk guy at heart. And we're just like street kids that were given God-given talents that just kind of see the world In a very similar way: Where you kind of have to just say, Fuck the man, because we grew up that way. And I just think that that mentality sunk in, and when you see the hypocrisy of today, you know, frivolous awards for nothing, basically. And that has no value to me. The value to me is the quality of life. And the experience under your feet. People say be poor, be rich, get sick, get better. Learn what it's like for the difference. And then you'll appreciate this. 

LP: What are your earliest memories of food?

JT: My grandmother had a house in Queens. And my parents had an apartment in the city and a house in the Hamptons. And I would stay at my grandmother's quite a bit and my mother would cook there also. My mother hung out with all these Italian women who did the sewing club thing, and I wasn't around in the 40s. I don't know what that meant, sewing club. I guess women got together and did shit while their husbands were abroad fighting. These Italian women could really cook. So those smells, like garlic and olive oil. 

My mother knew how to put art in a hamburger. She always cooked it in a cast iron skillet even as a kid, right, you know, maybe not the best meat but it was great — you know, just that crunchy stuff on the outside. 

You do memorize those flavors. And you know the difference between a tomato that's been taken off the vine and then one that's been picked green, and rather than a boxcar, or a strawberry that’s in season. 

I'm dyslexic. I never wrote anything down. I still don't write anything down. I may write a note on my iPhone or something like that. But I do it all in my head, through my own process. And I can compartmentalize. I can separate: I can see Knife & Spoon here, I can see Knife and I can see them simultaneously and the character of each. And I can figure out what I need to do and what I need to do. And that's the way I think about those things. And then, separate the experience. And then the experience that I'm gaining from all of this is how to run different things with different perceptions right and still have people accept them all as a brand. 

LP: I guess you'll really experience that when you bring the Italian restaurant into the fold. 

JT: My pasta has always been pretty popular. But yeah, it's not only pasta, you know, like, but we are also gonna get deep into all the aspects of the base of real Italian food. For me, this is the challenge.

It comes down to more like formulating concepts, articulating and defining it for everybody that works for you. Then, letting it be validated by the customers. And then, also getting your staff to buy into it. And trust you, even though you're not going to be there all the time. 

Like, I remember, I've worked for a couple of chefs and they would travel, and they'd come back and they yell at everybody, right? I learned how that was not a way to do that. The way to do it is to come in and be almost invisible in your own restaurant, respect them and kind of work your way back into your own space. Out of respect, not out of force. And it makes them feel like you're not taking over when you're there, you're not taking away what they do all the time. Which is unfair. 

LP: Putting everybody on edge. 

JT: Back in the day, some cooks would live off that, but in this day and age, you'll just get calls from HR, and people will quit. People say it's hard to find people. I say, no, it's hard to train people because you have to spend time and give them what they need. 

Everybody expects more money due to the pandemic. It's not a lack of employment. It's just that the person that had two jobs now is possibly in a job that they can get by with one job because of the way the pandemic increased the wage. And I'm not saying that's a bad thing, because I think restaurant employees have been underpaid for a long, long time. But it's hard to run an independent restaurant with all these people and pay them, you know, at the cost of living that they would dream of. It's relative. That's the problem with restaurants.

LP: If you are taking Knife as a brand like Knife Italian like have you started gaming out other pop-ups like Knife Japanese …?

JT: No, no. This is just a one time — like I wouldn’t say this is a one-time Knife Italian, but this is something I wanted to do for a long time, and I really fit the format, and we didn’t want to compete directly against the two Dallas restaurants, so that was my idea to do that. I don’t have a restriction. It was way outside of the line. Now, I have restrictions because I can’t open an Italian restaurant in Dallas outside of that one. You know it’s the Ritz Carlton, you’re getting something. They always want a pound of flesh but I can say I have two Ritz Carlton restaurants and a Michelin star. So that and three bucks will get me on the subway.

LP: So you’ve been in Dallas for a while now. What do you think of the way it and especially Collin County is growing?

JT: I love it out here. The thing that I’ve always found interesting in these fifteen years ago and being injected into the Mansion in Highland Park and that lifestyle, is when people say they don’t go past 635, and it’s like why? It’s like just 10 min up the road, and without traffic, it’s really fast. 635 always has that traffic, but it’s much better now than what it was 12 years ago. I would never go on 635, but I wouldn’t have a problem going past it. And I didn’t for the longest time, but I love what goes on out here. I mean there are a lot of restaurants, a lot of opportunities and a lot of shopping. I was even considering moving down here, but I don’t think I’ll buy a house in Texas just yet.

LP: Oh really? Why is that?

JT: I think the market is too high. And if I’m going to do this restaurant in the Hamptons, I might buy an investment property that I can use for a family retreat and leave that to my sons as an inheritance. Rather than Wall Street and never knowing what happens after I die on Wall Street, and then have my boys fighting over money. They can fight over a house.

In case you missed it, read Local Profile's feature on John Tesar.