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Chef Talk With John Tesar

Whether you hate to love him or love to hate him, chef John Tesar could really care less.

Dallas-based celebrity chef John Tesar has crafted a polarizing on-screen identity that, at the very least, makes for dramatic television. These days, however, he prefers to stay out of the limelight.

Where caught up with Tesar, 59, at his award-winning restaurant Knife in the Highland Hotel. Gracious and polite, he exudes a calmness that’s uncharacteristic of his reality TV persona, although his candid nature remains. Tesar has arrived with a relentless hangover in tow, for which he is extremely apologetic. 

You grew up in New York City, but have called Dallas home for the majority of your career. Do you consider yourself a Texan, or would you still call yourself a New Yorker? 

I’m somewhere in between both identities. My heart is in New York … but I like the simple nature of the south—casual, but refined.

What did you learn or take away from your time spent at The Mansion Restaurant?

The overall tradition of the place, and respect for what Dean Fearing did for this city. There’s something cool about it; there’s so much history. 

Do you see any more reality TV appearances in the near future? 

You know, I craved that kind of publicity for a lot of my career, and I haven’t really gelled all of those thoughts together as to why. Did I need attention? Is it because we’re social animals? Maybe it’s the way I’m wired. There are two types of chefs: chefs who are like artists, and chefs (like myself) who have a great palette. It’s something I was born with; I taste and look at things differently. I’m interested in visceral truth. 

The fast-casual concept Knife Burger recently opened at Legacy Food Hall in Plano. What’s next for Chef Tesar?

We’ve got another Knife [steakhouse] opening up in Plano [at The Shops at Willowbend] later this year, hopefully by early summer. It will have a butcher shop attached. The growth up there is just insane. For the most part, I’d say my chef days are behind me. I’m a restaurateur now.

That’s a big statement. 

I mean, I’ll always be a chef; when we open new restaurants I’ll work on the line, but restaurants come and go, and I’m a control freak in an out-of-control industry. We all have the choice to stay the same, or to grow. I’ve reached the pinnacle of who I want to be as a chef. I want my legacy to be one of a businessman.

Do you plan to open more locations of Spoon?

There can only be one Spoon. With seafood, it’s just a lot harder. Spoon [in Dallas] was critically acclaimed and successful to a point, but I struggled with the notion that everyone thinks Texas is all about steak and hamburgers. It’s stereotypical yet antithetical … but at the end of the day we’re humans, and we go back to what we feel comfortable with. 

In your new cookbook, you write that you’re “more grounded than ever,” thanks to “Texas and beef.” Can you elaborate on that? 

I’ve gained the importance of learning to be humble, and that I'm only one person. I've gained an appreciation for life.

You’ve been known to have a big personality, both in the kitchen and as the life of the party. How have your habits changed to allow for this new path?

Passion is my addiction now. No longer is it about the consumption [of something] for me; it's appreciation: passion is an expression of your soul. 

Where do you like to eat out when you’re in Dallas?

I love Japanese sushi. I appreciate the thought and intellect of Tyson [Cole] at Uchi, but I love Oishii. You can spend around $80 on dinner for two. The chef there is actually Vietnamese, and a longtime friend of mine. He makes some of the most creative sushi in town. 

As someone who’s spent a lifetime in kitchens, do you enjoy cooking at home?

I cook for my [seven-year-old] son at home. He likes vegetables—broccoli, green beans, squash and carrots—but he hates melted cheese! I eat simply. I love pizza and ever since Knife I love steak, but typically I’m not a big red meat eater. 

Amidst the craziness of opening new restaurants, expanding current concepts and traveling, how do you stay balanced and maintain that “zen” state of mind? 

There are so many distractions in life … I always try to get back to basics. Like today [after a hangover]: coming here [to the restaurant] and talking to you guys, getting off the couch, drinking water. 

What are your thoughts on the state of the Texas wine industry?

It’s progressed tremendously in the last five or six years. I’ve had some pretty good ones … I’ve also had some bad ones. Still, the best wine comes from France.

Knife Dallas John Tesar
(Courtesy John Tesar)