Last year Dallas Chef John Tesar sent out a tweet that was heard ‘round the culinary world: “@lesbren fuck you ! Your reviews are misleading poorly written,self serving and you have destroyed the star system and you really suck”. Targeted at Leslie Brenner, the food critic for the Dallas Morning News, the incident started a national conversation about the changing role of food critics and the outdated star-review system. But Brenner and those topics are just the beginning of what this outspoken chef is ready to put on blast.
Tesar, a New York City native who cooked with Anthony Bourdain at the Supper Club (as chronicled in Kitchen Confidential), is highly regarded for his contemporary Dallas steakhouse, Knife, and his recently closed seafood restaurant, Spoon Bar & Kitchen. This year, Tesar took over the kitchen at Oak, which is by his estimates the 23rd or 24th restaurant he’s been involved with. Next year he will open three eateries in the Dallas metroplex: a lounge, a burger joint and an old-school Italian restaurant. After that he plans on expanding Knife to other cities including Memphis, Nashville, Austin, Chicago and Las Vegas.
We sat down with Tesar at Oak in Dallas and chatted everything from why Bourdain is mad at him to why Bobby Flay’s restaurants aren’t making money to what Donald Trump kind of gets right.
Did you read Leslie Brenner’s new review of Oak?
No. I don’t read her and I would be a hypocrite if I did. I don’t have any respect for Leslie Brenner as a writer or a person. She thinks she knows everything about food, which she doesn’t. She has an agenda to make herself a celebrity or a notable person and tries to use Dallas as the vehicle, as we all have.
But instead of being a real, honest journalist and just saying the way things are, she has manipulated them. Certain restaurants are her pets. Certain chefs are her pets. I’ve been to those restaurants, without naming any of them, and I know that she has an agenda. And I think after exposing this very publicly after a number of years and a lot of arguments with her, other people have noticed this, too. I was like the guy in that movie who just opened up and said, I’m mad as shit and I’m not going to take it anymore. So I got all the credit for it. But trust me, everybody else was saying it behind her back, which is a Dallas trait in itself.
Talking about people behind their backs is a Dallas thing?
Oh yeah. That’s Southern hospitality. We smile in your face and then when you leave the room we just talk shit about you. Dallas is not a controversial town. People will not go out on a limb. People tried to jump on the Leslie Brenner bandwagon because they kept getting shitty reviews or because they’re clever business motherfuckers and wanted to bring attention to their own restaurants. I don’t trust anybody, because they all have an agenda.
Do you think Leslie’s reviews, or any local magazine or newspaper reviews, actually hold any weight?
So then why get so worked up about her? Why not just ignore her?
I don’t. I’m over it now. But there’s politics in this business. I don’t want to get into another chef’s food in an article and make enemies out of a friend, but these are things I like to talk about that other people don’t talk about. The honesty of the business and the effects of it. Nobody ever follows up after these reviews. Like you got four stars six months ago and now you’re closing? Why? Because people can’t relate to the food and maybe Leslie should have been a little bit more honest about what was really going on there…
There are a couple of chefs in town who have extremely wealthy parents. And their restaurants don’t make any money. I can’t afford to do that. That’s a trend in America. If your parents want to enable you that way, go for it. I haven’t been that lucky. I wouldn’t want to work that way anyway. I want to see the fruits of my own labor.
Why are you opening three restaurants in such quick succession next year?
Because I have the opportunity to do so, number one. And I like being the comparison to the corporate. A lot of the things that are opening up, other than, say what Matt McCallister is doing… I’ve never seen such ridiculousness in my life. Within a matter of five blocks there are six steakhouses. Morton’s is here, Kirby’s is here, Ruth’s Chris is here. I look at all of that, and I know this is a meat and potatoes town.
That’s why Knife has been so successful. And that’s why even after five years this restaurant’s doing well. Knife is busy seven nights a week. The fact that Spoon was one of the best restaurants in the country and three nights a week it was packed and then on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday… it was hard to get people to come spend 100 bucks a person to eat seafood. But they’ll come eight nights a week to spend $100 on steak. So you can fight. You can want to be an innovator, but you’d better be able to pay your own bills to be an innovator here. We’re getting better. It’s getting there. But the most popular things still here are steak, Mexican, and then I don’t know what after that…
Yeah, like three Southern restaurants just opened up. It’s the new thing. Everything’s like a chicken, or a dumpling, or a fried something, or an okra. It costs nothing. That’s why they do it. Because the food cost is zip. It’s peasant food. It’s American peasant food. For years I’ve been told don’t call it the South, it’s Texas. And now all of a sudden we’re going to start bringing Sean Brock shit to fucking Dallas?
Why not open Knife in a big market like New York? Why are you opening in Nashville and Austin?
Secondary markets, first of all, need quality food. And I think that secondary markets are really the place to make money because I don’t have to compete against Daniel Boulud or Wolfgang Puck or Jean-Georges. In New York City it’s them and then the corporations and then the newest flavor-of-the-minute according to the food and wine magazines. That’s a jungle. And then there’s the rent and the taxes. Bobby Flay’s a good friend of mine. I just did a show with him and he’s like, I can’t make money in my restaurants anymore.
Everybody I know in New York is struggling because of the taxes and the rents and the cost of food. And the threat of minimum waging going to $15 an hour. That’s the stupidest thing in the world. The minimum wage should be higher than it is, but it’s going to lead to downsizing in the restaurant business. When I’m hiring a guy for $9 an hour, I’ll cut him some slack. I don’t care if he’s hungover; he’s washing dishes. But if I have a dishwasher making $15 an hour, he’s basically going to learn how to do fucking everything back there. We’ll see what happens.
One of the greatest challenges to any independent restaurateur is how do you make enough money to keep talented employees and then compete with all of the corporate giants that are coming here? As far as the perks and the benefits and the job security. I went by Ruth’s Chris the other night just by accident. It’s in the worst location and there’s like five people in it. But because there are like 25 other Ruth’s Chrises, they’ll hold on longer than an independent restaurant can.
But Texas will be the last place that raises its minimum wage to $15 an hour because we have so many illegal immigrants here. What are we going to do, start paying illegals $15 an hour? They’re doing five jobs and sending all the money back to Mexico. It’s like, where is the government? To a certain extent Donald Trump has a point. I’m a liberal democrat, but he is correct: Political correctness is ridiculous is dangerous. I think that trophy for nothing shit is going to be the downfall of society.
That’s definitely on the same page as Donald.
Yeah, except I don’t have the same political views. I wouldn’t build a wall. If someone’s going to come here from Syria and blow me up, they’re going to do it anyway. They’ll find a way to do that. Why be so anti-people or isolationist? For me, the layers of honesty apply to everything. Not only to what I do. I have more of a global view. Which is why I like these secondary markets, too, because I think they need it.
I am extremely political. I’m a junkie. I watch every news show. I watch CNN, MSNBC, and FOX religiously just to see the ridiculousness of their programing. Because if you watch all three of them, then maybe you can sift some truth, or you gain enough real information that you could make up your mind for yourself what the situation is. Washington is just this vacant place that needs to be vaporized and start over. I sound like Bourdain now.
Tim Love, another chef from North Texas, just opened a restaurant in Austin…
Tim Love’s a self-made man.
A self-made man in what way?
He’s paid for everything he’s ever had. Does anybody really like Tim Love? Because it doesn’t seem like they do. They start off liking him and then after they get to know him they’re just like, douche bag. Tim Love used to be my friend then fame bit him in the ass and then he just kind of turned on everybody. Like he’s not cooperating in Fort Worth Food and Wine Festival because he does the Austin Food and Wine Festival. Tim is a very shrewd businessman. I used to like him, but he’s been very snotty to me lately because he thinks he’s a big TV star. Lonesome Dove in New York was a freakin’ disaster. Let’s see what happens to Lonesome Dove in Austin.
It’s advantageous for anybody to open a restaurant in Austin if you can afford it. Because by the time you get through South by Southwest and ACL (Austin City Limits), and you have the university down there, you get exposure forever. That’s why the chef from Austin always wins the James Beard award. Or the chef from Houston. Because they’re major markets that everybody flows through and the writers have to have eaten in your restaurant. Writers don’t want to come down here.
Why don’t you think food writers want to come to Dallas?
It’s because we’re so far behind Chicago, New York and San Francisco. For years it was only about that J.R., Sue Ellen, or rugged, cowboy lifestyle. The ego is so powerful here that they’ve isolated themselves. It’s political too. We have no environmental concerns, we are notoriously red, we are notoriously racist. White people have all the power, white people have all the money. And I think the Bushes being from here probably doesn’t help. I think they’re a great family. But other parts of the country look at that.
What about your reputation? You’ve been called “the most hated chef in Dallas.”
People made me the bad boy. After a while, if you take risks and you speak your mind and you stay the course, it comes back around. People trust my honesty about this business now. I used to work in the rock ‘n’ roll business, so I carry that swagger with me. I was backstage at rock concerts when I was 14 years old. I smoke pot. I don’t care. I got a ticket the other day for pot paraphernalia for $225.
It’s a long story. But I got a ticket. I was like, thank god. Five years ago in Texas they probably would have put me in jail for 10 years. So we’re making progress. But that’s another reason why people don’t want to come down here. Or respect us. Because we’re too conservative.
Dallas until recently was stuck in the ’80s and the ’90s. We’re at a pivotal moment now. I think we’re almost at a point of oversaturation and such tremendous growth that you can’t keep up with it. Everywhere you look there’s a crane and an apartment building. It’s the land of opportunity, but I’d be cautious with that because I think we are building a bubble. What used to bring people here was opportunity and the low cost of living, which led you to a good quality of life. So if you erase that quality of life, what do we have? We have an overpriced city in the middle of the prairie. If we have to start paying New York prices to live here, I might think about moving. Going to Memphis.
And then you have Austin, which is quite the opposite of Dallas. But some of that is manufactured too. Keep Austin weird. How 10 years ago is that fucking shit? They’ve sold out to corporate America. South by Southwest and ACL get bigger and bigger and more corporate every year. The first South by Southwest I ever went to was in 1993. I went with Blues Traveller. And it was really a rock show. Now it’s like, Andy Cohen from Bravo’s here. It’s insane.
Would you encourage younger chefs to participate in food competition shows like Top Chef to get more exposure?
I wouldn’t encourage that. No. It just leads to false gods. It has nothing to do with the restaurant business. It’s produced. The best cook doesn’t always win. TV is a manipulative business that tries to suck you in so they can sell shit so you watch them. At Top Chef every week they read social media and the critics and then the next episode they would change things based upon what the feedback they got from the fans. Or they manipulate the fans by frustrating them and getting them to interact, which got other people interested in watching the show.
But couldn’t being on cooking shows help young chefs develop their voices?
Yeah, as long as they take it seriously. As long as they’re not just doing it for fame. They have to have something to back it up. I’ll do a TV show and people will say, oh, who is that guy, let me go see his restaurant. And you’ll go to my restaurants and you’re like wow, there’s something here. A lot of times you’ll go to those TV show guys’ restaurants and you just go like, how the fuck did that happen? The problem with young guys and fame is that they think they can do whatever they want. Like once they have fame then they can just run out of food and serve something esoterically bizarre that confuses everybody.
Delicious is more important than creative because everything’s been done before. You’re not going to reinvent the wheel. At this point, after the post molecular era and the compositionist era, where basically commercial artists have gone into the food business because its more lucrative for them financially. A lot of the artsy fartsy food is beautiful in pictures and some of it is beautiful in its presentation, but it’s soulless in the eating of it. Because it’s composition, it’s not cooking.
Putting radishes and flowers on everything is ridiculous at this point. Restaurants that started these trends are struggling because that food doesn’t have sustainability. At the end of the day, you’re going out to dinner and it’s $200 to $300 for two people. People want something from that experience other than flowers and vegetables. I see the merit in it and I use pieces of that, but I don’t totally buy into a trend. Fashion shows you that. Take little dribs and drabs of everything and make it your own.
You seem to be making less noise than you were a few years ago when you were on TV and ragging on Leslie. What changed?
Validation. With Spoon and Knife I proved to people that I’m good at what I do. So when I had them both going at the same time, it was just a brilliant place to be because people were like, wow Tesar really does know what he’s doing. It didn’t make me any better, it just meant I knew what I was doing. And we’re going to try to prove that again with the Italian restaurant. Some of the younger chefs—if they can stay away from the distractions of drugs and partying and the desire for fame—they, too, will succeed over a longer period time.
I’ve been around four generations in the restaurant business and I’ve worked with and know everybody. That’s why I can shit on Bourdain. He’s awesome. But at the same time we feud back and forth all the time. He’s mad at me because I made a comment about his new wife and so then she got mad at me.
You insulted his wife?
I made a comment about his first wife on The Braiser, and his new wife got pissed off. She wears the pants. Trust me. He’s always been dragged around by his dick. A lot of guys are. It’s nice that he always marries women with strong personalities to take care of him because then he can just wander around, get stoned, drink and tell stories. He’s like fucking Ernest Hemingway.
If you really have an intellectual debate with him, you’ll learn that he’s an amazing writer and storyteller and probably one of the shittiest chefs that ever lived. The guy can’t cook his way out of a paper bag. Everywhere he goes he makes Portuguese fish stew, beef bourguignon or he brings Eric Ripert with him to do something.
Look, what annoys me about chefs is fraudulent behavior, over-hyped food and ego, and I’ve been guilty of all of it myself. So now that I’ve gotten older, I just don’t want to be that type of person any longer. I’d much rather see younger, talented people do the projects that I’m not directly involved with, but yet be a mentor to them. It’s a valuable gift to be able to mentor younger guys to work hard and be honest about their work. My friends call me Yoda now. Because like, OK, I can kick your ass, but I’d rather sit in the corner peacefully and give sound-bites and good advice. I’ll be 60 in two years. Fuck it, right?
Alyson Sheppard writes about restaurants and bars for Playboy.com. She lives in Dallas and hopes John did not talk shit about her behind her back after she left the room. Find her on Twitter: @amshep