John Tesar: The Most Hated Chef in Dallas
He earned five stars at The Mansion. But his tenure there ended abruptly, amid allegations that he drank on the job and threw cutlery. Now he’s out to prove that he won’t once again self-destruct.
After the Mansion, Tesar headed back to New York. He had a three-month run at an East 62nd Street restaurant called Fishtail, where he says he took the fall for a one-star review that wasn’t his fault. Bloggers at Eater New York reported in May 2009 that Tesar was fired from Fishtail. A user identified as #johntesar commented on the post: “fuck y’all at Eater. I am going to Texas.” Tesar says he didn’t write it, but he did return to Texas—a place Tesar calls “right wing, Republican, it’s George Bush, it’s fucking swift boat, fucking vast right wing conspiracy”—for a restaurant in the Woodlands called Tesar’s Modern Steak & Sustainable Seafood. Tesar calls two of his three business partners in the venture “con men,” claiming one did time in a Florida prison for pornography. He gave me their names but then said those weren’t their real names. The third partner is now a club owner in Austin who goes by the name Sky Cheung. Cheung says he lost $125,000 on Tesar’s Woodlands restaurant. He hung up on me when I mentioned the names Hillary Brauner and Bill O’Rourke.
Former Dallas Chop House chef Kenny Mills almost hung up on me when I mentioned the name John Tesar. Mills worked with Tesar when he left the Woodlands for Dallas and took a consulting job with Dallas Restaurant Group, which owns Dallas Fish Market and Dallas Chop House.
Mills says, “Maybe he’s a great talent, but I’ve worked with all the top chefs in Dallas, and none of them are that whacked out, that insecure about their abilities. If you really know how to cook, you don’t act like that. You don’t throw things around the kitchen. You don’t act like a child. He wants to be Gordon Ramsay.”
Mills, who now owns Chop House Burgers in Arlington, says Tesar wanted everyone to know he was a five-star chef. “He got one star in New York,” Mills says, “so I told him that really makes him a three-star chef.” After telling me a hellish kitchen story about popover pastries, a slammed drawer, and a hurled bread basket, Mills says, “I tell people, if John Tesar was dying in the desert, I wouldn’t give him the sweat off my balls.”
Dallas Restaurant Group owner Mike Hoque says he would hire Tesar again. Hoque had only “heard about” difficulties between Mills and Tesar. He says, “Kenny had a self-esteem problem, and John had an ego problem.”
Anthony Bourdain dismisses the drama that surrounds Tesar by reminding me that we’re talking about chefs and not politicians. “Just like me,” he says, “he’s done a lot of bad things. He always had temptations. But you know what? Life has not exactly sucked for him.” Bourdain, who has been open about his past drug use, says he and Tesar “share a dark side and have a lot of the same personal flaws.”
It’s clear that Bourdain has some empathy for Tesar. “Go easy on the guy,” he says. “He’s always stumbled toward happiness.”
I ask Bourdain about Tesar’s accusations that he cribbed experiences from Tesar’s life. “Well, yeah,” he says matter-of-factly. “I’m sure I have used his stories and put myself there. Maybe not knowingly. I have been inspired by his adventures and misadventures.
“He leaves a lot of people in his wake,” Bourdain concludes. “There’s no doubt about it. The bottom line is the guy can cook. Just put up with the rest and watch him cook. Or don’t.”
After my conversation with Bourdain, Tesar tells me that he sees Bourdain like Hunter S. Thompson, a self-destructive creative genius. He says, “Bourdain wishes he could be Hunter Thompson, but he doesn’t have the balls to off himself.”
It’s 11 pm, and tesar is sitting at the bar at Tei-An, the haute Japanese restaurant disguised as a Giorgio Armani boutique located across the driveway from The Commissary at One Arts Plaza. Sade plays in the background. The bartender sets down Tesar’s first glass of sake. He says that he comes here to hide, that sometimes he needs to talk to Tei-An’s owner, Teiichi Sakurai, whom he calls his spiritual mentor. (Sakurai says he admires Tesars’ skills but he doesn’t know him that well).
“I can have a few drinks at night,” Tesar says, looking up at the wall of Reserved For table plaques with bold-faced names such as Trammell Crow and Henry Miller. “Ever since the Dallas Morning News [gave The Commissary two stars], they pour me twice as much. They know I’m in mourning. They feel bad for me. ... All my competitors, they read that review and they said, ‘See, I knew he would fuck up.’ This whole thing was supposed to be the triumph of my career. It’s been a, a race to—it’s been a race to frustration.”
Tesar’s shoulders relax as he sits back in his bar stool. He wants to confess. It’s important to note that it doesn’t appear to me that he’s drunk. He tells me he was sleeping on friends’ floors when he was 36, after being a millionaire at 30. He talks about his first wife and 22-year-old daughter who don’t speak to him. He doesn’t even know where his daughter is. He talks about the Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy he went through to deal with trauma from his adoption, a moment he says he relives every day. He tells me about his battle with cocaine, the more than five years he was clean and sober, attending East Village 12-step meetings. He has now eliminated his addictions, he says, and his self-destructive ways. “I’m not weak like that,” he says, his shoulders beginning to rise.
“Like this fight with Nick,” Tesar says, referring to Nick Badovinus. “I knew I could kick Nick’s ass. But I took the Buddhist approach and said, ‘I’ll just walk away. God bless you.’ ”
Tesar orders a half sake and half beer to get “hydrated.” He has to go back to work.
“I thought One Arts Plaza was Tei-An and the magic of Teach,” he says, using the chef’s nickname. Tesar says when he opened The Commissary, he didn’t know about the “mall mentality” of the Lucy Billingsley-owned complex. (Tesar says he owns 45 percent of The Commissary, with Billingsley taking the rest. Billingsley refused to comment.) “I didn’t know they have worked so hard and so diligently to cultivate the theater crowd. People just want something to eat between 6:30 and 8. It’s kind of fucked up my plan. This pretheater thing has fucked up my life.” Tesar has a name for the diners who descend on One Arts before shows at the Wyly Theatre or Winspear Opera House. He calls them The Mist and describes the onslaught as being like a horror film.
But even with the challenge of feeding grandmothers who just want a medium-well burger before seeing The Wiz, the two-star review in the News, and the dust-up with Badovinus, Tesar says he’s sticking it out. “I’m not a crazy chef,” he says. “I’m a badass, though. I’m the bad boy. I could walk away, fuck you.” Tesar knows his reputation is to cut and run. “Now the test is, ‘Will he stick it out?’ Because we’re all Lucy’s employees. I could walk away, pack my bags, go to another city. No fucking way. I’m committed to this thing. To my family.
“I will not let them down,” Tesar says. “At 53 years old, it defines me as a man. If I give up on my family and friends, then I’m the douche bag that everyone writes about. I’m not going to be that douche bag. I’m a man. I’ve matured.”
“Everything i’ve told you, I believed it when I said it,” Tesar says. He’s tearing up again, telling me he is concerned that after all the time we’ve spent talking, I haven’t really gotten to know him. “You made me cry again, man. Are you happy?”
This is our 20th phone call. In addition, I’ve spent more than a dozen hours formally interviewing him. Then there are the many rambling, unsolicited texts from him, some 200 words long, sent at 1 am, employing syntax from a haiku written by Kierkegaard, such as: “Made up words almost seem to have more meaning of the truth it’s what creates the drama.” In other texts, he asks me to ghostwrite what he says is his forthcoming book, titled either The Life and Times of Jimmy Sears or “so you want to be a famous chef or something like that.” Tesar says he’s got an agent and a deal. Other texts are humorously threatening, instructing me to “tell the facts now” and that he’s “part Irish cop and gangster.”
Somewhere in all of the madness lies the truth. And the real John Tesar.
Is the real John Tesar the smiling one-man band cooking behind the line, insisting this was all part of his plan? He’s literally flipping burgers, the same English-muffined, apple-wood-smoked bacon and cheddar burger he was making 36 years ago at Magic’s Pub. A little over two years ago, he was working in a hotel restaurant that made its own tonic water, for God’s sake. But he says he’s content. Things couldn’t be better. He has given up hard alcohol, hasn’t done drugs in 17 years. His karma is clean, and he goes to the same Methodist church as Dean Fearing. He wants to be healthy and present for his son, go home at night to a wife who bakes pies.
Or is the real John Tesar the guy who’s always getting screwed over, the guy who begins stories by saying, “This is a great example of how shit just happens to me”? He’s a victim. The economy cost him his job at The Mansion, and the old-timers there, the Dean Fearing loyalists, they made him into “this character.” Then there’s Anthony Bourdain. “He took my stories!” Tesar rants. “He didn’t even use my real name. How do you think that made me feel?” Food critics have a vendetta against him. Fishtail, Tesar’s Modern Steak & Sustainable Seafood, Dallas Chop House—his failures at these restaurants were the critics’ fault.
Or is the real John Tesar just a badass? People want to be him, but they can’t match the talent. Don’t forget those five stars, he says. He gives props to Smoke’s Tim Byres by calling him “the John Tesar of Dallas.” Brad Pitt was going to play him in a movie. This Tesar wants to remind you about the socialites he bedded while working at The Mansion, that he partied at Studio 54 with John McEnroe, Halston, and Liza Minnelli. “Find someone who says they’ve kicked my ass,” he says.
Or is John Tesar really just the first guy I met? I ate at the chef’s table at The Commissary before he knew I was writing this story. The $85 six-course meal included deconstructed beef Wellington with fois gras, lobster with melted fois gras, fried fois gras balls, and yellowtail sashimi and watermelon. Two of the couples at the table that night in June were splurging on date night. We all wanted to know when we’d get to meet the chef. Finally, at the end of the meal, I asked our waitress where he was. She said Tesar was over at Tei-An, drinking sake, and she went to get him. The John Tesar who shuffled into the room looked like he was tired of it all, like he’d taken too many punches and was a little scared. He had the eyes of a circus elephant. This was not Dallas’ most hated chef. This was not a pan-throwing monster. This was just a guy who didn’t like where he was. He looked to me like a middle-aged man who was wondering what the hell had happened.
A month later, as I sit down to write this story, my phone rings. It’s John Tesar. “I just looked up the word ‘provocative,’ ” he tells me excitedly. “Maybe this story will be so provocative that I’ll get paid to go on the road and speak.”
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