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John Tesar Talks Top Chef, Haters, Offal & More

John Tesar's Spoon Bar & Kitchen is gearing up to open November 9, and all the world is watching. After a tumultuous run at the storied Mansion on Turtle Creek, an altercation with chef/restaurateur Nick Badovinus, that infamous D Magazine cover, a victory on Extreme Chef that netted him $10,000, and an upcoming appearance on Top Chef: Seattle (premiering Wednesday night on Bravo), Tesar has proved himself to be something of a showman with a flair for the dramatic.

Love him or hate him, there's one thing that cannot be denied: The man can cook. We managed to pull Tesar away from the stove at Spoon for a few minutes to pick his brain about his new restaurant, being "the most hated chef in Dallas", his love of reality television, Anthony Bourdain, and more. (Psst: he's got a book coming out next year!)

[Photo credit: Kevin Marple]

Talk a little bit about the general concept of Spoon. Is this your dream restaurant that you've always wanted to open?

It's definitely one of my dreams come true in the sense that this is something I've been waiting for for a long time. It's been a creative evolution for me, personally and professionally, in the sense that I've been through a lot here in Dallas and I've had some time to sit back and reflect on that.

We had talked about expanding [The Commissary] with more locations and doing a food truck and then Brad [business partner] came back and said, why don't you open up another restaurant, something like York Street? Sharon Hage was a friend of mine and I thought, this is perfect. Let's open up a nice 2,500 square foot restaurant, a chef-driven bistro, I can cook every night and get my feet on the ground and be the chef I've always wanted to be. My own project, my own restaurant with one partner and pretty much everything secure. So I walked away [from The Commissary], we shook hands and said we're going to move on with our lives.

Anyway, we looked at the Hopdoddy space and I don't know why the landlord didn't want us but I'm kind of glad now from what I see over there—a Baker Bros., a gym, a Mediterranean restaurant, all that stuff. But everything always happens for a reason. We got this great [former] Tramontana space across the street paying $16 a square foot. I sat down with my partner and said, I need x, y and z if I'm going to own a restaurant again. We've had the staff training for the last two months. We are doing this on a budget, however I've pretty much gotten everything I need to succeed, so if this restaurant doesn't make it, it is all on me. In that way it is a dream come true—I have everything I need in the kitchen, I have a great staff that's well prepared and we just want to open a really solid restaurant and let the dining public tell us how they feel about it.

We do have lofty aspirations, I'm not going to kid you about that. You listen to all those motivational speakers and they don't tell you—a lot of people tell you what they're doing, they don't tell you why they're doing it. I'm doing this for me, my family and my life. It's time in my career, I'm going to be 55 years old next month and I've just—after doing Top Chef and going through a lot of things in this town and having people still be interested in me, enthused in me, hating me, whatever it is, it's all great stuff. But once you do all these superficial things and you live through them, your need for attention and maturation process change immensely, hopefully—if you're cognitive and you have some sense of what's really important in life. These are all great things that have happened to me, but if this restaurant is not what I want it to be and if it doesn't succeed then I have failed at all of the opportunities I have been given to date.

All my focus is truly on this restaurant and with that, we decided to make it a seafood restaurant because that's really what I do, I grew up on the East Coast, on Long Island. I worked with Rick Moonen, I built the restaurant in Las Vegas with him day by day, and I was just kind of shy doing that concept in Dallas because there weren't a lot of seafood concepts, but I went to Rex's one day and I saw that that was packed, and I saw what Omar [Flores] did at Driftwood and I saw that that was a great start, a great entry level venture into a seafood restaurant and that we could now take it to the next level, especially because we have that great rent, we only have 68 seats, I have a great partner, so all the things are in place. Does that make sense? We're not contrived, we're doing it the right way. We're sourcing all the seafood direct. We're not using the word "sustainable", we're saying "responsible", we're not trying to do organic and all those catch words. We're trying to give Dallas something that it doesn't have. We're trying to be like Tei-An with the philosophy that we're the only ones that do what we do.

Of course no one can forget your D Magazine cover last year with the "Most Hated Chef in Dallas" headline. Do you think people will come into Spoon with an open mind to see what you have to offer or do you think that a lot of people are just going to hate on you by default?

I can't give anybody a statistical demographic on that but I find that the small quotients of people that hate me, first of all they don't know me, and they may hate me because of something they've heard from somebody else. I mean, going into The Mansion and taking a broken down, 27 year old hotel that was run into the ground and recreating it was not an easy job, day to day and situation to situation and dealing with the three managing directors of the hotel while doing it. I had to wrangle through all that and I think that's where most of the hate comes from, there was a lot of talk on the blogosphere and spin on why my tenure ended when it did—was it the recession, was it employee relationships, was it because of them trying to sell the hotel? All this was going on while I was doing this [speaking of the July 2011 sale of The Mansion's managing company, Rosewood, to a Hong Kong-based hospitality company] because they didn't move very quickly. So I think that's where all the hate stems from. And then Nancy—I really like Nancy Nichols, I have tremendous respect for her tenure, I think the food world needs tenure in this town because it's so fast and furious, someone needs to still tell the story of the past. But don't get stuck in the past. There's all of these young chefs out there taking risks, learning lessons, moving the scene forward. This is a wonderful time for Dallas and people need to tell the story.

The fact that I get this level of attention and people are either excited by me or aggravated by me, it's just—I'm a blessed human being to have so much attention tossed my way and whether it's good energy or bad energy you have the ability to turn that around for people. You can be a well-liked person and do something really bad and be hated the next day, so sometimes the fact that people find you on the map and think that they might hate you, when they get to really know you, they turn their opinion around, you know? Snap judgments are great but it is a result of the internet, and of course we all know from our experiences with the internet that some things are just not true or they're changed drastically, and what viewpoints you see is just totally random at times.

I have some great press, I've had a lot of accomplishments. Being 55 years old and being on Top Chef season 10, I did that for me. I didn't do that for any other reason. I'm an experimental person. I don't mind being ridiculed, I don't mind the adulation, I don't let it go to my head. You really have to keep your feet on the ground and understand what a chef's responsibility is. And when I get very deep and very passionate like this, some people just don't know what to do with that energy. But that's what motivates me. In the last year I've created Cedars Social, The Commissary, now we're doing Spoon. I recreated The Mansion—in a four or five year period I've done a lot in the Dallas dining scene and I think that's confusing to some people and maybe depressing to others and I don't know what to make of that. I don't do it for awards or medals, I do it because I love food and I love to articulate that.

You cite chef Rick Moonen [of RM Seafood, Las Vegas] as being a great influence on you and your new restaurant, Spoon. What were the most important things that you learned from Rick Moonen from the time you spent with him?

Rick taught me first and foremost that people aren't perfect but you have to see the talent inbetween. Rick is extremely intellectual, I don't think a lot of people realize that he graduated number one in his class at the Culinary Institute of America. Charlie Palmer graduated number two. He's a very intelligent man on many levels and his tastebuds—Rick has the best palate I've ever seen in my entire life. Someone can take a dish to Rick and he's just like okay more acid, a little more salt. He's very into sustainability, integrity, and that if you just do something, eventually good things are going to come from it but you have to be patient. He taught me patience, he taught me professionalism. He prepared me for The Mansion. I don't think I would've gotten the Mansion job unless I had worked for Rick. He just put me into a position to really mature as a chef, not to get distracted by the press and everything. I got to cook and run two restaurants, one in New York and Las Vegas simultaneously. It was a real learning experience and a great experience. It really matured me as a chef.

We know you can't talk about Top Chef but it seems like you're getting pretty well-versed in the whole reality TV thing after winning $10,000 on Extreme Chef last year and all that. Can we expect to see you on any more shows in the future?

(laughs) I love Bravo television period, so if something I'm doing on Top Chef makes them want to continue a relationship with me or ask me to do other things, then I'd do it in a heartbeat as long as it doesn't interrupt what's going on here at Spoon. Would I do another season of Extreme Chef? Sure, it's fun. Reality TV and cooking shows don't define you as a person or as a chef, they're just fun and they help people get to know you and see little amusing things about you. At one time I had a tremendous thirst for notoriety but I'd rather have the notoriety coming through Spoon now than these other ventures instead of it being the other way around. And that's one of the lessons that I learned, I need to just cook every night and do what I do, and if Spoon gets great reviews, that's bigger news than winning $10,000 on Extreme Chef. To have a highly rated restaurant, and a book a la Kitchen Confidential [2000 book that helped propel Anthony Bourdain to stardom] coming out sometime in February or March or a little later than that, that's really all a guy could dream of at my age. I don't need to have 500 restaurants, and I've had this talk with my partners—if they want to open more restaurants, I'll hire younger chefs to run them and I'll work on concepts and be a mentor to the concept, but Spoon is mine and what I plan on doing for the next seven to ten years hopefully.

The Chicago Tribune did an article the other day on the continuing surge of chefs using offal. They mentioned Spoon specifically and some of the envelope-pushing menu items like lobster liver, codfish sperm and cockscomb. How do you intend to market that kind of stuff to the Dallas diner without scaring them, or do you think people are less phased by that stuff these days?

It's twofold in the sense that we have simple fish—if you want to come in and just get a piece of Hawaiian swordfish that was caught on a line with just lemon butter and some potatoes and vegetables—you're going to be able to come and get that for 28 bucks. So there's a dual approach—we do want to cater to everybody and not alienate the Dallas diner, however as you get deeper into the menu, you can have more elaborate preparations of that same swordfish. Now if you want to put yourself in my hands and sit at the kitchen counter or do a tasting menu, we will slip in some codfish sperm, we'll do cockscomb and lobster liver.

With the Singapore lobster, what I do is I make a butter with the lobster liver and spread it on the Texas toast. It just enhances the flavor and gives you a briny flavor on your buttered toast like salted butter would. It's up to me to be clever about these things. They're not the major focus of my menu, my menu's not all like heart and brains—but I like to play around with these things, and only if it works. Sometimes words scare people. I say, if you don't like it, spit it out. If you like it, keep eating more.

I have so much empathy for young chefs right now because they are going through one of the most competitive, difficult times in their career. I have a body of work already. Even for Top Chef to select me and be in that forum with these young kids, it was such a great experience to learn and see the generational shift and see the challenges of what they're gonna have to go through to be serious and accomplished chefs. I have half or three-quarters of that already in my bag, so I get to take these risks and I get to have a 68 seat restaurant and do all these creative things. I've changed a lot in the sense that I was extremely competitive, I wanted to be the best when I came to Dallas and now it's not that important. I think if Spoon is a great restaurant people will come to it, and I think if we can get above the local level to the point where people would land a plane at DFW and say I gotta eat at Spoon because I hear this place has the most incredible seafood in the state of Texas, then we've achieved a goal above and beyond. We're aiming for that, but if we can get that is a whole different story, that takes a lot of work, a lot of vision, a lot of accomplishment. We don't expect things to just happen naturally.

We had a chance to talk to your buddy Anthony Bourdain recently and he said he's never had a single meal in Dallas.

I've tried to get him to come and eat every single time he's in town, but his schedule is so difficult—he flies in at 4pm, they do the show and they fly out right after. I hung out with him last time, I can't go to the show in Fort Worth next week because we're opening but I just love seeing him—he's a bonafide celebrity and a voice in the culinary community and he always had these skills and attributes, that's how we got to be friends. I have a lot of respect for him and Eric Ripert [executive chef of Le Bernadin in NYC and Bourdain's co-speaker on his current tour] is my idol. This is what I modeled this restaurant after, and I don't want to be precious in that way, I mean this is never going to be Le Bernadin, but if we can accomplish a level of seafood similar to that... I want to return to fine dining without it being cumbersome and intimidating to people. When you come and see it, you'll get our vision.

The Commissary [CLOSED]

1722 Routh Street, Dallas, TX 75201

The Mansion on Turtle Creek

2821 Turtle Creek Boulevard, Dallas, TX 75219 214 559 2100 Visit Website

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