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John Tesar: The "Most Hated Chef" Talks 1 Year at Spoon

Photo: Margo Sivin/EDFW

2013 has been a pretty incredible year for John Tesar and his Preston Center restaurant Spoon Bar & Kitchen. Since opening its doors last November, Spoon has been lavished with stars, awards and accolades from publications both local and national — a pretty impressive showing from a guy who just two years ago was proclaimed "The Most Hated Chef in Dallas" on the cover of D Magazine (and of course, there was also that whole Top Chef thing in between). Eater recently caught up with Tesar to talk about the first year at Spoon, Dallas' new generation of young chefs, his plans for the future and more.

So looking back, how has the first year of growth at Spoon been? As you mentioned before the opening, there was a lot riding on this restaurant for you.

It's been amazing. I'm blessed. It's one thing when you take a chef's job but when you open your own restaurant, it's something else entirely. I came to this town and replaced Dean Fearing [at The Mansion], that wasn't an easy thing to do. Then I had to go off and find out what I wanted to do, back to New York, I went to Houston. So as far as the press is concerned, they look at that as zig-zagging. I look at it as surviving. It's a prime example of 'everything happens for a reason,' because things lead you back to where you probably should have been in the first place, I think, if you just kind of let go and do what you feel inside.

I've learned after all these years that I think with anything creative, you have to hope you know what you're good at and try to pursue it. Then the public will tell you if you're any good at it. It's the only way. You can't tell yourself you're good at something. If you call yourself an artist, you're not an artist. People want to throw words around like genius and artist and craftsman — those words have to come from other people. They can't come from you.

So I guess I have this middle-aged philosophy in the sense that I've grown up to a certain extent. And people have watched me grow up before their very eyes and I never thought I was that important that people would watch me in such detail — but I guess that's what comes along with the whole Mansion thing. And I'm this brash New Yorker and that mentality doesn't really fly very well down here in the South. So I haven't changed who I am, I just — I talk less to people who don't matter and I work a lot more.

For me, after 30 years of doing this, [the food is] the easy part. This is the hard part. Partners, money, the press, bloggers, the generational shift. And I mean that respectfully — of course something new and young and interesting is always going to be fascinating, especially in a town that's somewhat a little behind the rest of the country. I have to give Leslie Brenner credit for one thing — and I'm not just saying only one thing — but the note that resonates with me about her is she's trying to get that kind of [broader] respect for Dallas. She's trying to do it with younger chefs rather than older chefs, which is something that Bill Grimes did if you look at the New York Times in the late nineties, he took a star away from Charlie Palmer, sort of like [Leslie] taking a star away from The Mansion and telling the old guys 'Hey, over here there's some new young hot stuff going on.'

How was the process of being reviewed by the major critics in town?

I don't care who you are or what you say, chefs need to be in the public eye, we need attention, we need validation because that's what we do. It's part of the world we live in. You can't pooh-pooh the critic, you can't go after the critic, you just have to embrace the process and try to do the best you can. On the set of Top Chef I was looking at the Puget Sound all day long, and I'd seen Omar [Flores] and Jonn [Baudoin] doing Driftwood and that really inspired me to say, I could take a bigger risk than that. If people think that's a seafood restaurant, I'll show them a real seafood restaurant. And of course, no disrespect meant — that was just a tailored version of what I was accustomed to. I was thinking Marea, Le Bernardin, and those are places that feed 300 people a night and have 40 people in the kitchen. We're doing that kind of food with 4 people and a pastry chef. I employ a pastry chef at a decent salary for a 58-seat restaurant. It's not easy.

We make willful sacrifices to try and make this a better restaurant every day. And I think that's what we've learned over the first year — if you ate here on day one and you thought it was okay, people that have come back over and over again, they're blown away by the progression of the restaurant. That's what a chefs responsibility is, it doesn't matter if you're the new guy or the old guy — you have to remain relevant, you have to keep progressing, and you have an obligation to be there for your guests. Not become a celebrity and then check out, and spend half your days out on the road cooking for people far away from your town. You'll notice the good chefs in this town, the hot restaurants this year, the chefs are in the kitchen. Matt [McCallister]'s in his kitchen, Omar's in his kitchen. Chefs need to be in their kitchens, it's where they're most comfortable. Unless they're a mega-star, and then you can get away with murder. And who am I, I'm not going to knock Emeril.

That's another thing, when you're younger you have all this angst because you have this ambition and you want to be just like Emeril, or whoever your hero is. I want to be my own hero these days, and that just means in the sense that not only do I have a good restaurant with good food, but I have a restaurant that makes money, which is very important in this business. A lot of people don't understand the financial pressures of spending close to three-quarters of a million dollars on a 58-seat restaurant. Day in and day out, it's very expensive, [seafood is] a very perishable product.

This is who I am, I grew up in the water every day. My mother would drop me off at the beach from the age of 9 or 10 and then pick me up at sunset. They used to pull me out of the water when my lips turned purple, so I am half fish. Then you go through this metamorphosis in your life and you get distracted, and this business can be very distracting and trends can be very wearing on a chef. Sometimes if you're not on trend or your restaurant is a year or two old and you're not on the Heatmap, you're like outside looking in.

But I think if you have talent and a clear vision and you work hard and you're a good business person, your restaurant will always be received well. You need a good sommelier, a good manager, good service, a great team of people and you need to keep them with you. Other than one or two people, I have my entire original team intact, and that's something that was important to me. What I tried to create at The Mansion was a contemporary modern New York style restaurant in Dallas. Six years ago it kind of pissed people off. Six years later, it seems to be working okay.

Stay tuned for part two of the conversation with Spoon's John Tesar tomorrow.

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