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Chef John Tesar Talks Awards, Le Bernardin, & The Future

After 30-plus years in the biz, John Tesar knows his way around a fish.
After 30-plus years in the biz, John Tesar knows his way around a fish.
Photo: Margo Sivin/EDFW

Here's the third and final installment of our Eater interview with chef John Tesar, who just celebrated the first anniversary of his highly acclaimed restaurant Spoon Bar & Kitchen. (In part one, Tesar talked about the long road to opening Spoon; in part two, he discussed that infamous D Magazine cover that made him a local household name.)

Read on as Tesar talks awards and accolades, John Mariani, chefs as "rock stars," pastry chefs, future projects and more.

Obviously the awards and accolades have been pouring in: not just from local publications but also Conde Nast Traveler, Bon Appetit, Esquire… are you surprised every time something like that happens, or are you pretty much taking it in stride at this point?

The funny thing is, we got a lot of those awards at the Mansion. They're freeing to me, I am surprised because I didn't expect Andrew Knowlton from Bon Appetit to walk through the door. I didn't expect to make that list. I didn't expect people like Pat Sharpe from Texas Monthly to come in here and love the restaurant. I don't take that for granted. Or [Esquire critic] John Mariani showing up on a Sunday night after Dean [Fearing's] barbecue and getting out of his chair and saying, 'You're coming to the Esquire awards.' I mean, he's got a pretty established opinion over 20 years and he's a no-nonsense kinda guy. Contrary to popular belief, I didn't pay him anything to come here; he came here because he heard rumblings about this restaurant.

But to be sitting at the Esquire awards next to Daniel Boulud, Geoffrey Zakarian, the entire Macchioni family, Michael Lomonaco, every new hot restaurant that Mariani liked — it's amazing to get this redemption, and it's not revenge, it's redemption. It's gratifying. A lot of people will tell you I'm a lot calmer these days. I'm a lot less mercurial. I don't have those embers burning in my head when I go to bed at night.

I really only have one thing left on my bucket list for my career and that's if I could be lucky enough to win a James Beard award, but I don't know if that's ever going to happen and you can't live your life worrying about these things — and that goes to all these accolades, you can't chase them. If you do it in reverse, they'll bite you in the ass. If you actually go work and you earn them organically, it's a sense of fulfillment. There's nothing better than critics and your peers complimenting your work. And I don't mean to slight the public because you really need them, without the customers and employees Spoon would be nothing.

But you just have to be grateful for anything in this day and age, there's so many restaurants and so much competition. And I can tell you, my line staff doesn't care about accolades — they're like, 'Fuck you Chef.' People say chefs are the next rock stars, I know real rock stars and they have a much better life than a chef. [laughs] Being a chef is not a bad life but chefs are really not rock stars. I don't have a tour bus or an airplane. Maybe Emeril and Tom Colicchio do, but not me.

But I don't really care if people look at me or not at this point — I want them to look at my restaurant. I was around before publicists. I had one of the first publicists in New York City and then I watched publicists become like, you can't go anywhere without one. It's a very confusing world out there and just because you hire a publicist doesn't mean you're going to be successful. They have to see something in you, you have to have a vehicle, you have to have a lot of money. It's all about spending money, and we're all about making money. Fish is very expensive, and I don't want to give away all our money to someone to get me back on the cover of D Magazine or back on Top Chef. People should know who I am right now and I should be able to do that myself. I think I'm visible enough now that if people want me, they know where to find me. I'm not George Clooney. [laughs]

One big addition you made shortly after opening was the addition of pastry chef David Collier. How has the addition of David affected or helped elevate the overall experience at Spoon?

It makes it a complete restaurant. All my inspiration, a lot of my thoughts about approach to food and even recipes come from Le Bernardin. [Chef/co-owner] Eric Ripert knows that, the maitre'd knows that, Aldo [Sohm, sommelier] knows that. I'm a lover of the restaurant and it inspires me and it's kind of my college. So one of the things I loved the most about Le Bernardin is the desserts they have to complement the lightness of the seafood. A lot of places you go, they have these tiny, delicate little tasting menu portions and then all of a sudden they hit you with dessert to fill you up. They don't do that at Le Bern, they challenge you with dessert.

I fell in love with Dave [when we worked together] at The Mansion. It's not a burden, but it's a bit of a struggle for me to keep him on staff because my partners are like, 'That's a lot of money.' But hopefully we'll do something down the road and all the time and money I've invested in Dave will come back to them in a business sense. But for me, I didn't care about any of that, I just wanted a real pastry chef in my restaurant. We want a Michelin star, we want Leslie [Brenner, Dallas Morning News critic] and Nancy [Nichols, D Mag critic] to embrace us and think we're one of the best restaurants in town, and we couldn't do that without Dave's talent. It was a pipe dream to have him here and when he said he'd do it, I was like, 'Just get on a freaking plane.' The thing I like about Dave is we work here the way we worked at The Mansion. That's his department. He doesn't have to do the lobby or room service anymore like he did at the hotel. He has 2 assistants here and he just does his thing.

I want him to be a little more adventurous, even less molecular sometimes — I'm not into that at all, and I think that's another example of a trend dying. Most recently you see that in Leslie's review of FT33 and Matt [McCallister's] comments about leaving the molecular stuff behind, and this younger generation is going more toward the Noma, like more from the earth style — but how new is that, because that's what French and Italian chefs have been doing for hundreds of years. We just take everything from the earth or the sea and do our thing with it. Sometimes a new generation has to say 'Hey, over here!' and show off their squiggly lines, tweezers, bells and whistles. And that's my call out to the critics — it's just repackaging. A good restaurant is a good restaurant, if you go to a restaurant and the food is good and the service is good it should be as equally relevant and contemporary as someone with tattoos and tweezers. I'm sorry, but I would say that on national TV and to any critic who was sitting here right now.

I look at Ripert's food and all I see is a piece of fish, some mushrooms and some broth. But it's masterful. So it's just your approach, and so whatever the trend is, you either have to embrace it or ride it out. But I'll tell you one thing, it has had an effect on the way I plate food — because I try to make things more relevant. Instead of round food on a round plate, we're doing things more laid out, more component-oriented, but all natural.

Do you have any plans for new ventures in the works, or is Spoon your baby for the foreseeable future?

We're thinking about a casual concept but it's in the initial stages. It's something we definitely want to do, but real estate, money, time... it's the holiday season now. We'll save that conversation for the New Year. There's no contract or lease on my desk at home or anything. That's where the patience comes in — most people would be like 'Hey, Spoon's a hit, let's open another restaurant!' I go home at night and I'm like, 'Do we really want to do this? Do we really want to open another restaurant? Can't we just have a couple years here uninterrupted without being distracted?' I'm lucky that my wife makes enough money so I have that luxury. She does take my American Express card away, though. [laughs]

Then I think I have a cookbook deal, it's going to be called Seafood Without an Ocean. I'm going to take [Dallas photographer] Kevin Marple on the road and we're going to do a real seafood cookbook, not just for Dallas, for everybody. We're gonna go from Maine to Key West, from Baja Mexico to Alaska. All the lifestyle, all the fishing interviews, all the techniques, all the photographs, all the sourcing, come back and do the recipes and then put the book out. It's going to be really, really good.

· John Tesar: "The Most Hated Chef" Talks 1 Year at Spoon [-EDFW-]
· Spoon's John Tesar Talks The Mansion & That Infamous Magazine Cover [-EDFW-]