Coming as no surprise to anyone who lives in Dallas, chef John Tesar steals the show on Restaurant Revolution: 30 Years That Changed American Cuisine, a one-hour Esquire Network special that premiered on November 12.
The show spotlights some of the restaurateurs who made Esquire magazine's 2014 list of best new restaurants, including Elise Kornack and Anna Hieronimus, owners of Brooklyn tasting-menu restaurant Take Root, and Alexander Smalls and J.J. Johnson, who own Afro-Asian-American brasserie The Cecil in Harlem. But Tesar takes it away.
An underlying theme of the show is the idea of chef as rock star and the roots of the celebrity chef phenomenon, as embodied by famed chef Johnathan Waxman, who recalls the fast cars, beautiful girlfriends and recreational drugs that accompanied his journey from Chez Panisse in San Francisco to Michael's in Los Angeles to Jams in New York.
Jonathan Waxman has nothing on Tesar, whose combination of frankness and self-awareness manages to make even the most scandalous behavior seem palatable.
The careers of Wolfgang Puck and Tom Colicchio are also reviewed, with less salacious details. Other restaurant figures interviewed include Jeremiah Tower and chef Mark Peel.
Tesar is cast in the Waxman mold. His combination of frankness and self-awareness manages to make even the most scandalous behavior seem palatable.
The show catches him in the kitchen at Knife, his restaurant in the Highland Hotel in Dallas, about which Esquire's Josh Ozersky wrote: "In one of the most beef-centric cities, Knife is the steakhouse of the future. The reason why: John Tesar."
Explaining that he tries to put a little "chef-driven verve into the steakhouse," Tesar describes newfangled techniques: dry-aging meat, developing white mold, and crafting "bizarre" combinations such as bone marrow with uni and caviar.
"It's just an angle of being different but bringing real quality," he says. "Because I've been to a lot of steakhouses and the meat was just kind of 'eh.'"
Knife marks Tesar's third appearance on Esquire's list, and the narrator observes that "he follows in the bad-boy footsteps laid down by Waxman." With Tesar flashing a burn mark on his forearm, the narrator calls him "one of the most controversial chefs working today — you don't want this guy as your enemy."
Then it gets into the fun stuff: Tesar's dissatisfaction with the review he received from the Dallas Morning News.
"Knife was reviewed by the Dallas Morning News," he says. "So we have one person with an ax to grind who does a hatchet job on me personally. You don't take things personally as a journalist, right? I mean that's what you do, you write stories, you tell the truth, you're not a fiction writer. You're a [bleep] journalist, right?
"This restaurant's working. It's working because the food's good, the staff's good and people love it."
Cue Tom Colicchio, who says, "You kind of have to admire a guy who doesn't care about who he's going to piss off."
"You kind of have to admire a guy who doesn't care about who he's going to piss off," says Tom Colicchio.
Tesar explains his rabble-rousing roots, saying, "There's a large part of me fighting for what you think is right," he says. "I come out of that New York City-Kennedy Democrat-'70s-Vietnam War-fuck the man shit. That's how I was raised."
Tesar describes his strict upbringing under immigrant parents. "When they finally let me out of the house, it was like letting the Tasmanian devil loose," he says.
He shares an anecdote about going to Studio 54, including one night when he says he was hit on by Andy Warhol.
"It's a nightclub environment, and I'm high on blow out of my mind," he says. "It's the most incredible night, when Andy Warhol hit on me. So I don't even know what to say. Is this one of those things where you get hit on by Andy Warhol? Can I get a painting or something?"
His real party days took place during the Wall Street era of the '80s, when "money was just raining from the sky," he says. "People were dropping quaaludes and snorting cocaine like it was going out of style."
After the bubble burst, restaurants closed and Tesar says he went bankrupt.
"One night, I just said to myself, I can't smoke pot anymore, and I definitely can't do cocaine anymore, and my life changed," he says. "And, sure enough, one day the phone rings. 'How would you like to replace Dean Fearing at the Mansion on Turtle Creek?'
"I had never been to Texas, but I knew who Dean was. He was the godfather of Southwestern food. Dean can burn toast and go to your table, and in 15 minutes you don't even remember you just ate burnt toast."
Tesar details his tenure at the Mansion, when he got the stars back and put the Mansion back on the map. But that was followed by the inevitable turn of events.
"They gave me carte blanche: I was to hang out in the bar, I was allowed to drink, I was allowed to do whatever I wanted to do," he says. "However, HR and the people that had been there for 25 years resented that quite a bit. People had thrown me under the bus. I got on the cover of D Magazine as the most hated chef in Dallas. They said I threw cutlery, I slept with socialites, I drank while I worked. Hell yeah, I did all those things. I didn't throw the cutlery, though."
Struck by the fickle vagaries of the restaurant business, Tesar packs his bags and reinvents himself one more time, first with seafood restaurant Spoon and then with Knife.
"And now I have two great restaurants, both of which have been on Esquire's best new restaurants list back-to-back," he says. "I don't know who's ever done that. Has Wolfgang done that? I don’t know, maybe."
That Tesar would figure so prominently is less surprising when you consider that the producers of the show are Jane Lipsitz and Dan Cutforth of Magical Elves, the company that produces Top Chef. They know that Tesar gives good TV.
Restaurant Revolution: 30 Years That Changed American Cuisine airs again Friday, November 14, at 6 pm; Saturday, November 15, at midnight and 1 pm; and Monday, November 17, at 7 pm.