Texas chef John Tesar sticks to his New York roots.
He might now live in the Lonestar State, but John Tesar will always be a New Yorker at heart. With an ever-so-slight accent, the 65-year-old Manhattan-born chef suffers no fools—he’s a firebrand, an iconoclast, the self-destructive Jimmy Sears in Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, and once dubbed the “most hated chef in Dallas,” all with an undeniably expert eye for a damn good steakhouse. So much so that his five restaurants, from Florida, across Texas, to California, have garnered him five James Beard Award semifinalist nods, two runs on Bravo’s Top Chef, and, most recently, his very first Michelin star. He could care less about the accolades—or critics—with his sixth location, Knife Italian, opening in Los Colinas this fall, and his seventh slated for Austin in 2024. In short, he’s not slowing down, and nobody’s stopping him. One bite of his bone-in strip (or seafood) and you’ll understand why.
Last time we spoke, you told us about the Italian, almost Goodfellas influence from your childhood. But there’s more to that story. Tell me about your background.
I’m Irish and Italian from New York, but I was adopted at birth—Mount Sinai Hospital, 95th and First—by a Czechoslovakian family. I never met my parents, but my father was a supposedly somewhat of an Irish gangster Westie type from Hell’s Kitchen, and my mother was obviously a short Italian woman. Short legs, anyway. With me, sometimes you get the Irish, and sometimes you get the Italian.
What are your earliest food memories from your Czechoslovakian household?
I was very young, I’m talking the 1960s, and my parents were already, like, foodies. My father loved to fish—he was a bayman disguised as a banker. We had a boat and did everything from combing eels to catching crabs to clamming. To the day he died, he knew every guy down at the inlet, and he’d bring them scotch and cigars and come home with lobsters and fish. My mom liked to garden, and she really liked to cook. She made breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day. And real cuisine—wholesome foods, Italian food, Eastern European food. It was just waking up in the morning and smelling amazing things, all the time. For a while in high school, I also lived with my grandmother and my aunt in Queens, and they would make potato dumplings, pickles in the jar in the breezeway, sausages, and all this exotic stuff like rabbit with dill cream sauce that when you’re 12 years old, you think, I’m not eating that shit. You just don’t understand it yet.
When did the culinary world really start to pique your interest?
My dad had an expense account, and he would take us out to classic Manhattan restaurants like Luchow’s and Windows on the World. Back then, there were all these institutions that you went to for special occasions or holidays. There weren’t as many restaurants as there are now and there wasn’t all the publicity or media associated with it. It was tradition. It was history. You went because it had existed for years, and it didn’t need a blogger or a Yelper to tell you it was good. Those are the great American restaurants, and they’re still around. Knife is becoming one of them. We’re eight years old now.
How did those early dining experiences inform what you do in your restaurants today?
As I’ve gotten older, hopefully with some wisdom, I’ve come to appreciate the classics, and I’ve learned that it’s a team sport. The era of the true celebrity chef is gone. Guy Fieri has killed him and turned him into a game show host with tacky jewelry. I’ve had to really readjust my game as far as who I am as a chef and what I have to let go of in order to protect what we’ve built here. Be careful what you ask for because it changes. My greatest concern these days, looking down the road, is how do I maintain these restaurants and relationships and staffs as they exist now? I'm really a talent scout now, and a director.
What’s it like having a Michelin star?
It’s a lot of pressure. A Michelin star is like inviting Price Waterhouse Cooper into your company to evaluate it. They’re experts at evaluating restaurants and giving their feedback to the people who believe in that. It’s nothing more, nothing less. And that’s how it’s changed my perspective, in that I truly understand how it works. I’ve never thought it possible in my life. And then all of a sudden, it appeared in Florida. I was in the right place at the right time.
Where along the way did you get introduced to cast iron?
My dad. He never went to Europe during World War II, but he went to boot camp in Alabama. Growing up, he would make this breakfast—bread, bacon, sausage, eggs—all in one cast-iron pan, and he would just leave it on the stove for everyone to pick from.
You cut your teeth on the New York City dining scene. What about in those kitchens—did you use cast iron there?
Oh, sure, because I worked in French kitchens. I was trained to make omelets in cast-iron pans. I had six cast-iron pans, and I had to cure them with salt all morning long. Then I would wipe them with oil, and then I would make my omelets in them—real French omelets, with no dimples or ruffles or anything. This was before Teflon.
When you’re cooking at home, what do you use your cast iron for?
I make everything in there. Pancakes for the kids. Eggs. Hamburgers. Steak. People talk to me about grills all the time, and I say, unless you have a steak broiler, a cast-iron pan is the only way to cook red meat.
Why not over a grill?
Because with a grill, you lose all the juices. It’s simple chemistry. First of all, there’s no flavor in a blue flame, in natural gas—zero. And all you’re doing is searing the meat where those metal bars are, while the rest is being exposed to uneven radiant heat, and the fat is just dripping into the flame, creating this creosote-y carbon exchange—this black soot smoke that flavors the meat from a non-flavored cooking source, right? And all the juices seem to run out before it even gets seared. Whereas you could just put a little bit of oil in a hot cast-iron pan, let the steak render and baste in its own fat, and it tastes the way it should be eaten.
You also burn sage in your cast iron?
I have it on the stove right now. You know, to purify the air and help me cleanse after I’ve been around toxic people. It also hides the smell of marijuana.
Top ingredients you keep around the kitchen or pantry?
Salt, oil, butter. I usually use a crystalized sea salt like Maldon for finishing, and I prefer Diamond Crystal for Kosher salt—it’s much gentler and easy to control, especially on red meat. I also like having double-zero [grind] semolina flour on hand to make pasta easily and quickly. And you gotta have a variety of vinegars. I like going from Japanese vinegars to Indian vinegars to Italian vinegars, Spanish sherry vinegar. It’s powerful and you can use it in creative ways—for making salads, for finishing sauces, for just adding a little zip to a dish.
Your menus really showcase a dish’s main protein. When did sourcing become an important part of your cooking?
The source first came to my attention sometime in the mid ‘90s. Rick Moonen was into sourcing and sustainability back then. This was before Dan Barber and those other guys were doing what they’re doing now. But Rick was about no GMOs, he was about purity in dairy, he was about sustainable seafood. He was a chef at the Water Club [in New York City] at the time and we got involved with the Monterey Aquarium and its Seafood Watch program. Plus, I’m a surfer, so I’ve always been conscious about the cleanliness of the ocean.
Then when I got to Texas, I was at a restaurant one night where I ordered these 72-hours sous vide short ribs. On the menu it said 44 Farms, and I’d never seen that before. I asked my purveyor who that was, met them, and started getting samples. At the time, they were doing 25 head of cattle a week. Now they’re doing over 350. It made such a difference in our dry-aging process, which led to the success of Knife, and there’s no other meat I’ve tasted to this day, even down to our hamburger, that’s been so consistent, so reliable, so local, and so honest to what it is. We’ve helped each other succeed. You don’t get to do that very often as a chef.
For Christmas Eve, you did a big Feast of the Seven Fishes, which is an Italian tradition of abstaining from meat in anticipation of the birth of Baby Jesus. Being part Italian but growing up in a Czech household, when did you start doing that yourself?
It really started when I used to do it at RM Seafood [in Las Vegas] with chef Rick Moonen. We did it for the first time at the James Beard House in 2000 and it opened my eyes about it. And then when I did Spoon [a seafood restaurant in Dallas], it just made sense to do on Christmas Eve. We sear a lot of the seafood in the cast iron. Any skin fish—dorade, salmon, striped bass, arctic char. Plus scallops. You’re only allowed to sear scallops in cast iron in my kitchen.
Read Tesar’s Whole Fish Recipe in Family Receipts.
Photographs courtesy of chef John Tesar.