It's always exciting when you get a text message from John Tesar on your personal phone, as local food writers are wont to do. You might get profanities, or you might get emojis. They come at 2 a.m. and they come on sunny afternoons, but no matter what time they come, they're always polarizing.
Like this past weekend for instance, after I published a list that reluctantly recommended his restaurant Knife, on the condition that he was working the pass. My phone buzzed in my pocket. Before I could dig it out, it buzzed again, and then again.
Knife is good even when I am not there
don't be small minded Dallas
Think big Scott think big
It's time to let the next generation shine through mentoring and training
Wait till you try Oak !
All seven came in rapid succession, and they set off my own internal dialogue.
But is Knife as good?
I didn't send those messages, but I spent the week thinking about chefs and how much their presence plays a part in the daily execution at a restaurant. Tesar's announcement that he'd be cheffing at Oak was universally received as strange. Tesar has only operated Knife for eight short months, had recently closed much-loved Spoon, and had announced his first Italian restaurant would open this year. How could he possibly keep up the quality across so many kitchens?
My thumbs were tired, so I called him.
"I'm really good at doing concepts," he told me, after rattling off a list of restaurants he helped open or started himself, some of which are still open, some not. To Tesar, running 10 restaurants successfully is no different than successfully running one. "It all comes down to execution," he said.
And he's right, at least about the execution part, which is exactly why having a passionate, detail-oriented chef (like Tesar) on hand during dinner service is so important. Still, Tesar is adamant that cooking every day at Knife isn't the best use of his time. "Do you want me grilling your rib eye at Knife every night, or should I be at my new Italian restaurant making handmade pasta?" he asked me.
Fair question. The answer: It depends where I'm eating, and when. My concern, if you can call it that, is that the future experiences diners have at Knife or any other restaurant align with what I ate (and what I wrote) when I conducted the review. Too often I've visited restaurants and given positive coverage only to notice the dining experience wither several months down the road. I don't think Tesar should be grilling up steaks at Knife, but I think he should be manning the pass, making sure every plate that goes out to the dining room is as good as the ones that preceded it. At least, if he wants to keep Knife as good as it is when he does.
Tesar says his goal is to cook in several restaurants all the time, and that quality isn't an issue because of his support staff. "I have a slew of young bad-ass motherfucking cooks that are really going to be the real deal," he said. "They're willing to work and follow."
I asked him how he knows -- how he can tell the young motherfuckers are ready to fly. "When you see the customer satisfaction," Tesar answered. "When you don't get the Yelps, the nasty comments and phone calls. When your restaurant is packed every night." I quickly pointed out that using Yelp to measure the goodness of a restaurant is probably not a good thing for a chef to do, and he told me he also had private diners visit his restaurants and report their experiences.
Tesar contends that Knife gets better every day, but while I haven't been back to the restaurant recently, the modern steakhouse never for me achieved the level of kitchen execution and dining service that I experienced at Spoon. It was a great restaurant, and shattered what we envision when we think about steakhouses, but it lacked the polish and refinement that made Spoon so special. That's why I'm skeptical of the dining experiences to be had at any of these restaurants moving forward.
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Tesar's strongest argument for moving around is to combat boredom, and it's true that chefs and cooks that stay at one station or restaurant too long can become apathetic. But at the same time other artisans commit their entire lives honing perfecting a single craft, and their work is often outstanding. Lucia's David Uygur comes to mind.
Perhaps there's a middle ground between life-long devotion and a flighty existence that jumps from restaurant to restaurant. But it's not likely we'll ever get to see Tesar sit still long because he's addicted to the fix, as he puts it.
"I don't do if for the money," he said, of his book deal, a television show and other projects on top of his Dallas restaurants. "I do it for the adrenaline rush."