Food News

John Tesar Explains Why He Walked Away From Four Restaurants This Year

When chef John Tesar recently left Apheleia Restaurant Group, walking away from high-profile restaurants like Oak and the Royale Magnificent Burgers, it made news, but there wasn’t a tantrum involved, nor did he curse anyone out on Twitter.

“It’s hard to explain why a 58-year-old man would walk away from four restaurants,” he says. “I learned a lesson. It was great to start out with Richard [Ellman] and try to do all this stuff, but it was a mistake for me, because I really need to focus on what I do, not just have 10 restaurants.”

His own brand is wrapped up in Knife, the busy steakhouse on the bottom floor of The Highland Dallas hotel across from Mockingbird Station.

“When you come to a John Tesar restaurant, I want you to see John Tesar, I want you to have his food, not his food through the vision of five owners, 10 owners; I don’t think that’s fair,” he says.

Though walking away from a number of restaurants might sound like a risk, Tesar’s focusing on a new book and wrapping his efforts around his restaurant.

“I’ve been through a lot of phases in my life, and the thing I never had in my life was security," he says. "And this, Knife seems to have given me — out of any restaurant that I’ve ever owned or any position that I’ve ever been in — the most long-term security and most gratification because I’ve created it by scratch, by myself, came across 44 Farms, all of these things from studying steakhouses and traveling the country. And what better concept to reinvent or get a pat on the back for than a steakhouse in the state of Texas?”

And that steak is what he wants to take to home cooks in the form of a cookbook due next year with a working title of Knife: How to Bring the Steak House to Your Home.

While he can envision more Knife locations in cities like Austin, Tesar said he isn’t interested in the game of opening a high number of restaurants.

“I think that’s a real estate game that Dallas is revealing itself to, in the sense that they’re using restaurants and bars to gentrify neighborhoods; but at the end of the day, I don’t see any long-term future in that,” he says. “I think Dallas is building a bubble, and I don’t want to be the guy with 10 restaurants when the bubble bursts.”

Since Tesar came to Dallas in 2007, he hasn’t had the smoothest ride. You may know him as the one carrying the title of “Most Hated Chef in Dallas” or the chef who challenged restaurant critic Leslie Brenner on social media.

But he says he’s done with the drama.

“I just want people to know that I’ve worked really hard. Little things like winning the CultureMap Chef of the Year thing after being the most hated chef in Dallas mean a lot to me, and it’s become very emotional,” he says. “For me personally, there are milestones that I’ve overcome here living in Dallas that are extremely important to me: To have created a long-lasting restaurant and to have it go smoothly, and to conduct myself, and not having this aura of me being this New Yorker with the swagger and the big mouth and pushing people out of the way.

"All of this is like a kinder, gentler person," he says, "but I’m still me, and unless you really know me, the public never gets to experience that, which is why I did want to write a cookbook.”
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Taylor Adams has written about the restaurant industry for the Dallas Observer since 2016. Now the Observer's food editor, she attended Southern Methodist University before covering local news at The Dallas Morning News.