On Friday, the Mansion's PR rep made the rounds by phone to confirm that rumors rebuffed earlier in the week were true--chef John Tesar was out the door to "pursue other opportunities."
Stephanie Hutson, the suddenly harried spokesperson, reported all this in very deliberate, almost somber tones. It was as if she carried the burden of heavy news...and the media response so far justifies her obvious concern: flying rumors, the titillation of an upcoming statement from Tesar, that sort of thing.
But it seems to me the comings and goings of most local 'celebrity' chefs are, generally speaking, of little consequence.
Sure, under his leadership the Mansion on Turtle Creek broke from its Fearing-inspired past and ventured into the New American-International hodge podge with great assuredness. He did not, however, revive a dormant restaurant. And his departure is unlikely to send the Mansion plummeting into mediocrity.
I find it difficult to immerse into the cult of personality--particularly when it comes to chefs working well funded hotel kitchens or upscale chain establishments. It's not Wolfgang, after all, running Puck's new restaurant. Years ago I dined at the Mansion when Fearing was off galavanting and it was good. On my only visit during the short-lived Tesar era, the chef was again absent...and it was good.
Perhaps chefs wield greater influence over one-off kitchens. Should Jim Severson leave Sevy's, for instance...wait--Buzzy Zeve handles the chores pretty well. Suze then: certainly if Gilbert Garza abandoned...no, he employs a more than solid back up in Jeffery Hobbs.
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Oh, there are places that would definitely crumble if the chef left his or her post. It's hard to imagine the brand new Neighborhood Services without Nick Badovinus and his enthusiastic vision. Canary Cafe without Mansour Gorji? Forget it. At some places, the name chef actually takes a place on the line. In all, the chef is critical to the quality and success. For the most part, however, his or her role in that success is manager, teacher and disciplinarian in addition to (and perhaps more than) culinary genius.
If they follow sound cooking knowledge and a decent grasp of the market with the ability to train a staff and keep them in line--well, it sounds rather mundane, but usually produces consistency, whether or not the chef is in the house. Note how the late Green Room slumped when Marc Cassel took a night off. Creative chef, poor discipline. When sous chef Blythe Beck took over Hector's after Todd Erickson's dismissal, things at the Henderson Avenue institution picked up. She was always the force behind that kitchen anyway. Who runs things at Houston's? No name, great training.
The legendary Escoffier created the modern professional kitchen by instituting military regimentation, with the executive chef serving as a kind of culinary general--not much involved in the actual fighting, but directly responsible for shaping the army, the battle and the outcome.
So John Tesar left the Mansion. Does it warrant the fuss?