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John Tesar Raises the Steaks in Dallas

The 'Top Chef' alum dishes on dining concepts past and present

A five-time James Beard nominee and twice a contestant on “Top Chef,” John Tesar is known for being bold both in and out of the kitchen. He worked in Manhattan and Las Vegas before moving to Dallas in 2007; today, his Knife steakhouse concepts are found throughout DFW.

What first drew you to cooking?

The ability to stay at the beach all day and surf with my friends. I was lucky, I grew up in the Hamptons. I fell in with the cool kids, surfers and skateboarders, who all worked in this pub in Westhampton Beach called Magic’s Pub, which is no longer there. It was the local gathering place. I made bloody mary mix and tuna fish sandwiches. Every soap opera star, random movie star and Wall Street executive walked through there. I fell in love with the energy.

How would you characterize the culinary scene in Dallas?

It’s ever-growing, ever-changing. I think we went through a serious growth spurt in 2010. We’re in a very undefined yet saturated time in the Dallas restaurants.

Knife at The Highland Dallas
Knife at The Highland Dallas (©Kevin Marple)

With so much competition, how do you stay on top of your game?

I stay on top of the quality, and we interact with our employees, I try to get myself out there as much as possible at events, both local and national, and keep progressing the product. It’s like a bridge, at a restaurant. Every day you walk to one end, then you’ve got to come back to the other end. It’s repetition. That’s the hard part. Keeping employee retention, keeping the restaurant fresh but still staying within your concept and not selling out to the newest trend.

What has been the best thing about your move to Dallas?

I’ve been very lucky. Coming here is the best thing that happened to my career. It gave me the opportunity to really establish myself and I was here before the real growth and expansion. I’ve had critical acclaim. Some of the deals weren’t the best deals in the financial or business sense but I’ve overcome that as well. I’m just really, sincerely into opening restaurants, having good food and hospitality, mentoring people, and giving my employees a good life and also having a life for myself and my family.

John Tesar
Tesar made the move to DFW in 2007. (©Steven Visneau)

You’re closely identified with steak. What other cuisines do you enjoy cooking?

Prior to Knife, seafood was what I was known for. I grew up on Long Island, and I worked for Rick Moonen [at RM Seafood in Las Vegas]. I think seafood is the most creative thing out there.

What’s your best tip for cooking great seafood at home?

Know where you’re buying your product. Seafood is really all about freshness.

What’s the most important thing?

The ingredient. How old it is, where it came from, how it was treated, how it was fileted, how it was cooked.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

Put your head down and cook. I know it sounds cliché. But if you work hard, something good will always come from it. I believe that to be true.

The meat locker at Knife's Plano location.
The meat locker at Knife's Plano location. (©Kevin Marple)

Outside of your own, what are your favorite restaurants in Dallas?

I’m a big fan of Japanese food so I love Tei-An and Tei Tei. I don’t eat [at Bullion] a lot, but Bruno [Davaillon] is extremely talented in the classic French way. I’m a big fan of Dean Fearing [of Fearing’s Restaurant] just as a human being.

Are you a Dallas or NY sports fan?

Baseball, I’ll always be a NY Yankees fan. I was a season ticket holder for 20 years. I saw Mickey Mantle hit his 500th home run. I’ve been going to games since I was 6. Football, I’m trying to become a Dallas Cowboys fan. I think the Cowboys did an amazing job with the stadium. I want to see what they do in the next few years.