John Tesar: The Most Hated Chef in Dallas
He earned five stars at The Mansion. But his tenure there ended abruptly, amid allegations that he drank on the job and threw cutlery. Now he’s out to prove that he won’t once again self-destruct.
Here's the Beef: (clockwise from left) Chef and Commissary owner John Tesar; gnocchi; The Commissary dining room; Tesar behind the line.photography by Kevin Marple
John Tesar is crying. The 53-year-old sits on a bar stool in his rented East Lovers Lane townhouse, his socked feet propped on a glass-top coffee table. As he sobs, his wife, Tracy, and 10-month-old son, Ryder, sit on the brown carpet, staring up at him from the floor. Next to Tesar, an end table holds a hot pink MacBook case and an equally roseate copy of Women of the New Testament. A muted children’s TV show flashes the words of the day: wiggle, spin, stop.
“Seriously. I—sorry—I very rarely tell this story,” he stammers. “I’m not doing this for you. I’m not trying to give you—” He stops, his voice cracking. What he wants to say is that he’s not crying for effect. He looks away, rubbing his kitchen-burned forearms. “I know these profiles are—”
Tesar takes a deep breath and then blurts out in his Long Island accent, “I want you to know the truth ’cause I’m not making up anything to make myself look better ’cause people need to understand how genuine I am and how real I am and what I do is all positive and it’s—even the criticism in the kitchen of people, to make them better cooks and have them see realistically what they should be and who they can be. It’s not ‘I hate you and I’m better than you.’ ”
Ryder hits his head on a bar stool and unrolls a long wail. Tesar never breaks eye contact with me. He asks, “What the hell happened to John Tesar?”
Let’s find out, I say.
He sniffs and presses play on a lushly art-directed montage in his mind. Working title: How I Got to Dallas and Earned Two Five-Star Reviews as the Chef of The Mansion ’Cause I’m the One and Only John Joseph Tesar, Badass.
There’s his adoption within weeks of birth by Czechoslovakian parents, second-generation immigrants. Name on birth certificate: Thomas Kenyon. Tesar hears his biological father was an Irish gangster. He grows up dyslexic and middle class in the affluent Hamptons with a distant, alcoholic, former banker father, a saintly teacher and then stay-at-home mom, and a brother he isn’t close to (also adopted). His childhood friends have private planes, helicopters. He hands out towels to guests at his first job at the fancy Dune Deck Beach Resort, where he will later give surfing lessons and play tennis with pretty women. He helps out in a dive named Magic’s Pub, where he preps plates for the bar’s namesake burger, currently on the menu at The Commissary. Without any formal training in the kitchen, he dreams of becoming a New York magazine-reviewed chef.
Tesar later moves to Westhampton’s Club Pierre restaurant in the early ’80s, which he eventually buys, operating it for 11 years, until he moves to the city. Somewhere along the way, he takes classes at NYU; hangs out in Paris, where he has formative dining experiences; and cooks the rehearsal dinner for the Charles-and-Di-inspired wedding of Tommy Mottola and Mariah Carey.
The screen flickers in Tesar’s head. “I blindly fall into the restaurant business with this natural talent,” he says, his appetite for his origin story insatiable. “With no mentors, no discipline in the middle of the ’80s. The disco era. Drinking. Cocaine. Partying. Wealthy. Prolific. Articulate. All that around me. The opulence around me. And being the star of the show.
“Nobody knows how hot I was in 1985, and nobody cares,” Tesar says solemnly. Hyperbole fades as the house lights come up. “It’s irrelevant to people. But to me, it was a large part of my success and development.”
Tesar exhales. He pushes his tortoise shell glasses up to his forehead. “Ah, I—as a writer, you make what you want of all that. But that’s the essence of who I am,” he says. “Self-made hooey. I picked up a spatula. I put lettuce and tomato on a plate as my first job.” He looks around, seeming to remember where he is. “I just wish it had been different. And wish my time at The Mansion hadn’t come to such an abrupt end.”
Tesar arrived in Dallas in September 2006, leaving a 30-month stint at the Mandalay Bay Hotel, in Las Vegas. Tesar got the top kitchen job at The Mansion after an audition process that included grabbing groceries at Whole Foods and cooking dinner for Rosewood chief operating officer Robert Boulogne at his University Park home. Not only did he impress the Rosewood brass that night with a barbecue meal consisting of 12 dishes, but he bonded with Boulogne’s young daughter, Lily, playing Neil Young songs for her on Boulogne’s guitar.
Boulogne says the elementary schooler did the hiring. “Children have good instincts,” Boulogne says, adding that he’s happy to “talk about his friend John.” But he won’t discuss Tesar’s time at The Mansion in detail. “Listen, he’s a great cook.” Don’t you mean chef, I ask? “Chef connotes managing people and processes. He’s a great cook. He’s very talented. He’s exceptional in some ways.”
After he landed the job, Tesar lived at The Mansion for three months. Once home to cotton moguls and oil barons, the 86-year-old peach-painted Mansion is the fussy Dallas hotel of choice for sitting presidents, Saudi princes, and Elton John. “I came into this town on a golden chariot. But it had no wheels on it,” Tesar says. “Trust me, the place was filled with cobwebs. There were people actually falling asleep in the hallways there. The servers had frayed bow ties and the same uniform from 20 years ago. Tables were crooked, the smell of butane was in the dining room from cooking the tortilla soup table-side. This was the fine-dining, five-star, Michelin, Mobil, AAA, James Beard, Julia Child—everybody in the world came through there, ate there. And they were still making a lobster taco. It had all become more tradition than cuisine.”
As executive chef, Tesar was given a salary of $165,000 and charged with running the kitchen and revamping the menu. “I was asked to reinvigorate, be the face, that whole ‘Dean’ thing. Put a big smile on,” he says, referring to his predecessor, Dean Fearing, who had worked at The Mansion for more than 20 years. “I had carte blanche to do it. I could drink at work. I could comp anyone. I could do whatever I wanted to do.” He did. Tesar says in the kitchen he would drink $40-a-glass Bruno Paillard champagne from paper room service cups.
The big day for Tesar came on February 15, 2008, when Morning News restaurant critic Bill Addison gave The Mansion a five-star review. “[T]he Mansion continues to be the paradigm of fine dining in Dallas,” he wrote, going on to say that the restaurant had changed since Fearing’s tenure, “wisely in many ways.”
There it was, for everyone to read. Tesar had now made the newly renovated Mansion dining room his own. He had the stars to prove it. (The Mansion had received an earlier five-star review, but this one reflected Tesar’s menu.) When he read the review, Tesar thought, “I got my five stars. Fuck the haters. Fuck Bourdain. Fuck the Lucchese boots. I got this.”
In 343 days, Tesar would no longer be employed by The Rosewood Mansion on Turtle Creek.
During his two-year tenure, he dazzled diners with indulgent dishes such as wild Burgundy snails, Roquefort, and garlic in a terrine topped with a puff pastry. Socialite Carmaleta Whiteley has sat in the restaurant’s high-backed chairs a couple of times a week for more than 20 years. “There was a rib dish I loved and a grapefruit and avocado salad that was fabulous,” Whiteley says, adding that she continued to order it after Tesar’s departure. Of course, Tesar pissed off a few other diners with refusals to prepare certain side dishes and, one time at least, those damn lobster tacos.
It’s a tough trick: how to follow a legendary creator who’s still creating? Fearing was ensconced a mile away in his own kitchen at the Ritz-Carlton, but his $2,000-booted ghost haunted the 2,700-square-foot kitchen and honey-toned dining room. A Rosewood executive who asked not to be named says Tesar couldn’t handle the comparisons and began imploding under the pressure. The executive adds, “John Tesar is the only person in the world who doesn’t like Dean Fearing.”
“Dean is the hero. John is the replacement,” Tesar says. “All of Dallas saw it that way.”
Whether the perception was accurate or not, he made some enemies with the waitstaff. The “old-timers,” as Tesar refers to the long-serving waiters and dining captains, were Dean loyalists to the end, Tesar maintains. They had Luccheses from Fearing to prove it. “Hey, chef! When are we getting cowboy boots from you?” Tesar says they asked him at Christmas.
Marcus Cascio was general manager of the restaurant while Tesar was chef. The 38-year-old is now director of concepts for restaurateur Alberto Lombardi. He says Tesar walked in with a lot of passion and perfectionism. “But if you didn’t put out the same effort he did, he got upset,” Cascio says. “When the staff didn’t operate at the same level, it came to a head. And he lashed out.”
One waiter still working at The Mansion, who did not want to be identified, says, “He would constantly dismiss his staff in the kitchen. He’d throw pans, throw spoons in frustration. He would just start throwing things. I’m not exaggerating. I know it sounds like out of a movie. He would talk down to the staff, call them things like ‘stupid’ and ‘idiots.’ ”
Tesar maintains he never threw anything in the kitchen. “Look,” he says, his hands balling up into fists, then relaxing. “Waiters have a direct responsibility to the kitchen, to the chef, to the style of the food. And I’m very blunt. I’m just very direct during service. ‘Stop doing that! Please don’t do that.’ Or ‘That’s idiotic.’ Words like that sometimes hurt people. But they make a point.”
Are you a screamer in the kitchen? “Yeah.” What about racist things? “Uh, never. Never, never, never, never, never. This is the satirical aspect [of my sense of humor] and [The Mansion’s] inability to understand.”
That satirical sense of humor may have cost him his job. Here’s how Tesar explains it: “I was called in because some waiter complained about me saying something, put all this together, and filed a complaint. About 20 employees complained about me. I was a target at that point. Look, take it back. I’ve got the five stars back and we need food runners. Corporate loves me. But the employees are thinking I’m their worst nightmare because I’m going to make them work and I’m going to tell [human resources], like, ‘Jose fell asleep.’ They hired this guy for $9 an hour. ... And every job he’s ever had he’s had someone fired. He’s a 300-pound Colombian and very unhappy. Every job he’s had, he’s had a chef or a sous chef fired. ... This kid had a lawyer, dude.”
His name is Diego Trujillo. I tracked him down in Las Vegas, where the 26-year-old, 6-foot-6 Colombian-American works as a youth pastor in a nondenominational church. If you’re wondering, he’s currently happy and weighs in at 315 pounds. “Why is he saying that I had all these chefs fired?” Trujillo asks. He acknowledges that he had issues with one other chef, when he worked at Five Sixty by Wolfgang Puck. “He says he didn’t get fired, right?”
In December 2008 Trujillo wrote a letter to management complaining about Tesar. He emailed me the letter, a response from Rosewood asking for a meeting, photos he snapped at work, and a 20-minute audio file of Trujillo reading his letter to Cathy White, regional director of human resources for The Mansion. “I felt harassment and discrimination on many occasions,” Trujillo wrote. “On some levels I feel it is because of my age and nationality. On a regular basis there has been name calling and taunting such as: ‘tall, fat, and stupid,’ ‘retarded,’ ‘you’re the laziest Colombian I have ever seen!’ ”
“That’ll get you fired right there,” says the Rosewood executive.
Trujillo’s letter also mentions threats by Tesar to use “knives, pens, and forks” to “kick [Trujillo’s] ass,” calling an epileptic Mansion employee a “freak,” and a perceived snub by Tesar in front of Trujillo’s wife. Trujillo had been keeping a diary of perceived offenses by Tesar and snapping photos with his phone in the kitchen. There’s one of Tesar sitting, legs crossed, in the kitchen with a paper cup while the other guys in white coats work. (Trujillo tells me he had recordings of Tesar berating the staff in the kitchen but his wife erased them.) “I am tired of the fact that this is done,” Trujillo wrote at the end of the letter, “and management has knowledge yet does nothing.”
Tesar was pulled into Mansion managing director Duncan Graham’s office, where White read the letter aloud. “They asked, ‘Did you say any of these things?’ ” Tesar remembers. “I said, ‘I said all of them.’ That’s what—we joke around. But that’s the absurdity. It’s out of context. That was my defense.”
Trujillo’s complaint didn’t cause his separation from the company, though. Tesar says the reason he is no longer employed by Rosewood is financial. He says that if he hadn’t left, The Mansion would have had to lay off many employees, so he’s kind of a hero. He says he never saw The Mansion making any money and even claims he invested more than $20,000 of his own money into the restaurant’s curtained-off chef’s table. Also, he says, Rosewood is lucky he didn’t sue the company for $10 million.
In any case, Tesar says Boulogne and Graham told him, “Here’s what we’re going to do. You’re not getting fired. We’re going to pay you out over a period of time severance pay—but not severance pay—then we’ll tell people you’re taking time off to write a book.” The old-timers didn’t like the plan, Tesar says. “They wanted blood. They wanted the king’s head.”
Stephanie Hutson, marketing manager at The Mansion, would tell me only three things about the separation: Tesar’s title, his last day of employment, and the official reason for his leaving the company, which is “resignation.” I asked if Tesar is welcome to work at The Mansion again. No comment.
The Rosewood executive says, “That ‘no comment’ is a ‘no.’ ”
“The recession destroyed it all. Just like it did half of America,” Tesar says at the carved-wood chef’s table at The Commissary. The next awkwardly earnest cliche is portioned in spurts. “That’s. The way. The cookie crumbles.”
Tesar wants to give me the separation agreement on Rosewood letterhead that he and Graham signed on January 27, 2009. Before he slides it over, he uses a ballpoint pen to scratch out the 20 weeks of severance pay he got. He tells me the amount is “six figures.”
I take the four-page agreement home and hold it to a window. I count five figures, in the midrange.