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John Tesar Talks Knife Italian, Media Mayhem, and More

The outspoken and talented chef and restaurateur continues to court controversy, but can Knife Italian take over the narrative?

Chef John Tesar
Chef John Tesar of the new Knife Italian at the Ritz-Carlton Dallas, Las Colinas.

About eight years ago, I flew into Dallas one afternoon to judge a food competition the following night. After checking into my hotel, I met up with fellow judges from out of town — a few chefs, another food writer — for a progressive dinner, where we worked our way around five of the city’s best-known and up-and-coming restaurants. As midnight neared, we were buzzed, full, and in need of sleep, but we persevered and made it to our last stop of the night: Knife, John Tesar’s steakhouse in The Highland Dallas hotel. 

The dry-aged steaks (and a burger named for the late food writer Josh Ozersky) were a revelation, and most of our group couldn’t stop eating even as midnight came and went. Tesar, by then known for his appearances on Top Chef, among other things, had created alchemy on the plate, and Knife was his defining brand. He’s gone on to apply it to a second location in Plano, near Dallas; a Michelin-starred offshoot in Orlando, Florida, Knife & Spoon; and a Knife Burger in Plano. There was also a branch in Orange County, California, but Tesar bowed out last year after a disagreement with a union (more on that later). And now, as of a few months ago, there is Knife Italian at the Ritz-Carlton Dallas, Las Colinas.

steak
Bone-in ribeye from Knife Italian.

When I speak with Tesar over the phone, I mention my experience tasting his steak at Knife for the first time, and he replies, “We’re not one of those classic steak houses. We’re all about the dry-aging process and focus on the food, and that is what we’re doing with the Italian restaurant.”

You can see that from the menu at Knife Italian, where he offers an expertly curated mix of Italian and Italian-American dishes, from clams oreganata to cacio e pepe to eggplant parm. There are also dry-aged steaks in the “Bistecca” section, Italian wines and cocktails, and many other things that will appeal to Italian food lovers who are locals or who are traveling through Dallas and staying at the luxurious hotel near Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport.

But what Tesar is doing at Knife Italian is also leaning into personal and professional nostalgia. Raised almost from birth by adoptive parents of Czechoslovakian heritage in the Hamptons, on Long Island, and in Manhattan, Tesar started his culinary career in New York City before heading west and taking his first job in Dallas in 2009. He earned his first taste of fame—and controversy—when he inspired a hard-partying character, Jimmy Sears, in his colleague and sometimes-sidekick Anthony Bourdain’s breakout hit book Kitchen Confidential. Tesar went on to cook and lead kitchens in New York City and the Hamptons, earning praise from everybody from Bourdain to The New York Times, which awarded him a star for his cooking at Vine in the Financial District way back in 2000.

baked clams
Baked clams at Knife Italian.

Tesar says he always had a fondness for Italian food, dating to his earliest childhood memories. “I watched men crab off the bridge in Quogue,” he recalls, referring to a village in the Hamptons. “They’d take those crabs back to Brooklyn and make marinara sauce out of them. I learned that at 12. I wasn't even cooking and I was like, “Wow, when you put crabs in marinara sauce, you can make it taste better, you know?”

Turns out, it may have been as much a case of nature as of nurture: when his mother passed away, she left him information about his birth parents, who were Irish on his father’s side, and, as it turns out, Italian on his mother’s. 

His other Italian influence, he says, came from living on the Upper East Side of Manhattan during the 1980s and ‘90s, “going to all those amazing restaurants like Campagnola and [others]. They served all the things we’re serving [at Knife Italian], though we’re doing a pork Milanese [instead of veal] and a veal chop with wild mushrooms. We’re making spicy marinara with mussels. Everything’s made by hand in that nonna style, from gnocchi to stuffed pastas.”

ravioli
Pasta dishes at the new Knife Italian near Dallas.

Tesar sounds genuinely excited to have a new Knife focused on Italian food, and about his partnership with Trinity, the real estate behemoth behind Ritz-Carlton Dallas, Las Colinas, and which brought him in to open Knife & Spoon at Ritz-Carlton Orlando Grande Lakes, where he paired seafood with his famed dry-aged steaks and earned his first Michelin star last year. The partnership includes restaurant developer Mark Stone of Trinity, who Tesar says tapped him for the project.

“When Trinity came to me and said, ‘Would you be interested in putting a Knife [in our new Ritz-Carlton at Las Colinas],’ I was like, ‘We already have two Knives. I don't know how that's gonna benefit anybody.’ I said, ‘Would you allow me to come up with a spin-off concept? Because my whole life, I've wanted to open an Italian restaurant.’”

He sought to explore “the flavors, the history, the regions,” he adds. “But I’m not trying to make this like you’re in Italy. I'm trying to make it like you're on the Upper East Side, which really plugs into the Ritz-Carlton in Las Colinas. You have a lot of travelers — entertainers and sports figures, because of its proximity to the airport.”

Knife Dallas interior
A lounge area at Knife Dallas.

Tesar then cites the history of the property, which also features an exclusive golf course. “There's a lot of history for travelers and Dallasites with this hotel, including staycations as well, and the renovation of it is beautiful. I mean truly beautiful. So it's different from being in downtown Dallas. It's prettier, greener.”

Knife Italian came along at a good time for Tesar. Long a magnet for controversy, as any search engine will remind you, Tesar has been called “the most hated chef in Dallas” [D magazine, 2011] and was forced to walk away from his Knife Modern Steak at Laguna Cliffs Marriott & Spa in California last year after a labor dispute, after only three months. Video of the chef angrily confronting picketing union members surfaced, and he later apologized on social media. 

He has also sparred with local food critics and writers in Dallas, and, when we speak, is still smarting from the website Eater Dallas’s profile of him timed to the opening of Knife Italian, provocatively titled, “John Tesar Opens Knife Italian in Dallas, and Can’t Get Over His Past.”

The piece, written by Eater Dallas editor Courtney E. Smith, was filled with comments that he’d made “off the record,” he explains; it includes Tesar’s gripes about past and present Dallas food critics and writers. He tells me that he was merely trying to assert that a city of Dallas’ growing stature needs more respectable restaurant critics.   

He goes on to decry the cancel culture that seems to follow him around. “The sensitivity level is high, but the ability to cancel, and the energy put in the response, is far worse than the thing that's being canceled,” he tells me. “That's the Catch-22: you want to be so sensitive and lovey-dovey and respectful, but you're destroying lives with your opinion. It's strange to me, that's all; I just don't understand. You know, I like things to be logical and reciprocal and honest. And it's a shame that we're losing that.”

raw seafood
Crudo from Knife Italian.

Tesar, now in his 60s, acknowledges that he’s still coming to terms with generational shifts in attitude, especially in the kitchen. While in the opening phase of Knife Italian in March and early April, he continued to work the pasta station, because of the importance of training younger chefs. “With the generational shifts. chefs have to get down off their high horses a little bit and spend some time with these kids and treat it like culinary school. You have to give them your philosophy. You have to lead by example. I worked the pasta station the first three weeks in this restaurant, you know, because I wanted to. I enjoy it. I enjoy cooking but not only that, I didn't want someone to misinterpret my work. And on the corrective side, if I do it first, I can go back in and say, you know, that's not the way I showed you.”

He goes on to call it “a new way of doing business,” adding, “You can’t yell. You can’t criticize. You have to coddle these kids.”

Now, Tesar’s on a roll, suggesting at the same time that he’s older and wiser but no less contentious. At Knife Italian, and at his other acclaimed restaurants, he’s making crowd-pleasing food that continues to attract positive attention, even as his behavior seems to court the negative. 

Or as he puts in a neat summation, referring to his labor issues in California and Eater’s writer (who according to her bio is a native Texan but used to live in New York City), “A  union in California and a girl from Brooklyn have attempted to cancel me—but I've survived.” 

It may sound like a glib assessment, but while Tesar’s quick wit can get him in trouble, it’s important to note—if you’re willing to look past the bluster—that he’s a chef with a thirst for culinary knowledge and a well-defined point of view. When I bring the conversation back to his signature steaks, he shares an anecdote about the inspiration for his fascination with dry aging, which he traces to seeing how the team at the erstwhile Las Vegas restaurant Carnevino Italian Steakhouse used Italian curing techniques on its beef. (Yes, that was a Mario Batali operation, and no, Tesar has nothing to say about Batali's cancellation over allegations of sexual misconduct, other than, "That's his problem, not mine.")

When he opened his own steakhouse, the first Knife in 2014, Tesar made it a mission to source the beef locally. “That was two years of work and divine intervention. Finding 44 Farms [in Cameron, Texas] really was the linchpin. The product tasted great. It was organic, and from Texas, which is what I was looking for. I said, if you live in Texas, and you're going to be farm to table, look out the window, right? You don't see a leek. You see a cow. And I was asked to open a steakhouse.”

Now that he’s opened an Italian restaurant, Tesar says he’s embracing the Italian approach to cooking with great ingredients and letting them do the work. “I do believe simplicity is an art form. And whether it be fashion or architecture, winemaking or in a culinary sense, Italy is all about the perfection of simplicity. It fits into my game.”

For Tesar, his fans, and his haters, it's "Game on."


The Ritz-Carlton Dallas, Las Colinas, 4150 N MacArthur Blvd., Irving, TX 75038, 972-717-2420, @knife_italian, knifeitalian.com

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