After a shift, what is your favorite guilty pleasure to eat? “Probably sake and frozen pizza. By the time I’m leaving work there’s no good pizza available, so it’s easier for me to grab a glass of sake, because we have sake on tap at Knife, and then, believe it or not, I’ll have a DiGiorno spinach-and-garlic pizza once I get home.”
Is there one dish you won’t cook? “No. If anything I like to be challenged by things that I don’t understand or don’t like. But that doesn’t mean I’ll serve it to people, unless I really think it tastes good.”
All-time favorite spice. “White pepper has got to be my favorite spice. I think it’s very underrated and I believe it makes food taste better than black pepper, for the most part, except maybe on red meat. It’s essential to a great friend chicken as well as most seafood dishes, and, of course, on mashed potatoes.”
What is your favorite music to listen to while you cook? “I am a big fan of the grunge age. I’ll flash back and forth between the Foo Fighters, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Pearl Jam, and Tom Morello. Every once in a while, I’ll listen to a little Bruce Springsteen, but it has to be a special moment. Bruce Springsteen is my Billy Joel.”
Did you grow up cooking as a child? “I did. I’ve been cooking since a very young age, probably since 13 or 14 years old. I had my first real cooking job at 17 and I was chef de cuisine of a French restaurant at 18. Forget Top Chef Junior and MasterChef Junior, I had to actually go out and get a job.”
What cookbook is your go-to resource for inspiration? “That’s a really great question, and it’s changed over the years. I think of this in chronological order of decades of being a chef. Initially, it was Escoffier, and then it was the Grande Livre de Cuisine: Alain Ducasse’s Culinary Encyclopedia, followed by The French Laundry Cookbook. That book changed everything. Then there was Under Pressure, and then elBulli, and after that there was Alinea and Mugaritz. I’ve also gone to Alex Atala from D.O.M. in Brazil for inspiration.
Among all of that, way back in the beginning, somewhere between The French Laundry and Ducasse, I was visually inspired by Charlie Trotter’s series of cookbooks. The pictures were phenomenal. Actually, I think the very first book after Escoffier was Jeremiah Tower’s New American Classics. I think everyone should have one of those.
I really like this question because I think kids really need to hear these stories. There’s not just one style of cooking. You should go back to the ’80s and ’90s and span the decades to see where food came from and where it is today, and match it up against each other. Not so much visually, but qualitatively and the ingredients to see what people were doing. This is really important stuff.”
After all these years working in restaurants, do you still enjoy going out to eat? “It’s becoming harder and harder for me to go out to eat, only because I find there’s a lot of repetition in many new restaurants. That doesn’t mean there’s not exceptional and amazing restaurants that I love to go out to eat at, but they are often very busy and crowded and my schedule typically doesn’t allow me to go. As I’ve gotten older, I just find this sense of mediocrity in the mid-level of American dining prevents me from going out to dinner. And it’s not that I’ve lost the desire for food, because I go to great restaurants. I mean I can’t go to New York without going to Le Bernardin, even if it’s just to sit in the lounge and order dinner by myself and talk to the maître d’. I find as I travel and am on the road by myself, I’ll go to great restaurants alone and sit in the lounge, the salon, or the bar and order pieces of the tasting menu. That’s what I enjoy. Going to a really great restaurant by myself and causally experiencing their cuisine while watching the theater of the restaurant operating. Dinner and a show.”
Is there one chef you’d like to cook with? “It’s always been Eric Ripert. I have the utmost respect for him. First and foremost, as a person I think he’s exemplary, just the way he conducts himself in life, with all the things that he’s been blessed with and the adversity he’s faced. He’s always handled it really well, and let’s face it, I think Le Bernardin is the best restaurant in the world today. It’s been consistent, it’s been there since ’86, and it just gets better and better every time you go. Its unmatched by anywhere else in the world.”
Name the all-time best cooking show. “Come on! Of course, it’s Top Chef. Specifically, Top Chef seasons 10 and 14, but preferably season 14. [When Tesar was on the show.]”
What is the one tool that you always make sure to pack when you’re traveling for business? “I bring my iPad with me everywhere. It’s kind of like my office and my life. I’m addicted to my iPhone and my iPad pro. I can’t go anywhere without them. What can’t you do on an iPhone or an iPad?”
John Tesar is the executive chef and partner of Knife Dallas and the author of Knife: Texas Steakhouse Meals at Home. He competed on season 14 of Top Chef and Anthony Bourdain called him “the single most talented cook I ever worked with.”
Interview has been condensed and edited.