photography by Maxine Helfman John Tesar

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.

Nick Badovinus had been drinking. It was a Wednesday night in May, and the chef/owner of the group of restaurants sharing the Neighborhood Services name had been out with one of his chefs, Jeff Bekavac. The two decided to try The Commissary, John Tesar’s new burger joint at One Arts Plaza.

Tesar was once the executive chef at The Rosewood Mansion on Turtle Creek, so these weren’t your typical hamburgers. Badovinus ordered a sous vide lamb burger. The Commissary was busy that night. On TV, the Mavericks were closing out the Oklahoma City Thunder, on their way to the NBA Finals.

Tesar had never met Badovinus, but the restaurateur with the wide smile and the blond mane of 90210 hair is easy to spot. So Tesar swaggered over from his table, where he was drinking with Michael Martensen, co-owner of The Cedars Social. Tesar broke the ice by pulling out his iPhone and reading from the Dallas Morning News’ one-star review of Dragonfly. No one at the table had a connection to the restaurant. “They offered me that job,” Tesar boasted, before heading to the kitchen. But he wasn’t finished. “Hey, Nick,” Tesar called out, turning back. “I’m sure your restaurants are great, but I’m not sure about those white sweaters the servers wear. Those things are fucking terrible.”

Badovinus looked across the table, open-mouthed. “Come outside,” he snapped at Tesar. “I want to talk to you.” The two walked out to the plaza’s stand of ginkgo trees. “Don’t ever talk shit about one of my restaurants in front of my chef again,” Badovinus said. “I’ll kick your ass right here.”

Badovinus stomped inside to pay his bill. Tesar tried to comp it, but Badovinus threw a $100 bill in the air. Martensen and Commissary food runner Jamison Joiner escorted Badovinus and Bekavac out to the valet stand.

Tesar still wasn’t done, though. He poked his head out the front door and shouted, “You’re a fucking pussy, Nick. Fuck you.”

Badovinus and Bekavac turned and charged. Joiner was standing outside the front door, and Bekavac punched him. Waitress Amber Belmore got caught in the tangle.

While manager Jennifer Bigham called 911 (no arrests would be made), Tesar made a different call. Safely inside his kitchen, he texted D Magazine restaurant critic Nancy Nichols, whom he had never met. “Nick from neighborhood just assaulted two of my staff and created a violent scene in my restaurant tonight,” he wrote. “Crazy 911 drug drunk stuff. I was calm but he has lost his mind. Sorry for the bad news just wanted you to hear the real story.”

When it comes to John Tesar, the real story seems to be a moving target. His sudden departure from The Mansion, in January 2009, after a little more than two years at the helm, spawned rumors about tantrums in the kitchen, pan throwing, sleeping with socialites, and day drinking. Whatever the reason for his exit, his series of subsequent stints—three months and a single star in New York, 11 months with an eponymous steakhouse outside Houston, a successful consulting gig with The Cedars Social, a tumultuous one with Dallas Chop House and Dallas Fish Market that included allegations of popover-related violence—generated no small amount of schadenfreude. Every blog post bringing news of Tesar’s comings and goings prompted dozens of comments from people who’d worked with him, the consensus being that he’s a talented chef, but he’s also a narcissistic sociopath with his calloused index finger always hovering above the self-destruct button.

Anthony Bourdain can relate. The host of the Travel Channel’s No Reservations has known Tesar for years and first wrote about him in his 2001 book, Kitchen Confidential, giving the hard-partying Tesar the pseudonym Jimmy Sears. In this year’s Medium Raw, Bourdain wrote:
“Tesar was probably the single most talented cook I ever worked with—and the most inspiring. … His food—even the simplest of things—made me care about cooking again. The ease with which he conjured up recipes, remembered old recipes (his dyslexia prevented him from writing much of value), and threw things together was thrilling to me. And, in a very direct way, he was responsible for any success I had as a chef afterward. …

“Looking back at a lot of the people I’ve known and worked with over the years, I see a common thread starting to reveal itself. Not universal, mind you, but there all too often to be a coincidence: a striking tendency among people I’ve liked to sabotage themselves. Tesar pretty much wrote the book on this behavior pattern: finding a way to fuck up badly whenever success threatens, accompanied by a countervailing ability to bounce back again and again—or, at the very least, survive.”

Bourdain told me that he once hurled a steel pan at Tesar’s head in a New York kitchen. “I wanted to kill him,” Bourdain says icily. But then his tone changes to one of affection. “I bear him no animosity,” he says. “John provided a lot of great drama, a lot of great food, a lot of great stories. He’s never going to be Person of the Year, but what chef is?”

Tesar (pronounced tee-zar) slurps up the controversy with the self-awareness of Augustus Gloop. When I called him to request an interview for this story, he said, “What took D so long? I mean, I’m the most provocative chef in Dallas.”

Sitting down for a Diet Coke at The Commissary following a late-June lunch rush, Tesar taps his fingers along to John Mayer’s “Heartbreak Warfare.” After initially claiming that someone had stolen his phone on the night of the dust-up with Badovinus and texted Nichols, he now admits he was the one who sent the text. “I knew there were too many restaurant people here,” he says. “I was press savvy enough to—I wanted the truth to be told.”

Badovinus scoffs at the notion. He was surprised to learn that Tesar accuses him of choking Belmore, the waitress who waited on him that night. “I really dispute John’s version of what went down,” he says. “It’s fantasy. I don’t know how saying all of this advances his cause. You know, I don’t know how all of this helps make his burger any hotter.” (Tesar will later change his story, admitting he hadn’t seen Badovinus choking Belmore.)

Reliving the events of the night in question, Tesar stares across The Commissary’s bar until a smile slowly creeps across his face, revealing a crash of cuspids and incisors. He announces, “This is a great example of how shit just happens to me.”