John Tesar: 'Top Chef' Made Me a Better Person
Tesar rebounded from an early cut in Season 10 to place in the top three of “Top Chef” Season 14, which aired last year. He was portrayed in a much more subdued light the second time around; in his first season, Tesar was known for fiery rants and in-fighting. At age 59 he was the oldest contestant on the show, competing against many 20- and 30-somethings.
He says he’s become more introspective in his later years, which has helped with continued success at Knife in Dallas and with his just-opened fast-casual concept, Knife Burger.
How did “Top Chef” shape your brand?
The show was a big help in getting me out there and in front of the public. The fans of “Top Chef” are amazing people, and many come to my restaurant now to support me. I have fans now. Some people come to see if I’m like how I was on “Top Chef,” but then they can see that I’m actually a nice guy.
Do you feel like there is more pressure on chefs to be “media-ready”?
I feel like these days we have two sides of our business—the day-to-day restaurant work and then the entertainment side. “Top Chef” definitely makes you more entertainment-savvy and [teaches you] how to work with a camera crew and be “miked” and know how to do an interview. Fifteen seasons later, and the show is still a phenomenon.
How did the show change you?
For me, “Top Chef” made me a better person. Observing yourself on TV and how other people interact with you really gives some perspective. But what makes you a better competition chef does not necessarily make you a better chef in the real world. The producers are always trying to do things to throw you off. Once, they asked if I liked octopus, which I don’t, so of course they gave that ingredient to me. But the dish, I thought, turned out great. They came back and said, “You said you didn’t like octopus,” and I said, “I don’t like it, but I still know how to cook it.” By the second time on the show, I learned all these little nuances and figured out how to fit in better.
What did you learn from the first season that you used to your advantage in the next season?
The first season I was on, I caught a lot of flak because I’m blunt and often say how it is. People tended to pick on me because I have no filter and I react. But this last season, I learned how to filter out the white noise and put my head down and cook, but still have a story to tell. The first time, I thought the show was all about cooking. But the show is really more about human nature than cooking; the winner will be the best game chefs with a good story and great food. It’s a multi-pronged thing to be “Top Chef.” But you don’t have to win “Top Chef” to be memorable or get credibility, sponsors, and endorsements. There are many opportunities for all contestants.
Did the show hurt you the first time?
It kind of hurt me personally, but not my career. I was a lot calmer on this last season and not such a hothead. The first time I was on the show, I didn’t have the success that I have now, so I was more frustrated all the time.
You have to have thick skin to be on the show and sometimes just ignore the criticism. It definitely teaches you how to be humble. In the end, though, it’s just television.