John Tesar has never been one to hold back when he has an opinion. The James Beard Award semifinalist and former “Top Chef” contestant has made a name for himself as a brash food personality, once even named by a local magazine as “The Most Hated Chef in Dallas.”
Now Tesar is speaking his mind when it comes to better burgers. He believes many fast-casual burger joints are serving sub-par burgers, and he’s out to prove there’s a better option. Next year, in Dallas’ Legacy Hall, he’ll open Knife Burger, an adaptation of his steakhouse Knife at The Highland Dallas hotel. The food stall will serve fries, shakes, and a few of Knife’s signature burgers, including The Ozersky, named after Tesar’s friend, the late food journalist Josh Ozersky.
Here, Tesar shares why he thinks it’s time to get into the fast-casual space—and what it means to serve a chef-crafted burger.
Why did you want to do a burger concept?
Ozersky and I sat in a car one day for 16 hours going to Boston to check out a couple of restaurants, and we talked hamburgers the entire time. I was so inspired by that conversation that I wanted to put that element into the hotel aspect of Knife, in that you could come down from your room, experience Knife, buy a $12–$14 hamburger, and maybe come back and check it out later for the steak. It was an entry-level kind of thing. We had great success with these hamburgers.
These food courts now are seemingly more popular, as are these super-fast-casual restaurants with chef-driven concepts. Then there’s the fact that there are not enough qualified employees to serve at restaurants. So we’re replacing cashiers with iPads, and we put a menu on an iPad, and you have this modern technology where you can swipe your credit card and pay for everything on an iPad.
It’s a wise business decision to downsize in a city and nation where we’re building a restaurant bubble. I just think that hamburgers and steak will never go away.
Legacy [Hall] is an established, high-end mall that has sustained itself for a long time; there’s a lot of great restaurants there doing tremendous revenue. We’ll have a 350-square-foot stall that is basically going to cost $65,000 to create. And we can do almost $1.5 million in business just selling hamburgers and soft drinks and shakes and french fries.
Who doesn’t want to make an extra $80,000–$100,000 a year and have people build something for you that possibly could be licensed and put in airports, and yet also challenges the establishment at the same time?
Is this a one-off or do you hope to expand Knife Burger?
Knife and Knife Burger have legs to grow. My legacy as a chef—now transitioning at the age of 59 into a restaurateur—is I want to do something that’s meaningful and sustainable, and it doesn’t have to mean I’m a genius in the kitchen to do it. I can be a genius in my execution and as a businessman.
What does a chef-driven burger look like?
It starts with the meat, first and foremost. [Texas-based] 44 Farms is really something special. The cattle never leave the state. There’s integrity to it. There’s no false farm-to-table nonsense to it.
The next component is the meat-to-bun ratio. I think brioche is a crime. It detracts from tasting the burger. I’m a purist in that I want a Martin’s potato roll or a squishy bun. I want something I can squeeze. I want to pick my hands up. Cutting a hamburger should be against the law. You’ve got to pick it up with two hands and squeeze, and the juice should run down your arm. Then you should taste the beef when you bite into it.
I’m old-school in the sense that I grew up on White Castle, and I like that little bit of red onion. You don’t need to put ketchup or mustard on your hamburger when you have a little bit of red onion, because it gives it that little umami you need. If you want some ketchup, you can dip.
And then there’s cheese. American cheese was created for the hamburger and the grilled-cheese sandwich. It adds a creamy texture and moisture to a hamburger that you don’t get from an expensive, dry-aged cheese.
How will you compete with other burger joints?
If I stay in my region, I’ll do just fine. We have the reputation. If there’s a line outside of Shake Shack when it opens up, while people are waiting to get into Shake Shack, I’m just going drive down there and give out free Ozerskys.