Salut! / The Chef

Meet the chef de cuisine of Naples Winter Wine Festival 2023

Michelin-starred chef John Tesar headlines this year's festival.

BY January 19, 2023
Chef John Tesar
The head of the Michelin-starred Knife & Spoon at The Ritz-Carlton Orlando, Grande Lakes, is known for his experimental approach to steak. (Courtesy Image)

John Tesar was standing barefoot in the driveway of his parents’ Hamptons home when he told his mother he wasn’t going back to college. A young surfer, skateboarder and beach rat, Tesar had fallen in love with the restaurant business and unlocked a hidden talent for cooking while working in a small Westhampton pub. “I was standing in bare feet in this warm, brown sand, and I told my mother, ‘I’m going to Paris to go to cooking school,’” he recalls.

This year’s Naples Winter Wine Festival Chef de Cuisine, Tesar, attributes much of his success to serendipity. He says things like, “God takes care of fools and babies, and I’m protected under both plans,” and “Cooking was my destiny, and I’m lucky to have found it at a very young age.” But to credit his success—seven restaurants, a turn on Top Chef, multiple James Beard Award nods and a Michelin star—to outside forces diminishes his instincts and mastery.

After Paris, Tesar opened and ran restaurants in the Hamptons and Manhattan, dabbled in the corporate chef life in Tahoe and Vegas, and eventually settled in Dallas, where he became the executive chef at the acclaimed Mansion on Turtle Creek in 2006. In 2014, he opened Knife, a luxe modern steakhouse, known for its mastery of dry-aged beef. “My life was changed by dry-aging,” he says of the process, in which controlled mold is grown on beef to intensify its flavor and tenderize the meat. Knife also champions Texas beef through direct relationships with ranchers, like the century-old 44 Farms. “Their feed and genetics have been the secret to our dry-aging,” Tesar says. (His menu includes a rare, 240-day, dry-aged bone-in rib-eye from the farm.)

Knife’s acclaim has spurred several spin-offs, including surf-and-turf Knife & Spoon at The Ritz-Carlton Orlando, Grande Lakes, which garnered the chef his first Michelin star last year. At Outer Reef in Dana Point, California, Tesar applies his obsession with dry-aging to seafood, experimenting with dry-aged tuna, salmon, sturgeon and hamachi.

When he’s not in the kitchen, he connects with nonprofits through food. Thirteen years ago, he founded Burgers & Burgundy, which has raised hundreds of thousands for the Dallas chapter of DIFFA (Design Industries Foundation Fighting AIDS), and he’s been a fixture at NWWF since 2018. “To be invited back to one of the largest philanthropic events in the world [is an honor],” he says. “When Donna [Solimene] called and said I was going to be the Chef de Cuisine, it felt like I’d come of age—not only to be respected as a cook but as a person who cares, can live up to the responsibility and wants to give back.”

This year, he’ll host a vintner dinner with Napa winery Dana Estates, where impeccable shellfish and dry-aged beef are likely to make an appearance. He also curated an auction package around the PNC Father Son Challenge golf tournament, featuring Tiger Woods at The Ritz-Carlton Orlando, Grande Lakes. The lot includes a chauffeured Bentley ride from Naples, four tickets to the tournament, a stay in a pair of king rooms at the resort and, of course, dinner at Knife & Spoon. “I’m hoping it goes for $200,000 at least,” he says. “It’s Naples, come on. ”

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