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A Conversation With Jimmy Sears

A sort of 'Top Chef' update.

12:45 PM, Jan 6, 2013 • By VICTORINO MATUS
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If the name "Jimmy Sears" rings a bell, somewhere along the way you must've read Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain's bestselling "Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly." The book dispels any lofty notions a reader might have about the cooking life. It's blunt and graphic, but it is also terrifically written. There's heavy drinking, sex, cocaine, and heroin. And there are colorful characters like Bigfoot, Vladimir, and Adam Real Last Name Unknown. And then there is Jimmy Sears, "a brilliant cook ... [who] really inspired me" and who Bourdain describes in Medium Raw as "the single most talented cook I ever worked with." That said, here is how the author sums up Sears's behavior pattern: "finding a way to f— up badly whenever success threatens, accompanied by a countervailing ability to bounce back again and again—or, at the very least, survive."

A Conversation With Jimmy Sears

Jimmy Sears's real name is John Tesar—he was eliminated last week from Top Chef. Along with another reporter, I had the chance to talk on the phone with the restaurateur, now based in Dallas and proudly running Spoon Bar & Kitchen.

Despite losing because of an unfortunate risotto (he tried to break a Top Chef curse of bad risottos and failed), Tesar was upbeat and even grateful for the experience, which helped him refocus his attention. He'd tried out for Top Chef as far back as seasons one, three, and four, "and for whatever reason I didn’t make it" until this past summer, when Tesar was 54 years old—the oldest chef ever to compete. But by appearing on the series, Tesar was able to finally brush an enormous chip off his shoulder—one that he's carried since the publication of Kitchen Confidential.

"I’ve always wanted to be on Top Chef, having the whole connection with Bourdain," Tesar says. "We’ve had our ups and downs as friendships, and him admitting to taking my stories, his grandiose success, his sometimes leaving me out of things and not including me in moving up, you know, like going from Scott Bryan to Eric Ripert and continuing to climb the chef’s social ladder. I love the guy, fascinating writer, but that left a burning desire in me for people to discover and understand who I am."

Taking my stories? "His stories were fascinating. Half of them, or some of them, a lot of them were mine, you know, because we shared them together. I was the catalyst in bringing the group together. So there is that need for attention in me as a chef and when I did Top Chef, I refocused my attention. My attention was more toward my family. It was just something I needed to do."

Bourdain told D Magazine writer Jason Sheeler, "Well, yeah. I'm sure I have used his stories and put myself in there. Maybe not knowingly. I have been inspired by his adventures and misadventures." (Sheeler's profile from 2011, entitled "John Tesar: The Most Hated Chef in Dallas" is worth the read.)

It's understandable that Bourdain might have had reservations using a real name: Although "brilliant" and "most inspiring," Jimmy Sears's travails were considerable. "At that point, when he wrote the book ... I was really at a low point in my life," Tesar admits. "I was living in a hotel in Times Square. I had gone through a terrible divorce. I had a girlfriend at the time—she threw me out of the house. I was living with her mother in her apartment and I finally had to go to the hotel." He then landed the job of executive chef at the Supper Club and Bourdain was his first hire.

But at some point Tesar was working two jobs—and there seem to be two versions of this story. As Bourdain tells it in Kitchen Confidential,

Jimmy spent much of his time roller-blading around the city, schmoozing; he had a second job, cooking for Mariah Carey and Tommy Mottola; he was secretly working out a deal for his triumphant return to the Hamptons; and of course he was poking everything in a skirt.... Jimmy's food, as always, was magnificent, but Jimmy himself seldom seemed to be around. After a few months, I was de facto sous-chef, or kitchen manager—the guy everyone came to to find out what the hell was going on—and when I came back after another brief vacation in the Caribbean, Jimmy, though still nominally the chef, was secretly and simultaneously employed as the chef at the Inn at Quogue out in the Hamptons....

According to Tesar,

I put this ragtag team together and Bourdain and I had met at Bigfoot’s restaurant ... in the Village. So we had all of these tumultuous relationships. And Adam DiCarlo, Real Last Name Unknown, was really a maniac. He was so hard to control. He was a brilliant baker, but he’d break into the restaurant and steal stuff and do all this other stuff, and then I’d have to threaten him and he would come in in the middle of the dining room and say, “I need to get paid more,” and start screaming and all this other shit, and back then I wasn’t as emotionally secure as I am now, and I would argue with him. And I think that would scare Tony.

And what happened was, in the process of getting back on my feet, I had a second job in the Hamptons, and it kind of states that in that chapter with coming back and forth to Quogue. And at that point, pardon my language, but he ratfucked me out of my job. And I was just getting back on my feet again. And I would have kept them all together and taken care of them. He was getting paid well and he could’ve eventually stepped into the job. So we had an argument right at that moment, and I think that in some way, shape, or form, he didn’t want to pay me or he thought that I would like to stop the book from being written if he included my name in those key chapters, and they were very important to the book, or I wanted something for them, or I would sue him for it or something. He was paranoid back then. Now he’s a big celebrity, he doesn’t care. But back then he didn’t know he was going to be on the New York Times bestseller list and all this other stuff, so he played it safe and just kind of left me out, and then he named me in the end. So it haunted me.... And he did a great job in it. He’s very good at vendettas. I mean, if you look at his early work, it’s all about the mob and all these things. So he punished me by not using my real name.

And then he adds with a laugh, "We've both gotten over it." Not only did Bourdain reveal Jimmy Sears's true identity, but he also considers him more talented than any other cook he's worked with. "His food—even the simplest of things—made me care about cooking again," Bourdain writes in Medium Raw. "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."

When I asked Tesar if he still talks to Bourdain, he said they texted the other day "to ask him why I’m not on his new show Taste. But there’s only six episodes and it’s in the can already." To be sure, communication is infrequent, but Tesar understands. "I have a lot of other friends that have been celebrities. I grew up around Ben Stiller, and I know some of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. When you’re young and you’re around people that get successful later on, and your lives separate a little bit, it’s very difficult to reconnect with them because they have all these people around them that want them. And I respect that boundary around Flaco [Bourdain's nickname]."

He went on,

And when we’re together in the same room, he’s very gracious and a real friend and has acknowledged that a lot of his success was due to things that I helped him with. And to be included in Medium Raw and to be Jimmy Sears in Kitchen Confidential and to be documented like that in the culinary world and have it all come together by being on Top Chef, and having a brand new restaurant that seems to be getting great reviews, that’s what’s changed me.... Top Chef was on my bucket list. It’s off there now and I’m good.

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