A Conversation With Jimmy Sears
A sort of 'Top Chef' update.
12:45 PM, Jan 6, 2013 • By VICTORINO MATUS
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."
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,
According to Tesar,
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,
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