John Tesar has a reputation as a chef who speaks his mind. It didn’t earn him many friends during his 2012 stint on Season 10 (Seattle) of “Top Chef,” but he’s not worried. And it’s why he can dismiss Shake Shack as “a glorified McDonald’s” below. But the three-time James Beard semi-finalist for “Best Chef in the Southwest” also has a solid reputation for creating great food and appealing restaurants, including Spoon Bar & Kitchen and his current Knife at the Highland Dallas steakhouse. Tesar’s next project is developing Knife Burger, a fast-casual brand he’ll open in 2017 built around the popular burgers on Knife’s menu. BurgerBusiness.com spoke with him about his plans.
At the beginning of the year you opened The Royale Magnificent Burgers in Plano, Texas, with The Aphelia Restaurant Group. But you left by April. Are your plans for Knife Burger a sign of restlessness to get into burgers again?
No, it’s not restlessness. I had these plans in place. The Royale was more of a consulting job for me. I was only a 5% owner and had come in after the design and I didn’t realize how many partners there were. I have a different philosophy on burgers so I met my commitment to them and came up with what they wanted. I created burgers for them that we had spoken about and they approved them and put them on the menu. I wish them well, but I don’t know what the future is for that concept.
But Knife Burger will be all yours. What will it look like?
The one at The Shops at Legacy food court in Plano will be only 350 square feet. There will be 6 iPads and you’ll walk up to an iPad and the whole menu will be there. You can pay with your ATM card or credit card. The manager will have a small bank in case you want to pay with cash. And it’s going to be simple: five burgers, two types of fries, soft drinks and shakes.
But the one we’ll do with Four Corners Brewing Co. will be a concession to the beer garden that Four Corners is building in The Cedars [district in south Dallas]. We’ll have a wine store and wine bar adjacent to the Knife Burger and a butcher shop. We’ll have wine by the bottle and all the Four Corners beer you want because they’ll be brewing it right there. If that all catches on we might embellish the menu down there to also include some sandwiches and things. But right now we’re just focusing on Knife steakhouse and Knife Burger. It just seems to be working for me. It’s a viable concept; it’s profitable.
We’ll probably open at The Cedars in spring, and few weeks later we’ll open in Plano. And hopefully we’ll open them wherever anyone would like one!
And it’s all backed up by my partnership with [Angus beef supplier] 44 Farms. We couldn’t have the success we’ve had at Knife without the quality of their products.
Going forward, will other Knife Burger locations be more like The Cedars or the Plano layout?It will be bigger than 350 square feet I think, but it’s not going to be a 100-seat place like [Austin-based chain] Hopdoddy Burger or [Dallas chain] Liberty Burger. I want to keep it to almost a Shake Shack mentality, although I happen to think Shake Shack is nothing more than a glorified McDonald’s with maybe a little more thought. I want to do real restaurant-quality hamburgers at an affordable price.
We’ll have The Magic and The Ozersky [named for the late food writer Josh Ozersky] and other burgers from The Knife and a special burger every day. Nothing too sloppy; nothing too dressed up. Squishy buns. It’s [Josh] Ozersky’s mentality.
Those burgers will stay on Knife steakhouse’s menu?
Oh sure. I’m not going to take them off. They’re a great option for hotels guests or for those who want to come and experience Knife but don’t want a steak that day.
What other elements from Knife steakhouse will migrate to Knife Burger?
Maybe just the same fries we serve at Knife and a macaroni and cheese that we serve [Johnny’s Mac & Cheese with bacon bread crumbs]. We’ll keep it simple. Simple seems to work for us. We’ll be taking temperatures [of the burgers]. A lot of walk-up burger places don’t give you that respect. I like a medium rare burger but I never order one when I go out because I can’t find a good one in a chain situation.
How do you like to dress your burger?
I like it simple. I like it with a little red onion, lettuce and tomato. The Magic [Cheddar cheese, bacon, LTO on an English muffin] is my favorite. People love The Ozersky [American cheese and red onion on a white bun] too but I like a bacon cheeseburger on an English muffin with lettuce, tomato and red onion. That what I grew up eating and it’s what makes me happy.
Burgers should make you happy.
Yeah, and there’s something special about the English muffin. I think it soaks up all the juice. It doesn’t get in the way of the burger and there’s a bit of crunch with toasted muffin that a bun doesn’t usually have. It’s a little more savory. It’s just good.
Will burger prices be lower at Knife Burger?
Yes. I would say they’ll be somewhere between $7 and $10. Maybe we’ll go $12 for something that’s special and worth it. [At Knife, burgers on the dinner menu range from $12 to $28 for The Rib short-rib burger.] We start with a 6-oz. patty of 44 Farms beef. We use all-natural ingredients, but we don’t talk about it. I think if you have to talk about it you’re trying too hard.