Tracking chefs down for interviews at a music festival is a lot like herding cats. So when I happened to get former Las Vegas chefs John Tesar and Adam Sobel—who both did cooking demonstrations at Life Is Beautiful—in front of me at the same time, I finagled a mini roundtable discussion. Talking to two guys who intimately know the Las Vegas restaurant scene but who have the perspective of being out of it for a few years has its perks. For one, no filter! (Relax, publicists). So in addition to catching up, I got them to dish on what’s next for them.
This wouldn’t be the first time the chefs have overlapped, as both did time in town during the Strip’s culinary awakening in the mid-”aughts,” meeting when Tesar worked for Rick Moonen at RM Seafood and Sobel was at Bradley Ogden. Sobel would go on to become Moonen’s chef de cuisine a few years later. “[Moonen] opened my eyes to a world of responsibility, being a responsible chef,” Sobel says. “It always wasn’t that important. When you realize you can actually have an impact and it does matter, you can use your influence. That changed the way I source product and the way I cook, for sure. I owe all that to Rick.”
“Rick’s one of the smartest guys I’ve ever met,” Tesar says. “He has one of the best palates in the chef world. He taught me a lot about developing flavors, and we helped him move his act into the 21st century.”
Their time during Life Is Beautiful was well spent. Aside from cooking demos, the homecoming doesn’t go unnoticed. “Once you get past the TV stuff, you can see the progression of our work,” Tesar says. “It’s not about celebrity, but about what we put on the plate.” Sobel is now based in San Francisco as corporate chef for Michael Mina Restaurant Group, which oversees four restaurants in the city, and Tesar has branched out on his own with steakhouse Knife in Dallas.
As for what’s next, Sobel wraps up the successful pop-up Middle’terranea in Michael Mina’s Test Kitchen in San Francisco on October 24, then turns the menu around a week later for Little Italy, an homage to red-sauce Italian and a nod to Sobel’s own Italian-American upbringing. Meanwhile, Tesar is working on a book, as well as building his steakhouse empire. Would he consider Las Vegas for his concept? “I would,” he says. “I want to open five Knifes, and I would love to have one here.”
The state of affairs of upcoming kitchen talent:
Tesar: When I was first coming up, we just cooked. Maybe you got a review and got your picture in a magazine, but now you’ve got to be a lot of different things. First and foremost, there are a lot of guys who are those things and who are shitty cooks. It’s why I’ve kind of done it backwards: I learned how to cook first, and [then] I had to learn how to be an entertainer.
Sobel: The bottom line is this: If you don’t have the fundamentals and a foundation, and you are not a classically trained chef, you’re going to struggle at some point in your career. You can only fake it for so long. You have to have a foundation, and the only way to get there is time and experience. It can’t be forced, it can’t be fast forwarded, because the best chefs are the ones who have gone through the system from 16 years old to 30, and worked their way through sous chef, chef de cuisine, and then came out as a well-rounded chef.
On the raising of minimum wage:
Tesar: It’s feeding the millennial generation. The problem we have is more politics and social economics in the sense that that minimum wage is important to people who work at WalMart and have families. Kitchens—there’s plenty of money to be made in restaurants; you’ve got to work your way up to it. If you give too much in the beginning, they take and they never give anything back.
Sobel: Exactly. In San Francisco especially. There was as huge [minimum wage] increase last year, and there’s going to be another one—it’s going to be $13, and potentially $15 in two years. To run a profitable business with wages like that, everything changes. And everyone says we’re targeted because we’re a big restaurant group. We run profitable restaurants, but the margins… San Francisco is a really tough market to make a lot of money in restaurants. Rent’s high. It’s super challenging. One of the things we’re constantly discussing is whether it’s trimming menus down and going to set menus, cutting labor, closing a night of the week—you have to get creative to balance that change.