Chef John Tesar has once again found himself in hot water, this time over an altercation at the Laguna Cliffs Marriott resort in Dana Point, home to Tesar’s Knife Modern Steak restaurant. The former Top Chef contestant and longtime Dallas-based restaurateur was captured on video (see it at Page Six) yelling at a group of picketing hospitality workers, saying things like “take your union and shove it up your ass” before flipping off the camera and yelling further obscenities.
The Unite Here Local 11 labor union has represented the workers on the property for weeks as they seek higher wages and more comprehensive benefits. Per the Hollywood Reporter and LAist, the housekeepers, cooks, and other service staff at some of the area’s most prominent properties (including the Beverly Hilton and Waldorf Astoria Beverly Hills)) are seeking a $5 raise in hourly wages and ongoing $3 pay bumps over the next three years. Los Angeles’s striking hotel workers have joined a growing list of labor movements across the country in recent months, including the ever-present SAG-AFTRA and Writers Guild strikes, plus union actions at Starbucks, Barnes & Noble, and by several thousand City of Los Angeles employees, who initiated a one-day strike on August 8.
In July, the New York Times covered Unite Here Local 11’s protests and their effect on weddings and other events at Los Angeles properties like the InterContinental and the Fairmont Miramar. Striking workers have faced several aggressive incidents in both Los Angeles and Orange County, according to a Los Angeles Times report, which also noted that Unite Here Local 11 filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board on Monday, August 7.
A representative for the union said in a release to Eater that Tesar had become angry about noise coming from the gathered protestors over several days. They say that Tesar broke a drum that was being used to draw attention to the protest before (on camera) calling a worker “a lazy pendeja,” among other things.
In a call with Eater, Tesar admits that he broke a striking worker’s drum and that he used the language seen in the video that has since been shared widely across social media. “It’s not my proudest moment, but these people harassed my children,” says Tesar, who was staying on the property for six days with his three children, ages two, five, and 12. Tesar says that he was paying for a room while on vacation and that the loud chants and drum beating were a constant source of frustration — occurring, he says, even outside of area noise ordinance time restrictions.
“Striking Laguna Cliffs workers had been picketing outside the hotel,” says a representative for Unite Here Local 11. “Workers were exercising their right to peacefully protest and communicate their message. We understand that John Tesar was complaining about the noise of the protest and that he was very angry. His reaction, including his action damaging a drum that a worker was holding and the vile language he used when addressing workers of the hotel, was completely unacceptable and cannot be justified by any complaint about non-violent speech by protesters.”
Described more than a decade ago by D Magazine as the “most hated chef in Dallas,” Tesar has long been accused of angry outbursts (both in the media and in the workplace) and generally temperamental behavior. Tesar says that his “truth-telling” style has earned him fans as well as detractors (particularly on reality cooking competition series Top Chef), even as he continues to run some of the most lauded restaurants in the country. Tesar’s Knife & Spoon in Florida earned a Michelin star in 2022 — the same year that Tesar himself got briefly banned on Twitter for threatening television personality Sean Hannity.
A spokesperson for the Laguna Cliffs Marriott Resort & Spa issued the following statement to Eater:
We have zero tolerance for violence of any kind. The actions and behavior of Mr. Tesar are not reflective of our values or our commitment to fostering a positive and safe work environment for all associates. We immediately removed Mr. Tesar from the property and are examining appropriate next steps.
Mr. Tesar is an independent contractor providing consulting services; as we are in process of investigating the situation we will not be providing additional information on the status of our consulting agreement.
Tesar denies that he was removed from the property, saying that he was due to leave that day anyway and that he simply checked out and returned home. He also says that he won’t be back “until the strike is over, just to keep the peace on all sides.”
As for the future of the restaurant Knife, which only opened in June 2023, Tesar says that he has “spoken with ownership” and that they are “solid” in their continued working relationship. The hotel’s provided statement indicates that it is undergoing a review process to determine next steps for Tesar’s involvement in the restaurant. Meanwhile, protests continue at the high-end resort and hotel in Orange County.
Disclosure: Certain roles within Eater are unionized with the Writers Guild of America, East.