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My Five Cents: Food Criticism, F-Bombs, and Firing the Messenger

The other night, I decided to watch Reds, one of my favorite movies. Loosely, the film follows the story of John Reed, the journalist who chronicled the Russian Revolution in 1917. Reed slipped from his role as a serious writer to a passionate activist entangled in a battle between radical communist factions in the United States and Russia. It’s a stunning historical fiction and love story with impressively dramatic performances by Warren Beatty (Reed), Jack Nicholson (Eugene O’Neil), Diane Keaton (Louise Bryant), and Maureen Stapleton (Emma Goldman).

As I watched Reed transform into a man obsessed with reforming the labor movement, my mind wandered to the state of the Dallas dining population. Hang with me for a second; I realize I need some time off.

For many of us who work in the restaurant business — I include food journalists, critics, and bloggers in this lot — the last week has been tumultuous. The game of cooking and covering restaurant news in Dallas is faster, meaner, and harder than it has ever been. The behind-the-scenes squabbling, name calling, jealousies, petty scorekeeping, and backstabbing aren’t usually seen by the general public. This dark world beyond the walk-in operates on texts, emails, Gtalk, Facebook posts, tweets, and an occasional phone call. Add Yelp, writers fighting to be right, first, and ubiquitous and what you get is so much noise that you can’t hear the food.

As I watched Beatty deliver an emotional plea to the angry proletariat, he turned into John Tesar, the chef who hurled an f-bomb to DMN restaurant critic Leslie Brenner after her three-star review of his restaurant Knife. Rather than call her or her editor, he tweeted his feelings: “Fuck You.”

I don’t agree with Tesar’s tactic. In the long run, he, like Beatty in Reds, did more to set his cause back than further it. If you want to make a change, you must start with civil, constructive criticism. It’s highly unlikely that an editorial manager or publisher will take you seriously unless you behave like a professional. What many chefs and restaurateurs don’t understand is that reputable media organizations are going to back their writer first, and maybe read your email later. The chances of Tesar calling for Brenner’s head and getting it are nil. I will eat those words with extra cheese and 10 gallons of kale salad if I’m wrong.

Tesar’s actions ignited a fire that still burns. He hasn’t stopped his battle, except perhaps to take a call from a talent scout interested in producing a TV show.  Tesar could be the next Gordon Ramsay? Brenner is probably sifting through book deals for her Restaurant Critic’s Diet as she sits in the green room, waiting to go on The View. This is the state of our not-so-brave new world: the bad guys fall up, not down.

I’ve spent several hours each day “listening” to chefs and restaurateurs voice their opinions about this mess. Yesterday, I received an anonymous letter written by a male chef claiming to be “well-known.” The proclamation was addressed to Brenner. In it, he details how she has hurt people in the industry. He writes:

“Your vitriolic spew causes people to lose their jobs. I’ve seen restaurants that were doing just fine get a public flogging from your snotty little style, then suddenly begin to lose money. Tremendously hard working people who put in 80 hours a week in hot kitchens quickly find themselves looking for a job, moving to other cities, ripping their kids from their schools. How do you think it feels when a child comes home crying because you made fun of his dad in the paper, then dad loses his job and his school classmates ridicule him for it?”

He goes on to describe Brenner’s behavior when she reviews a restaurant. I’ve witnessed her in action, and he’s right on the mark. She has a tendency to make people perform instead of sitting back and allowing the restaurant to operate. I’m all for throwing an occasional curve ball to see how the kitchen or service responds, but not to the extent that management has to call servers from other tables to fill requests.  If Brenner believes she dines unrecognized, she needs a reality check. I can tell you what review is going to come out before it is published. How? Word travels fast.

Tesar banned Brenner from his restaurants. He isn’t the first one, just the most public. I’ve been banned from restaurants in the past, and restaurant owners have called our owner and urged him to fire me. He laughed. One restaurant pulled a huge advertising campaign, and he laughed again. The sales associate who had that account didn’t, but this is how it works on the publishing side of the fence. Learn it and fight accordingly. Otherwise, you empower your enemy.

I appreciate constructive criticism. I’ve even learned how to cope with people who attack me anonymously. It ticks me off when someone hides behind a stupid moniker and proceeds to size me up using false assumptions. I get dragged down and discouraged by semi-professional writers who toss out passive-aggressive remarks. Those actions achieve nothing but camaraderie in destructive cliques. I realize times are changing and, believe me, right now those of use in the media are feeling the strain. Tesar could be right when he says that age of the critic is over.

Don’t we all want to see the kitchens and dining rooms in Dallas get the international respect they deserve? (Well, most of them.) Then toughen up, cupcakes, and play fair. (Fist rising!) Hit your thoughts straight down the fairway. I’d love to hear what you have to say.

13 comments on “My Five Cents: Food Criticism, F-Bombs, and Firing the Messenger

  1. I don’t know any of the players personally: food critics, chefs, owners. I like to try new restaurants, and food in general, and Ienjoy reading the reviews. Most of the restaurants reviewed these days are so expensive that I’m just reading them for entertainment. To say that Leslie giving Knife three stars instead of the five John Tesar thinks he deserves would in any way cause the collapse of his restaurant is ridiculous. Tesar went so far as to allow his Esquire buddy to interview him, and the Esquire critic felt that overall Leslie’s review was fair. I don’t know Jay Jerrier, wouldn’t know him if I saw him. But I “know” him through his responses to criticisms, he’s a first-class act. Conversely, that’s how I know Jack Perkins. He falls into Tesar’s category. I realize being a chef is their livelihood and they feel their reputation is on the line. But the tantrums that are being thrown these days is just one more example of the coarsening of our society, and that makes me sad. What’s happened to civility? And Nancy and Teresa Gubbins going on Tesar’s Facebook page and adding their two cents’ worth was as unprofessional as anything I’ve ever seen. You don’t have to like her. You don’t have to agree with her. But in the last few years, I’ve read Leslie’s reviews, and I’ve read your posts here in DMagazine, and I’ve never read a single word that Leslie has written where she has publicly slammed a fellow food critic. And that speaks volumes.

  2. It’s our industy’s teeter totter on a culinary playground. I read critic’s reviews to hear what they have to say. Just like a movie critic’s remarks, I may not always agree, but I still want to hear what they have to say. It’s when we quit being able to hear anything because someone (on either side of the table) ceases to disagree with respect that we fail to serve our collective culinary public.

  3. Writing and food. Both subject to extremes in opinion and review.

    To shut down conversation on writing is like joining in the “Fuc* You” conversation on food.

    I don’t particularly care for Ms. Brenner’s writing. But as with a waiter who is unsatisfactory to a critic, the problem really lies at the top. Somebody at the DMN read and liked what she dished, and thought the “world class” dining city schtick would be something exciting (elite? educational? extreme?) to put the food section on the cutting edge. “World class”, writing as it were. Do they get a pass on this because they are the DMN? No more so than Chef Tesar gets for his new restaurant concept I would think.

    I reject that Dallas needed this person to cause such a transition. Mainly because all we’ve managed to do is create chefs and restaurants that are copying chefs and restaurants in other “world class” cities. I reject that somehow this critic has made the Dallas dining scene better, until I see her with an apron working in a kitchen. Those are the people who are making the Dallas dining scene better, and it has nothing to do with their concern of what Ms. Brenner has to say. It has to do with their own internal vision.

    Those are the places that Dallas really loves.

  4. Food “critics” are hopefully a dying breed. I much prefer writers that engage the cooking & dining community and educate diners rather than sitting on high and judging others.

  5. this may sound strange—but is leslie giving out michelin stars or some other form of ranking common among the critical american food world? Hey, three michelin stars is tremendous! But three stars on yelp/google—or even dallasnews.com seems underwhelming for the common eater. If you have been to any of Tesar’s restaurants, there really isn’t any opportunity for a score of 3 stars to happen. That’s what this is about. The world reads reviews and says, “that sounds about right.” Your readers are not understanding her rankings–and honestly, until reality hits her between the eyes, the bickering will continue. If 3 stars is 60% you have just failed in any school in the US…get it?

  6. Personally, I can’t wait until each Wednesday rolls around to read Leslie Brenner’s reviews. They are exciting and interesting to read. I don’t have a lot of money, so I do appreciate that she toughens her standards for the super expensive restaurants. To me, she seems wise and caring-vastly different from what I am reading here. I also love reading Sidedish reviews, Culture Map, Eater Dallas, etc. I believe there is a vast number of people reading and appreciating all the different viewpoints. Without Leslie, it would be a boring scene. I really don’t believe the star system shuts places down; the quality of food, price point. location or other reasons do that.

  7. Several years ago Roger Ebert wrote about the struggles of the film critic. I think he oversimplified the marketplace dynamics but took this position: “The celebrity culture is infantilizing us. We are being trained not to think. … It is about the death of an intelligent and curious readership, interested in significant things and able to think critically. … It is not about dumbing-down. It is about snuffing out.”
    He may have been writing about the film critic but critics across all disciplines are under attack–by traditional media institutions downsizing the space devoted to coverage or employing less qualified writers, by new media struggling for market share, by social media users who feel suddenly empowered, by business owners competing in tougher markets on shorter timetables and also empowered by social media, and by fellow critics frustrated and trying to figure out how to remain relevant. Meanwhile, the average reader is supposed to filter through all of the words and sentences to somehow learn something or make an informed decision? Yikes.

  8. Brenner’s reviews are written and worded in personal, back handed insults. And a lot of the insults seem nothing to do with the food itself, but just looking for something to slam. She dwells so much on the negative, and seems to relish in it.
    She does not take her responsibility seriously, nor cares what or who she affects.
    There is something wrong with her.
    I would ban her also.

  9. “so much noise that you can’t hear the food”, “eat those words with extra cheese and 10 gallons of kale salad if I’m wrong”, and “Hit your thoughts straight down the fairway” … always enjoy your writing, whit and insights. Too many pretenders out there. Nancy is the best critic we’ve had in this town since Waltrina.

  10. I quit reading the DMN food blog a long time ago. Every reveiw by Brenner has conflicting statements that cannot be read to figure out the “star” awarded the restaurant.
    Very full of herself. Just let me know what the menu , atmosphere and service is like. Will you go back?
    That’s all,
    I remember Phil Romano’s problem with her. I totally agreed with Phil……..

  11. Tesar sent the tweet because he is an asshole trying to get some publicity, and he got it in spades without spending a dime. Articles like this is exactly what he seeks.

  12. A couple of clarifications to begin with. First … Tesar will never be a Gordon Ramsay. He may have the mouth and the attitude but he does not have the drive and showmanship that Ramsay has. The second point I want to make is that which was pointed out … every restaurant is in critical review all the time via the internet. So, would you rather be reviewed by a professional or a guest that ordered a burnt filet migon with a side of ketchup?

    I spent a number of years in the hospitality industry and had my fair share of ups and a few downs along the way. Even today, I can not go into any restaurant without my mind making some sort of rating of the food and the service. The difference between me and most of the other people sitting in the dining room is that “I understand what are real faults and what are simple bumps”. No one understands how the front of the house and the back of the house operates unless they have been there. I am just glad I don’t have to contend anymore with having someone rip me a new one on Yelp because someone ordered something they had no idea what it was and didn’t like it then decided it was my restaurant’s fault.

    A smart restaurateur “listens” to their customers and then modifies their operation based on the feedback. Too bad Tesar thinks he is so much smarter than his customers because it will take his restaurants to their grave.