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

When John Tesar attacked Leslie Brenner in a public forum, he started a fire that still burns. For many of us who work in the restaurant business, and I include food journalists, critics, and bloggers in this lot, the last week has been tumultuous. I'm going to try and make some sense out of it.

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.