A goodbye is a hard thing to formulate. For the past seven years, I’ve been the dining critic for D Magazine, and that role has been a privilege beyond what I could have imagined. The last number of meals out have been bittersweet, because I knew they were my last in my role as dining critic. This has been a time of feeling the full weight of what it has meant to cover a dining scene, lovingly, critically, and, hopefully, fairly.
Don’t worry, no scandals have been exposed, and nothing is folding. It is simply my time for a life change. If I were inclined to emotion-deflecting humor here, I might say I’m leaving a job I was never meant to be doing anyway.
I came to it from “the other side.” By which I mean that my writing for the magazine involved pitching profiles of chefs rather than critiques of their food. Drawn to the world of the kitchen, its complexity and demanding tasks and crushing pressures and beauty, I penned profile-scale accounts of wild-game champion Tim Love or smoke-chaser Tim Byres or Michelin-starred Frenchman Bruno Davaillon. I spent 10 days in the kitchen of the Mansion with Davaillon, soaking in a creative process I tried to better understand, and I landed in Austin amid 200 grills billowing smoke, with Love, the biggest showman of the live-fire meat-grilling world putting on a show.
So I was utterly surprised when I was offered the position I’m leaving and found myself on the other side of the table, with a napkin in my lap, a dining expense account, and a responsibility.
At every opportunity, I’ve tried to keep alive the longform writing. And in fact, some of the greatest privileges and pleasures have come from writing profiles and features I could slot in here or there. Some of the work I’ve loved most has been, yes, the guides to Italian, Korean, Japanese, and Indian food or packages about wine country and distilleries, but also the longer pieces on the beloved Hare Krishna temple Kalachandji’s in East Dallas, the extraordinary tile factory that is Ceramica Suro in Guadalajara, the staggeringly masterful process that is Teiichi Sakura’s soba-making at Tei-An, or the David and Goliath story of the napkin-laundering game changers Alt Linen.
This city gave me a chance to be in the mind of John Tesar as he pulled off his bold gamble to sell dry-aged steaks out of a shuttered restaurant or of Regino Rojas as he navigated bringing heirloom corn to Dallas or of Donny Sirisavath as he conjured boat noodles from taste-memories and recollections of his mother.
Between it all, naturally, there were the steakhouses, the barbecue, and the brunch.
Over the last seven years, with reference points in LA, San Francisco, and New York, I’ve watched our city grow.
It has given us talking points. The debate about barbecue segued into a complex, fascinating discussion of regional Mexican food and how it could take on the hegemony of Tex-Mex. The debates about “authenticity” and “ethnic” and whether any cuisine should be deemed “elevated” by fine-dining technique (rather than reinvented or reimagined) brought the politics of sensitivity, education, and awareness into the conversation and changed diners (usually for the better).
Tastes changed, too. The standard big cab or pinot noir was unsettled by natural wines and cocktails that mixed up sotol, mezcal, and pulque. Generic farm-to-table gestures evolved into whole ecosystems of snout-to-tail and root-to-flower ingredient use and, with them, the influx of creativity that this seasonality entails. See Misti Norris and so many others. Zero waste and home-cured, house-pickled, and batch-fermented became common compound words. Chefs pushed against beef (unless it was from pedigreed, responsibly ranched bovines) and welcomed in vegetarian fare.
The challenges facing the city are the same ones facing most big cities, where the dining community has to keep up with a public gluttonous for experience, but leery in contradictory ways. Some diners are notoriously drawn to novelty but wary of the unfamiliar, which in turn makes chefs adopt conservative stances. I cannot tell you the number of times a chef pushing against the culinary narrative has told me, “Yes, but the investors—or the owners or the investor’s cousins—want to see a steak and mac and cheese on the menu.”
Real estate has skyrocketed, and our city likes a show. Interiors and buildouts have to be lush, seeming to compete with one another for immersiveness. Which is magical, but at times only exacerbates a pay-to-play system whose momentum can feel like a runaway train, emphasizing the show rather than the food, when the latter has precisely been our strength. A place where the chicest fine dining and the most ad hoc, marvelous counter or pop-up setup delivered extraordinary fare, and where those in the know hold the secret that the suburbs are where some of the best food is niched.
Meanwhile, I’ve never seen so many cottage and non-brick businesses and thus more avenues of equal-opportunity creativity and deliciousness.
I don’t think I’m the only one to feel that we’re incredibly lucky to be in this city now.
Last year, born of the destruction and pressures of the pandemic, a dining experience reemerged. Our chefs and cooks and dishwashers and front of house and restaurateurs made it look like nothing had happened; we all know (and should never forget) it did. I’ve never seen our city in a better place, with more energy and spunk.
This is part of the new reality that makes us wonder and marvel every time we go out.
Covering this beat has been a privilege, a breathless, humbling challenge, and an endlessly fascinating endeavor.
Throughout, always, the goal was to present the food and the world in front of me truthfully and anew. To do justice to how a bowl of noodles or a fluff of meringue bronzed by a blowtorch could capture the extraordinary human act of communing and craving and being fed. To expose the matrix of talent and skill and passion that makes Dallas tick.
Also, obviously, to push and prod when it seemed necessary. This city has given me much to do justice to.
But I always knew it was a finite lifestyle. (It’s dizzying how much sheer consumption it all adds up to.)
When my predecessor, the august and cantankerous, the hilarious and controversial Nancy Nichols left after 18 years, she did so with a 3,500-word essay detailing medical woes (a harrowing must-read for the non-squeamish). It begins with a colonoscopy which she underwent with little sedation so she could watch while a tube with a camera navigated the zigzags of her colon. It ends with a diagnosis of Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, which meant an end to gluten and dining capers.
I have no such story.
Mine is simpler: I miss baguettes. I miss the City of Light, where I was born and where my family lives. So I’m moving to Paris.
I’ll never forget my first restaurant review visit. I was still teaching and writing freelance, and I found myself calling my boss from inside the women’s restroom because something utterly outside my purview was going on and I didn’t know how to navigate it. If three-quarters of a meal is comped when the bill comes, because, out of an abundance of kindness, the staff is trying to right a series of small, early-service errors, but nobody knows who you are, what are the three journalistically responsible ways one could handle it? Write it into the review copy, nix the entire visit—no matter that you’re on deadline!—or simply cry? So began the wild, beautiful rollercoaster ride that has been this zany, wonderful, unicorn-snowflake of a job.
I’m deeply grateful for the role—one that someone else will fill, leaving her or his own stamp.
I’ll have one more review, which I filed for the February issue. And a few bits in a wonderful upcoming package. So you won’t be done with me until March. And the city will keep evolving.
This will not be the end of my love affair with heirloom corn tacos or yellow curry brisket. I’ve already investigated every opportunity to ship dried chiles and smoky rubs, and I’ve packed my tortilla press. I’m plotting how to rejigger a báhn mì à la Sandwich Hag or Ngon by pickling my own veggies and smearing pâté on baguette.
I have loved this job that I never imagined doing. I will miss it.
I’m on to other writing endeavors—and to my family in Paris, which I hadn’t seen in two and a half years due to the pandemic. I’ll be writing (and cooking!) from there.
Unless I miss the tacos too keenly. In which case I’ll beg for my editor Kathy Wise’s permission to live in her guest house and translate French novels. And I’ll bring you a croissant.