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Dallas chefs band together to target newspaper critic

🕐 13 min read

Tim Carman (c) 2014, The Washington Post. DALLAS — Leslie Brenner’s money is no good at Proof + Pantry. Or at Lark on the Park, Spoon, Meddlesome Moth and a number of other restaurants here. These free meals are not intended as bribes to influence the Dallas Morning News restaurant critic into writing a positive review.

No, they’re intended to prevent a review altogether.

In early November, after a town-hall-style meeting, at least 10 Dallas-area restaurants agreed to adopt a practice first employed in October at Proof + Pantry, where the owners refused to present Brenner with a bill, setting off a widely publicized standoff over who would eventually pocket the $500 that the critic left in cash to cover the check. (Short answer: charity.) The policy is designed to generate either an ethical conflict for the critic, who cannot accept freebies, or an embarrassing public scene, which would cast doubt on the critic’s ability to write a fair review.

“It inherently creates some bias, because now you’re upset about this whole situation,” says Sal Jafar II, co-owner of Proof + Pantry and one of the lead organizers behind the rogue restaurants. “So you’re obviously going to have to disclose that.”

The tactic is just one of several adopted by these chefs and restaurateurs, including controversy magnet John Tesar, who are trying to crash the system: the Morning News’ restaurant star-rating system, which, these insiders say, is flawed as administered by Brenner. The participants also plan to stop granting interviews to the newspaper and stop allowing photographers inside their bars, gastropubs and other eateries in advance of reviews. These rebels will even have a flag to fly: They plan to place stickers in the window and print new menus with the logo “DMN Doesn’t Pay Here.”

This gambit has moved Brenner from the best seat in the house to the hot seat. These operators, confident they can fill their tables without the paper’s attention, are attempting a power play rarely seen in a large American dining market: They’re organizing to confront the major daily’s critic, whose position of influence has historically silenced, or at least intimidated, those who might question his or her authority. In this case, they’re confronting a self-described “tough critic” whose five-star system, they say, cannot differentiate between a self-service three-star barbecue joint with minimal decor and a full-service three-star restaurant with a hip, rustic interior. They’re lobbying for a more nuanced system that includes separate ratings for food, service and decor.

“The only power we had was not to play ball, because we’ve played ball over and over and over again, and it’s gotten us nowhere,” says Shannon Wynne, the restaurateur behind Lark on the Park, Meddlesome Moth, Bird Cafe and other pubs and eateries. “So why would we knowingly step into the lion’s den by providing photographs and interviews?”

It’s not clear how far this campaign will go. Attempts in other cities to organize chefs to oust a stern critic, or at least make the job more difficult, have stalled before they got off the ground. In 2010, the owner of Red Medicine booted Los Angeles Times critic S. Irene Virbila from his modern Vietnamese restaurant, hoping others would follow the lead. They didn’t. About 15 years ago, a Bay Area chef tried to round up some peers to get San Francisco Chronicle critic Michael Bauer fired. It went nowhere.

The campaign against Brenner and her star system has already gone further than most. Jafar of Proof + Pantry says that after the initial organizational meeting, each person was asked to round up other restaurants to join. He expects “additional big names in the city” and some “up-and-comers” to sign onto the “DMN Doesn’t Pay Here” campaign, although he won’t name names until they officially join.

“It’s not just angry newbies, and it’s not just an angry salty dog who’s not getting love anymore,” Jafar says, invoking himself and business partner Michael Martensen, both millennials, and the 60-something Wynne.

In person and on a local public-radio program, Brenner has started calling these instigators a “fringe” group, even though Tesar’s new Knife steakhouse has been widely praised among local and national critics and Wynne owns 28 pubs and restaurants in 18 cities. Still, in a sense, Brenner is correct: Some of the most distinguished chefs in Dallas, including Stephan Pyles and Tim Byres, have distanced themselves from the campaign. Byres calls it a “little strange and petty.”

“I would never put anything on my menu like that,” adds Byres, relaxing near a fireplace at his acclaimed Smoke restaurant.

Pyles offers a philosophical take on the campaign against Brenner and the paper. “It’s not that I’m terribly supportive of any critic,” he says, sitting in a back dining room at his namesake restaurant. “It’s just that it’s not my place to question, publicly, anything that they have to say. That’s not to say that I haven’t done it, but again, I’ve learned my lessons. I’ve learned that you never get the last word with the press.”

No matter who or how many restaurants are recruited, the rebellion looks to have lost its first skirmish. Proof + Pantry’s October battle over the bill did not prevent Brenner from reviewing the place. Over Halloween weekend, she visited the stylish American restaurant incognito: She came dressed as a mummy. A couple of weeks later, she published a three-star review, which D Magazine’s Nancy Nichols (a frequent critic of Brenner’s) immediately called a “disservice to the restaurant and to DMN readers.” Nichols also pointed out that Brenner’s raised-from-dead visit to Proof + Pantry came right after the critic decided to drop her anonymity in a high-profile unveiling.

Martensen, a co-owner of Proof + Pantry, deadpans that it’s probably the first time Brenner has eaten in Dallas truly anonymously. Others say Brenner’s quick use of a disguise so soon after dropping her anonymity underscores their belief: that her unmasking was a stunt to shift the conversation away from the city’s combative chefs, a claim that Brenner and her editors deny, saying they had been talking about this move for almost a year.

Brenner will be the first to admit she’s not afraid to stir it up.

“I don’t really see any point in doing a job like this and not being bold,” she says one afternoon at the Morning News offices. “If people don’t like my opinions, that’s fine. I didn’t get into this to be liked. I got into it to express my opinion.”

– – –

Criticism is an odd profession. It has the ability to drive consumer choice, perhaps even make or break a restaurant (or play or movie or museum exhibit), but professional critics need no official training. They require no certification, no license, no film or art or culinary degree. They just need to pass the inspection of their employers. And within the Morning News, Brenner is a star, a former Los Angeles Times food editor with two James Beard Awards and several books to her credit. After a nationwide search, Brenner, 54, became the restaurant critic at the Morning News in 2009. (Disclosure: I was a finalist for the job.)

“It’s the reader who wants serious commentary. I think she provides that,” Morning News editor Bob Mong says about Brenner. “I think she does it in a very lucid, well-thought-through, energetic way.”

Pyles, the dean of Dallas chefs, has a more nuanced assessment of Brenner’s skills. “I have not liked nor agreed with everything that Leslie Brenner has written about me,” he says, “but I also think she’s probably the best food critic Dallas has ever had in terms of food knowledge, restaurant industry knowledge and the workings of a restaurant.”

“She’s just very critical,” he adds.

Her critical voice has routinely been the issue for some of those under her scrutiny. She once called a beet-cake dish at the flagship Stephan Pyles restaurant a “convincing argument that molecular gastronomy is just about over — or should be.” She described some of the offerings at a Japanese restaurant “about as impressive as the sushi you’d get in a supermarket.” And in her review of Knife, Tesar’s modern take on a Texas steakhouse, she dubbed the chef’s bacon flight “as impressive as those new duds the emperor bought.”

These examples — pulled at random from Brenner’s body of work — perhaps wouldn’t cause a reader in New York or Chicago to bat an eye. But those who have worked in and around Dallas say it can have a second-city mentality, preferring cheerleaders over tough-minded critics such as Brenner, who arrive from outside Texas. As such, an honest restaurant reviewer can feel the heat from all sides: from chefs, readers, management, but especially from fellow critics.

“There were plenty of restaurateurs who didn’t like me, but that’s been true in every city where I worked,” emailed Hanna Raskin, food writer and critic for the Charleston (South Carolina) Post and Courier, who worked as a critic at the Dallas Observer for a year.

“What’s unique about Dallas is the total absence of mutual respect in the food-writing community.”

Adds esteemed Texas food writer Robb Walsh: Dallas is “a swirling vortex of negativity. The critics about the restaurants, the restaurants about the critics. . . . It’s a seething hotbed of dissatisfaction.”

Before she accepted the job, Brenner was warned by her predecessor, Bill Addison, now restaurant editor for the website Eater, that Dallas would require a particular trait. “He did ask me if I had a thick skin. I think I said, ‘Yeah, like, four inches thick,’ ” Brenner remembers. “And he said, ‘Well, you’ll be fine here.’ “

Her skin may not be four inches thick, but Brenner does radiate a sort of steeliness. Her dark hair is frizzy and her face often framed with tortoise-shell glasses, a coy stylish indifference that smacks of Los Angeles or New York, two cities where the writer has worked and dined extensively.

The local media has been particularly rough on Brenner for her outsider status and her opinions, though they say she has brought it on herself. Bloggers, fellow critics and others have raked Brenner over the coals for such offenses as allegedly lifting the work of barbecue blogger (and now Texas Monthly barbecue editor) Daniel Vaughn, hating on queso, calling the blackened pieces of fatty brisket “burned ends” (instead of the standard “burnt ends”), complaining about wine service at a barbecue joint and for not copping to her mistakes.

“I think a lot more people would be comfortable with her if she could, every once in a while where it’s warranted, admit fault,” says Vaughn, while chowing down on a cafeteria tray of barbecue at the Slow Bone.

Brenner understands that she has been prickly when confronted by critics. Part of it stems, she says, from her work ethic. She calls herself a “fact-checking maniac,” a behavior that may make her overly sensitive to criticism that suggests otherwise.

She still categorically denies that she plagiarized Vaughn’s list of the 16 best barbecue spots in Dallas, eight of which appeared on her own list of nine. But years after the fact, Brenner now wishes she had acknowledged Vaughn’s legwork in sussing out those off-the-beaten-path joints. “If I could do it all over again, yeah, I would have,” Brenner says.

Then there’s Tesar, the former “Top Chef’ contestant who has practically made it his mission to attack Brenner on his Facebook and Twitter pages. Their relationship is beyond complicated. Tesar’s career stretches back to New York, where he worked with Anthony Bourdain (and starred in Bourdain’s bestseller “Kitchen Confidential” under the pseudonym “Jimmy Sears”). Brenner has ripped at least two of Bourdain’s books in print, including his “Les Halles Cookbook.” Bourdain has ripped Brenner right back.

Tesar, like Bourdain, has a brash style that he says is influenced by such comedians and shock jocks as Lenny Bruce and Howard Stern. Tesar gave his best Sternlike performance on July 16, when he received what he viewed as a lackluster three-star review of Knife, which has since landed on best-of lists by Eater Dallas and Esquire magazine.

Before even reading her review, Tesar took to social media, both publicly and privately to Brenner, to direct invective at the critic. (One private message he sent to Brenner via Facebook: “I am going to make sure you understand how crazy you are.”) It wasn’t the first time Tesar had tangled with her. He had previously bent her ear on the phone and ridiculed her online, calling her “probably one of the worst food critics I’ve ever seen in my entire life.”

Still, at the behest of friends, Tesar decided to delete his public knee-jerk condemnations of Brenner on the night of the review. His restraint didn’t last long.

“I woke up at 3:50 [a.m.] with a voice in my mind going, ‘You’re a chef, and you’re a man,’ ” Tesar says. “You need to do this for your soul. . . . I was like, ‘F— you, Leslie Brenner. Your reviews are self-serving.’ I can’t even remember the quote.” Then he went back to bed.

When he woke up, the dining world in Dallas had changed. Tesar’s 22-word tweet had begun its viral sweep across the Internet. It was a schoolyard brawl, and food writers across the country gathered to watch, fascinated by this rare public spat. A chef was reviewing the reviewer, and it was brutal.

Tesar believed then and believes now that Brenner’s middling star rating, if not the Knife review itself, was payback. Payback for his public criticisms, for his private rants, maybe even for his relationship with Bourdain. (He even recently sent a scathing letter to the paper’s top editor, Mong.)

“The idea that I have something against him I find absolutely absurd. I don’t know him. I don’t like or dislike him,” Brenner says. “I have no idea what he’s talking about.” The critic says she doesn’t pay much attention to public criticism and that she’s “not about retribution.”

Retribution agendas aside, Tesar’s tweet was probably the spark that lit the fire under Brenner and the Morning News. It apparently struck a chord with other Dallas chefs and restaurateurs who had similarly felt the sting of Brenner’s pen, and they have seized the opening.

Tesar “went too far in many aspects and crossed the line in many ways in having a civil discourse,” Wynne says. “I do think it acted [as] somewhat of a catalyst.”

To Lisa Kresl, deputy managing editor of lifestyles for the Morning News, there’s another way to view Tesar’s tweet heard ’round the town — and the many that have followed. Tesar is working with a production company to develop a Gordon Ramsay-style reality TV show. He’s been asking various critics and food writers to be a part of the program, including, you guessed it, Leslie Brenner. Tesar thinks it would be “brilliant television” if she signed on.

“I think Tesar really wants to be on reality television, and he’s using this, creating all this, to make more provocative material for a reality TV show,” Kresl says.

Brenner, by the way, has turned down Tesar’s offer.

Robert Francis
Robert is a Fort Worth native and longtime editor of the Fort Worth Business Press. He is a former president of the local Society of Professional Journalists and was a freelancer for a variety of newspapers, weeklies and magazines, including American Way, BrandWeek and InformatonWeek. A graduate of TCU, Robert has held a variety of writing and editing positions at publications such as the Grand Prairie Daily News and InfoWorld. He is also a musician and playwright.

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