Leslie Brenner Does NOT Get Dallas!
There. I said it.
I had a few good laughs over the viral media storm and commentary surrounding chef John Tesar’s* antics after Leslie Brenner’s three star review of Knife. While I don’t agree with how he chose to make his point (venting on social media, including a late-night “***BLEEP*** you” tweet and banning Brenner from his restaurants), I do understand why he was infuriated.
As a native Dallasite, and avid lover of Texas cuisine, I’ve frequently been confused by the inconsistency of Brenner’s reviews. One day, she’ll scribe a glowing write-up, but will give the restaurant just two stars. The next, she’ll verbally sucker punch a place, then award a place three, or even four stars. How does that make any sense?
I sent an interview request to Leslie Brenner. She responded with a link to the Star Review Rating and Price Key, saying only “I hope this helps.”
I thanked her for the information, explained I have questions about the review process and would like to interview her, but she did not respond. I’d hoped an interview would help me understand her process and gain insight. But her lack of response seemed par for the course for Brenner, who’s had a long-standing reputation of being snooty.
What I really wanted to know was how a high-end, upscale restaurant and a casual neighborhood spot could both deserve four stars? Are people to believe a strip-mall sushi place, even a really good one, is performing at the same level of food and service as a fine dining restaurant? Since it’s substantially more difficult to operate a restaurant at the fine dining level, one would hope that would correlate to its’ ability to earn the higher ratings. The key alludes to this, but is unfounded when comparing Brenner’s reviews side-by-side. Shouldn’t only the best restaurants be eligible to earn the highest ratings?
I stopped reading Brenner’s reports a while back because they didn’t make sense and often lacked factual integrity. Brenner’s blunders happen frequently and have become infamous. When they occur, she refuses to acquiesce. No one’s perfect, but the only thing more damaging to a critic’s credibility is refusing to admit or correct an oversight at all.
Let’s just say Brenner’s not cooking with gas. In the 5 years of Brenner’s Texas residence and reviews, she’s managed to put her foot in her mouth (and sometimes both feet) when it comes to the most “Texan” foods of all.
With that I give you…
* In the interest of full disclosure, I worked with chef John Tesar November 2011 to January 2013. The opinions expressed in my writing and through social media are my own. I have not been asked to write this article by anyone, nor have I received any form of compensation for my work.
Brenner has been bestowed a tremendous responsibility, but she doesn’t take it seriously where it matters most.
In response to Tesar’s outbursts, Brenner said “I don’t work for chefs, I work for readers. But Brenner fails because she needs to let go of the “us vs. them” mentality. Brenner writes to appease herself more than anyone else. She’s too presumptuous and is too frequently misinformed, which is shocking considering Brenner’s education, experience and accolades.
Brenner’s L.A. Times ‘Diners Bill of Rights’ from 2007 was very telling. I see what she was going for. It misses the mark because (as in most healthy relationships) there must be both give and take. I’ve been told too many stories about Brenner’s inhospitable ways, for instance how she likes to “close down a place.” It’s a little game she plays, where she and her party will stay at the table long after the check’s been paid and the restaurant would be closed. If the restaurant does anything to indicate it’s time to go before she’s decided she’s ready to leave, Brenner takes offense.
It doesn’t matter to Brenner that the person in charge of closing, may have worked a 12 to 16-hour day and probably hasn’t had a day off in a while. Never mind that the busboy (earning minimum wage) needs leave so he can catch the last bus before midnight because if he doesn’t, he or he won’t have a ride home. This behavior is unprofessional and is flat-out rude!
Hospitality means welcoming a guest. But a good guest is appreciative and is respectful to not take advantage or wear out their welcome.
Brenner misses important details because she’s completely self-absorbed. She operates under a self-serving (not a reader-focused) agenda. Brenner talks down to DMN readers, as though she’s on a personal mission to educate people on how to eat, or what good food is because she doesn’t care for the food many Texans enjoy. She does the same thing with restaurants and profiles them based on her skewed vision of what she thinks it should be, or what she would prefer it was instead of how it actually performed compared to others in a similar category. A food critic (certainly the highest ranking critic in a major U.S. city) shouldn’t be making such rookie mistakes – or writing to further their own cause.
Brenner is paid for her palate, but has a difficult time putting aside her personal biases. She prefers a more European style of dining, where the service is professional and not too personal, the portions are small, the food quality is high and one can linger over a perfectly posed plate. And I agree, it is lovely to enjoy an artful dining experience at a chef-driven, bustling (but not too loud) hot spot where the service is on-point, and the food is just right.
But we aren’t in France, Italy or Spain. This is Dallas, where even the most creative, talented and discriminating restaurants must be a profitable business first and foremost if it is going to survive any length of time and be able to provide jobs in this highly competitive restaurant market, something else Brenner does not seem to understand.
If Leslie Brenner works for DMN readers and wants to stay in Dallas, she should embrace her civic role. She should write for the people of Dallas with a servant’s heart. Imagine the change possible for Dallas’ food culture if Brenner approached her reviews with a focus on “How can I provide value to the restaurant and readers at the same time?” What if her vague criticisms were more tactful and focused, answering “How can I help the restaurant improve, learn and grow?”
Brenner must stop making assumptions and do a better job of fact checking. It’s unacceptable for Leslie Brenner to be making so many mistakes about cuisine, facts specific to a concept, cooking techniques, considering how long she’s been a food writer. She’d command a higher level of respect if she’d consult with industry experts on occasion, instead of pretending to be an expert on everything edible. She is not.
There’s a profound difference in providing constructive criticism and being disrespectful. Appreciation attracts support. It’s fine to throw in a zesty zinger, but not to be mean-spirited. When you treat a subject matter with the respect it deserves, that fosters good will and earns credibility.
It’s also clear there’s a problem with the integrity of Brenner’s work that needs to be immediately rectified. I don’t know if she has plagiarized or lied about food she’s never eaten. But, the facts indicate a high probability those allegations could be true. Regardless, when Brenner makes mistakes, she should gracefully accept responsibility without making excuses. Use it as learn experience and move on. Arrogance in the face of controversy does not reflect in Brenner’s favor.
For me, food is an adventure. It’s a story that unfolds. Some stories tell about our history or our culture. Others hint at what the future holds. The food industry is a fascinating, creative machine that’s constantly evolving. Food stories can be hot and spicy, or even bitter, while others are sweet and sublime. Food nourishes the body. When done right, it can feed the soul. Food brings me a sense of wonder, like I had when I was a child. It’s captivating and enchanting. The more I learn about food, the more I want to know.
Brenner has a passion for food too, but her actions and sentiments don’t reflect the same care and reverence she seeks to find on her plate. Perhaps Leslie Brenner’s been a critic for so long that she’s lost her sense of wonder. Maybe she’s a pessimist, who’s unable to see her glass is brimming with possibilities. Maybe she just needs to reconnect with her place and purpose in the world. Maybe she (like many of us) has a bit too much on her plate, or maybe she just needs to go a new direction altogether.
Whatever it is, Brenner owes it to her readers to hold herself accountable for producing a much higher quality of work. It is her duty to report factual, accurate information without exception and she must understand that she holds a very important post, with a level of responsibility that shouldn’t be taken lightly or handled in a reckless manner.
I’m grateful for the incredible influence food has had on my perspective of life. My favorite thing about food is that it connects and it has the power to unite us all. I only hope that Leslie Brenner can see that, too.
What’s a chef or restaurant owner to do?
A restaurant can greatly benefit from favorable reviews, especially if it’s focus is to draw in an out-of-town crowd, national press or if it aspires to be nominated for a James Beard Award (Brenner has a lot of pull there).
If your place is being reviewed, you have two options. One – fasten your seat belt, cross your fingers, train your staff well, put out the best food you know how and pray Leslie Brenner likes most of what she sees, hears, smells, tastes and feels throughout her review process (2-3 visits). However, if you’d prefer to opt-out of Brenner’s review, you could ban her from your restaurant (like Tesar did).
Or, you could elect option two: comp Brenner’s check!
Brenner isn’t allowed to accept any form of compensation – not a free appetizer, or a dessert and certainly not an entire meal. If her meal is comped, she cannot review your restaurant.
Comp her check then leave the building. After you’re gone, send the server over to politely thank her for coming in and let her know you’ve taken care of the bill. She’ll be furious and will likely demand to speak with you, but you won’t be there to argue with. She’ll leave angry, but she won’t be able to write about your restaurant (good or bad) at all.
Brenner’s meals can get pricey (especially when her entourage is in tow), but skipping out on the Brenner review is priceless!
Why do I care about this so much?
I’m a proud native Dallasite. I grew up in a food-and-wine focused family and have a profound appreciation for gourmet food and fine wine. I feel it’s also important to note, this article is not about Brenner’s review of Knife.
I started out to write about the review process. I wanted to understand Brenner’s process, as this had been an ongoing source of confusion for me. As I interviewed people (chefs, restaurant owners, industry people, local food writers and food critics in other markets), checked facts and conducted research, the story evolved as I realized my frustration about Brenner’s process was actually about something bigger and much more important.
When you consider there are more restaurants per capita in Dallas than there are in any other city in the U.S. The number of restaurants to be reviewed is mind-blowing. Because Dallas only has one major newspaper, Leslie Brenner is the primary voice of authority on our fine city at the national level. This means one person (who hasn’t embraced our local culture or cuisine in five years) speaks for all of us.
As long as I can remember, the national food scene has been about New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. Dallas is a bright star in the restaurant arena – but we’re frequently out-shined by Houston, Austin and sometimes even San Antonio. That’s disappointing and it’s inconceivable to think Brenner isn’t largely to blame. If the voice of Dallas’ food culture despises Dallas’ food culture, what are outsiders going to be inclined to think?
The city of Dallas and readers of DMN deserve a food critic who can honorably serve our diverse and lively culture – without their ego getting in the way. Sure, hiring a controversial writer might temporarily drive clicks to DMN’s website, but at what cost to Dallas’ reputation and our local economy?
Are Dallas’ hottest new restaurant lacking, or is Leslie Brenner WAY off base?
Brenner’s bird-brained grandstanding was apparent again just recently on Facebook when she posted:
That sparked a lively conversation, which was followed by this a few days later:
Perhaps Brenner should have led with the latter of the two posts, but I fail to see how her opinion, that Dallas is running low on fresh ideas, can be validated.
There’s been a consistent pace of new openings, certainly not “a snail’s pace.” The number of brand new (never appeared before) concepts might not have exceeded the number opened in 2013, but to say we’re running low on fresh ideas is preposterous, especially when you look at the diversity of places that have opened in the past 12 months.
We already know how Brenner felt about Knife and Truck Yard, and we can now add bars to the long (and ever-growing) list of things Brenner hates. But how can she honestly say there aren’t many fresh ideas?
Did Brenner somehow miss the unique inventiveness of places like San Salvaje, Gemma, HG Supply, or The Blind Butcher? Was she underwhelmed by places like Palapas Seafood Bar, Stock & Barrel, Lyfe Kitchen, or Proof & Pantry? What about late-night hits CrushCraft Thai Street Eats or Scotch & Sausage? Brenner likes sweets, does she not think Kate Weiser Chocolates’ concept is clever?
Is she not excited to see the all the new places coming like VH in Oak Cliff or Teiichi Sakurai’s ramen shop, Ten at Sylvan Thirty? What about Café Momentum, a concept that does so much for our community, that’s a fresh idea, no? What about the whimsical Spork, or Bohemian Café, Oven & Cellar, Ten 50 BBQ or Bottega Italia all set to launch before year’s end? Heck, there’s already least a dozen concepts slated clear into 2015. What about the highly anticipated Uchi Dallas, or Bradley Ogden’s Funky Chicken? Do you think any of these are fresh ideas that might show even a spark of creativity?
Brenner’s complaint that there are too few, “a snail’s pace,” of new openings is confounding because that’s an irresponsible point of view. More restaurants opening and at a faster pace is not better or even a good thing. Too many openings is why Dallas diners can be so fickle. Promoting that mentality is ignorant because it depicts a restaurant as a disposable commodity.
It’s sad to see new places open, then close in less than 12 months. Sustainable growth and longevity should always be the goal. Fewer openings focused on what’s needed long-term would be beneficial. It should be about quality, not quantity. Ask “What don’t we have that we need and the local community could support?” not “I’m unimpressed, what’s next? Won’t someone drop a half a million dollars or so for a raffle ticket chance to see who can entertain me?”
Brenner’s ill-considered choice of words and capriciousness about what’s good for the economy was painfully obvious, as she referred to expanding concepts begrudgingly as “duplications.”
Expansion means our local chef-driven and family owned concepts have successfully passed the proof-of-concept phase and have flourished at a time our economy is still rebounding. Now, that’s something to write about!
After the recession in 2008-2009, I’m thrilled to see the growth of so many locally owned concepts (to name a few):
- Pecan Lodge moved from their tiny Farmer’s Market booth into a their own brick-and-mortar building in Deep Ellum.
- Twisted Root Burger Company now has more than a dozen locations with more scheduled to come.
- TJ’s Seafood Market has gone from a few market-style cafes (with just a couple seats) to multiple locations and a full-blown restaurant at their new Preston Royal location and has a highly successful catering business.
- Jay Jerrier’s wildly popular Cane Rosso now has five booming locations throughout the metroplex.
There’s also been a growing trend of popular Dallas hot-spots heading north, expanding to Plano:
Which brings up another ignorant question Brenner asked in very bad taste “…why does Plano only get used ideas?” TJ’s Jon Alexis enlightened her:
I’m not sure if I was more upset by Brenner’s crassness, referring to highly successful businesses that have earned and deserve her respect as “used,” or if I was more shocked to realize Brenner’s was clueless about basic restaurant 101 and demographics?
Those “duplications” and “used ideas” are driving millions of dollars through our local economy. Some are even receiving national press recognition in spite of Brenner’s lack of enthusiasm.