Is Leslie Brenner Really Ready To Play Nice With Dallas Chefs?

A kindler, gentler Brenner in 2014? Don't count on it.
A kindler, gentler Brenner in 2014? Don't count on it.
Evans Caglage/The Dallas Morning News/HCK2

To the chagrin of many, no story dominated Dallas' food coverage over the last few months than the trials and antics of Dallas Morning News food critic Leslie Brenner. 2014 was an exciting and controversial year for Brenner. She was kicked out of one restaurant, banned from reviewing others, and had some of the city's best chefs asking for her head on the proverbial platter.

But now that 2014 is behind her, it looks as if the critic is ready to start the healing process. In a thousand-plus word treatise on EatsBlog, Brenner extends the olive branch to Dallas diners, along with pontificating on a variety of topics. Including, but not limited to, ditching her anonymity, justifying inconsistencies in her yearly 'Best Of' rankings, and encouraging Dallas diners to put the "sniping" of the last year behind them.

Much of the essay centers around controversy that arose after Gemma, a restaurant run by Chef Stephen Rogers and his wife Allison Yoder, was declared the News' best new restaurant of 2014. The decision was controversial among people in-the-know because Gemma only received 3-stars from Brenner in a review earlier this year, and Rogers wasn't even included on her list of the year's best chefs.

To be fair, Brenner makes a few salient points that attempt to address these criticisms, especially the level of vitriol that has followed them. "I don't understand why people would want to accompany the exchange of ideas and opinions about food and dining with sniping, bullying and hatred," writes Brenner. "Let's stand proudly as a cosmopolitan, 21st century culinary domaine where discourse is rigorous and opinions are strong yet thoughtful and constructive."

Fair enough. There is no doubt that Brenner has been the target of some nasty words in the past year. John Tesar told her to go fuck herself, a decidedly not-nice directive. Some of the criticism targeted at Brenner is teeming with sexism. In a letter published by Esquire, one anonymous chef argues that Brenner is a "bad person," and goes so far as to call her a "bitch," a label commonly applied to women with unpopular opinions. However you feel about Brenner, there's no denying that she doesn't deserve to be called sexist slurs by someone who doesn't even have the chutzpah to sign their name to them.

Still, the sympathy ends there. In her essay, Brenner does not address the most crucial issues that chefs, diners, and even critics have with her method -- objectivity, and the consistency of the star system. At SideDish, D Magazine critic Nancy Nichols has repeatedly called Brenner's ability to be objective toward Knife and Proof + Pantry into question, and who could blame her? After being told "fuck you" by one chef and embarrassed in front of your husband and co-workers by another, it seems reasonable to call her judgment into question. Brenner has defended her objectivity in the past, but avoided explaining exactly how she was able to fairly review both restaurants.

Even less has been said about what exactly is the difference between two and three stars, or how she even computes the final star assignment. The original "fuck you" tweet from John Tesar may get the most press, but both Tesar and the guys behind Proof + Pantry were pressing Brenner on her inconsistent use of the paper's star rating system. Many viewed Gemma's win as best new restaurant as further confirmation of this view.

Even after Brenner's essay, these questions still linger, and will likely continue to color her reviews of restaurants into 2015. There is no disputing that Tesar and the unnamed restaurateur shouldn't have thrown tantrums and insulted Brenner, but that doesn't mean that they're wholly wrong about her approach. Brenner calls for "more professionalism, more openness, more striving for excellence," but doesn't exactly make clear whether or not that applies to herself, too.

Despite her occasional tone-deafness, Brenner is right in that Dallas diners are tired of listening to ego-driven chefs and stodgy critics fighting with each other over the presentation of a plate or the exact temperature of a perfectly medium-rare dry-aged steak. It is also clear that Brenner doesn't have plans to ditch Dallas, which means that chefs (even those who have banned her or maligned her in public) are just going to have to learn how to co-exist.

This letter could be the start of that, even if Brenner still stubbornly won't admit that her critics might have been the teensiest bit right about the star system and her objectivity. In standing her ground, Brenner has lobbed the ball into the court of the city's chefs. It's time to put up or shut up. Either chefs can finally organize in a meaningful way against Brenner and the Morning News, or stop whining about the critic if they're not going to do anything about it.

Whichever they choose, hopefully we won't have to hear about this petty bullshit for much longer.

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