In the wee hours of Thursday morning, chef John Tesar took to Twitter to respond to a review of his new Dallas restaurant, Knife. Dallas Morning News critic Leslie Brenner gave it three out of five stars.
He started his tweet by telling her off with an expletive, then said: “Your reviews are misleading poorly written, self serving and you have destroyed the star system and you really [stink]” (It loses something in translation, but this is a family website.)
Later in the day, Tesar also announced he was banning Brenner from his restaurants.
The tweet launched a thousand responses, from chefs, the food media, and those who follow them. But how does a critic react to such an occurrence?
Brenner’s public response, via jimromenesko.com, went like this: “I stand by my review. I worked very hard on it, it’s fair and our readers will judge it for themselves. As always, I look forward to reading their comments.”
I can’t speak to her private response, but if it were me on the other end of Tesar’s tweet, I would not be crying “BOO HOO HOO, CHEF WAS MEAAAAN TO ME.” This kind of response merits a shake of the head, a sigh, sometimes even a chuckle. Then it is time to move on. There is nothing here any critic working hasn’t heard before:
Misleading how? That piece of criticism could land if it were more specific. But it ain’t.
Poorly written — OK, that’s something most writers tell themselves at least half the days of the week.
Self-serving? It is the rare critic who writes with any kind of personal agenda beyond acting as a consumer advocate, painting a representative picture of an experience, and possibly provoking public conversation. It is a given that many consumers will disagree with at least some of a critic’s assessment, because opinions — to paraphrase — are like bellybuttons. Everybody’s got one. I don’t know any critic who actively enjoys ripping the good-faith efforts of others, although everyone has a different degree of acceptance. Personally, it is my least favorite part of the job. But it is part of the job. Any critic who doesn’t explain the bad along with the good isn’t doing it right. It is called criticism, after all.
This was an even-handed review, offering plenty of praise. Three out of five stars. If this had been a response to a one-star review I’d written, I’d have more sympathy for the chef, at least. The more out of proportion the response, the quicker the critic shrugs it off. Is it fun to be told you are not perfection incarnate? No. But if you can’t hear it, maybe then the restaurant business is not for you? When I receive an outsize response to a review I’ve written, my private thought bubble reads: “Stop being a baby.” Restaurant reviews exist. Chefs know that. My guess is they want to have the kind of restaurant that gets attention from critics, not the kind that is ignored.
As for destroying the star system, well, much has been written about its being the critic’s bête noire, reductive and limiting. But it is what most people care about most. So it remains. This is what I’ll say about stars this time around: There are four of them available (at the Globe, at least), along with some half-star waffling. That’s not a lot of gradation. Also: The critic uses the stars to sum up the dining experience — the face the restaurant presents, not what is behind that presentation. Am I sure that the staff is working really, really hard? Hell yes. And I respect it. But if that hard work doesn’t translate to a great experience, it won’t be reflected in the star rating. If a chef wants to call me up after a review and tell me how tough the restaurant business is, I’ll hear him or her out. But it’s not going to make me feel my assessment was in error.
A critic, of all people, should be open to criticism. I take thoughtful, reality-based feedback from chefs and readers deeply to heart. (Knee-jerk feedback, feedback that misunderstands a critic’s role, feedback that appears in some way hate-filled, feedback that appears to come about as a result of the giver’s psychological profile, I dismiss.)
But restaurant reviews aren’t designed to reflect the experience from the inside. They represent what it looks like from the outside, to the diner who stops in and hands over the credit card at the end of the meal. More people these days at least begin to understand and respect what goes into creating the illusion and romance of a great restaurant meal. And the illusion and romance are starting to be displaced; diners want a grittier, more inside experience, to see what chefs are doing and how, to eat “like chefs” and not the cosseted few. Chefs’ status has changed in terms of perception: We see kitchen work, now, as a more potentially upper-class profession than we did even a decade ago. (It hasn’t necessarily changed in terms of little things like salaries and benefits — actual class measures — but that’s a different conversation for a different day.) If anything, restaurant critics — creatures of their own times — are more sympathetic to chefs and restaurateurs than they have been in the past. But still: Not boosters. Not haters. Not agenda-wielding maniacs. Critics, fair and square.