Have you heard about the hard time restaurant critic Leslie Brenner has been getting in Dallas?
I didn’t know about it until I read this article in the Washington Post, which said at least 10 Dallas restaurants planned to ban the Dallas Morning News critic, refusing to take her money. They also planned to refuse interviews, stop allowing photographers, and even print new menus and put stickers in the window saying “DMN Doesn’t Pay Here.”
Fortunately, the movement lost steam and no chefs signed on. But the harassment persists, particularly from Chef John Tesar, who tags Brenner on Twitter and harasses her (see a sample here). She has since unfriended him on Facebook.
It’s bad enough that a chef harasses Brenner, but what concerns me is how local food writers ganged up on her as well. D magazine restaurant critic Nancy Nichols criticized Brenner as a mean-spirited, uptight writer. An anonymous writer at DallasFoodOrg called Brenner condescending and narrow minded. Nichols left a comment that the anonymous post was “brilliantly written” and suggested the writer send it to Brenner’s employer. Teresa Gubbins at CultureMap criticized Brenner’s use of lingo. Houston Eater called Brenner “beleaguered” in a headline. And Dallas Eater covers her every move.
Even Scott Reitz, the critic at the other daily paper, the Dallas Observer, got in a zinger: “Through years of reviewing restaurants around Dallas, Brenner has become the quintessential critic-villain — the sort of pundit we see in movies like Ratatouille and, more recently Chef, who dole out eviscerating zingers for the entertainment of readers that enjoy reading engaging restaurant criticism.”
In the Washington Post story, Brenner holds firm about her restaurant reviews. “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.”
It’s not like she’s a newbie. Brenner came to the Dallas Morning News from the Los Angles Times, where she was the food editor and oversaw restaurant, cooking and wine and spirits coverage. She also wrote restaurant reviews. When she took the Dallas job she had 20 years of experience as a food writer, including awards from the James Beard Foundation and the Association of Food Journalists.
Not everyone is piling on. Hanna Raskin spoke out about the backstabbing in the Washington Post article: “There were plenty of restaurateurs who didn’t like me, but that’s been true in every city where I worked. What’s unique about Dallas is the total absence of mutual respect in the food-writing community.” Raskin is a critic for the Charleston (S.C.) Post and Courier who worked at the Dallas Observer for a year. A commenter on the Washington Post’s article said, “What’s the worst part of all this? Catty bitchy females. Pathetic excuses for articles.”
I’m with them. It’s not that food writers require blind allegiance to each other. But if you want to criticize someone, talk among yourselves. Keep it zipped in print and on social media.
Says Brenner, “I don’t think any journalists should be sniping at each other. It’s incredibly unbecoming. It continues to surprise me that it’s still going on. I don’t see them behaving as journalists do. They write posts about me without calling me for comments, and fact checking seems pretty lax.”
She’s good at letting the criticism roll off. “I probably got my thick skin in graduate school at a fiction writing MFA program,” she explains. “The heart of that was writing programs, where you would be critiqued by your peers. In the two years I did that, I came to understand it was my work that was being critiqued, not me, and it wasn’t a personal attack. It also helped me gain the tools with which to deal with criticism. You take the criticism that is helpful to your work and you tune the rest of it out.”
Brenner has lots coming up to keep her fired up. “I feel energized about the next few years,” she said. Because of dropping her anonymity, she’s approaching her work in a different way. “I’m teaching a course in the fall, and helping to organize events at the paper — like a food festival and videos about restaurants.”
Plus, the food scene in Texas is smoking (that’s a barbecue joke). “There’s a very exciting culinary movement all over Texas and very much about Dallas, ” says Brenner. “Here it’s a lot about smoked meats and influence from immigrant communities that has evolved into this really fun cuisine, and feels very organic.”
What are your thoughts about the food writers who backstab? Do you think writers should dis each other in stories and social media? Do you think it’s a coincidence that they are mostly female? Is it fine because Brenner’s a controversial public figure? Have you endured harassment as well on the web? Let’s discuss.
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