Leslie Brenner Comes Out

Beleaguered Dallas restaurant critic does surprising backflip and goes public

Dallas Morning News restaurant critic drops longtime anonymity defense

After years of vigorously defending the necessity of anonymity in the field of restaurant criticism, Dallas Morning News critic Leslie Brenner has "outed" herself with a big reveal. A newspaper interactive feature shares two photos of the critic, as well as a video to explain the abrupt change of heart.

"Dining incognito is the ideal way for a restaurant critic to operate — and it's the way I was able to work for the first few years I was on the dining beat here in Dallas," she writes. "But now I'm going to work in a different way."

This sudden change in policy represents a backflip not only by Brenner, but also the Dallas Morning News, which has in the past exerted its influence on the behavior of previous critics, under the pretext of maintaining journalistic credibility.

 Given her long-standing defense of anonymity, Leslie Brenner's reversal represents a major shift in her ethical stance.

Given her long-standing defense of anonymity, Brenner's reversal represents a major shift in her ethical stance. Up until now, she's championed anonymity as a defining characteristic of a "professional" food critic, one that separates the critic from mere bloggers. She's even criticized other critics who've abandoned anonymity.

In her words
In a 2009 interview posted on SideDish shortly after she was hired by the Dallas Morning News, Brenner said that anonymity is extremely important for a critic.

"It's extremely important for a critic to dine anonymously, and that's what I'll be doing," she said. "For one thing, although chefs can only cook as well as they can cook, if an executive chef recognizes a critic in the room, the chef can be sure to be on the line — to personally take charge of the critic's order — when he or she might otherwise have left it in charge of a sous or a chef de cuisine.

"It's easy to ratchet up the quality control if you know a critic's in the house."

In the same interview, she asserts that anonymity matters with service, as well: "Especially when it comes to more formal dining, there's tremendous skill involved in serving seamlessly – remaining inobtrusive [sic], yet still anticipating diners' needs — and recognizing a critic can't magically give a waiter that skill," she said.

In her book, The Fourth Star: Dispatches From Inside Daniel Boulud's Celebrated New York Restaurant, she disputes the statement by critic William Grimes that he was treated no differently when he was recognized at a restaurant. "I've been behind the pass, and I see what happens," she said.

And when former Houston Press critic Robb Walsh abandoned his efforts at anonymity, Brenner called him out, citing a Los Angeles Times column she said she assigned to writer Regina Schrambling, which read that restaurants can't do much to instantly improve things if they know a critic is in the house.

 "Dropping anonymity makes life much easier for the critic," she said in the past. "But it simply doesn't serve our readers to do so when there's a choice."

"Right. Not instantly," Brenner said. "But given about five minutes (Chef! Get your butt over to the restaurant!!!!), they absolutely can. Not to admit that is folly."

"Dropping anonymity makes life much easier for the critic," she said. "But it simply doesn't serve our readers to do so when there's a choice."

Belo backdown
Brenner's defense of anonymity has been matched over the years by her employer. When '80s-era critic Waltrina Stovall was appointed, she was ordered to resign her membership in Les Dames d'Escoffier, the women's food and beverage group, because the newspaper fretted that her identity would be revealed to member chefs, says Dolores Snyder, founder of the Dallas chapter.

And when Dotty Griffith was designated critic in 1997, the newspaper underwrote her "makeover" and haircut in an effort to counteract the recognizable profile she'd already carved out as food editor.

Anonymity remains the guideline recommended by the Association of Food Journalists, a professional organization to which the Dallas Morning News dining staff has always been heavily subscribed, with three staffers currently listed as members, including Brenner.

"Reviews should be conducted as anonymously as possible," says AFJ. "The goal of restaurant criticism is to experience the restaurant just as ordinary patrons do. However, true anonymity is often no longer possible. In that case, critics should engage in the practice of anonymity. Ideally, that means keeping all photos and social-media profiles photo-free and restricting public appearances."

Mysterious timing
In Brenner's video, she states that the profession is "evolving" and she wants to be on the "cutting edge" of that change. But it's hard to buy the cutting-edge theory, given the stream of critics who've already shed anonymity in a deliberate manner in the past five-plus years, from Walsh's announcement in 2009; to Chicago Tribune critic Phil Vettel, San Francisco Chronicle food writer Jonathan Kaufmann and Houston Chronicle critic Alison Cook in 2012; to Baltimore Sun critic Richard Gorelick in 2013; to New York magazine critic Adam Platt who famously revealed himself in December 2013; to Mimi Brodeur in June 2014. Stop me at any time here.

 Rather than cutting edge, the timing of the reveal comes less than a month after an unfortunate and highly publicized incident at Dallas restaurant Proof + Pantry.

Rather than cutting edge, the timing of the reveal comes less than a month after an unfortunate and highly publicized incident at Dallas restaurant Proof + Pantry. Brenner, her husband Thierry Peremarti, her highly ranked superior Keven Ann Willey and Willey's husband Georges Badoux, went on a restaurant review — one that, incidentally, included approximately four cocktails and three bottles of wine, a liquor tally unprecedented in this tightly budgeted media era.

Uninterested in a Brenner review, Proof + Pantry refused her credit card payment, and a contretemps ensued. Brenner and her party left $500 in cash on the table. The next day, owners Michael Martensen and Sal Jafar II attempted to return the money at the newspaper offices, where they met with Willey and Lifestyles editor Lisa Thatcher Kresl.

A number of questionable behaviors were described during the encounter, including shouting and threats at the restaurant, as well as arrogant-sounding statements by Belo staffers such as, "We'll see what our readers think about you refusing service to someone," and "You don’t get to make that decision about whether or not we write a review."

The SideDish post describing the incident has drawn 231 comments.

The Proof + Pantry scrap follows yet another controversy in July 2014 that involved Brenner and John Tesar, chef at Dallas restaurants Spoon and Knife. Tesar issued his now-infamous "fuck you" tweet, vocalizing a widespread disenchantment with Brenner's criticism. That dust-up drew national attention, including a column on Esquire.com that detailed the success of Tesar's campaign and that described Brenner as being "on the wrong side of history."

Brenner and her employer can try all they want to spin this newfound notoriety into celebrity by splashing her photo in public, but their effort reeks of a smoke screen, a distraction designed to hide deeper issues within the culture and management of the newspaper that created this monster in the first place.

In 2009, Brenner wrote, "I can tell you from having dined in Los Angeles as both a known food-world person when I was editor of the L.A. Times Food section and as an under-the-radar civilian that the service — and even often the cooking — are very different if you're known to be a food writer or editor. It's night and day.

"True, restaurant kitchens can't suddenly produce brilliant cooking if they can't already. But they can make sure the executive chef is taking care of your plate personally, and that you're assigned the best waitstaff. If you're recognized as a critic? Fuggedaboudit."

Post-Tesar, post-Proof + Pantry, she writes: "Our readers benefited from an excellent incognito run when I began," but now she's "dropping the ritual."

It appears that the "excellent incognito run" benefiting "the readers" has come to an end.

Dallas Morning News restaurant critic Leslie Brenner
Dallas Morning News restaurant critic Leslie Brenner is anonymous no more. Courtesy photo