Tesar vs. Brenner, Jonathan Gold weighs in

A restaurant critic's job is to determine what a chef is trying to do and how well he or she is doing it.
A restaurant critic’s job is to determine what a chef is trying to do and how well he or she is doing it.
(Patrick T. Fallon / For the Times)

The food world has been chatting today about Leslie Brenner’s review of the Dallas steakhouse Knife, or rather the reaction to the review by its chef, John Tesar, probably best known in Los Angeles for his performance on “Top Chef” season 10.

The review in the Dallas Morning News was actually fairly mild for Brenner, who is still remembered around here for her merciless evisceration of Gladstone’s and Giorgio Baldi when she sat in as the restaurant critic during her tenure as food editor at The Times. And her descriptions of some of the food at Knife – patties of seared, shredded beef tongue with arugula and heirloom tomatoes; crisp pig’s head with three salsas – make them sound like dishes I wouldn’t mind eating for dinner tonight.

She describes the provenance and aging of Tesar’s steaks in careful detail, and especially praises a 28-ounce Niman Ranch ribeye, a 32-ounce HeartBrand Akaushi bone-in ribeye and a relatively inexpensive tri-tip cooked sous-vide and finished over red oak. She makes clear that she visited the restaurant four times and mentioned at least 14 dishes that she didn’t get around to trying. She didn’t much like the pea sorbet that came with one of the salads, thought one strip out of five in a bacon appetizer was overcooked, and didn’t much care for the chicken, but it read like that it was: a solid three-out-of-five-star review.


As Jenn Harris reported earlier, Tesar responded to the review on Twitter like a teenager deprived of his driving privileges. In a Facebook blast, he banned Brenner from his restaurants. He erupted at her on Twitter – the mildest epithet he directed at her was “you really suck.”’ He erased those tweets quickly enough – Eater’s Raphael Brion called it “snap tweeting”’ – but followed by retweeting several dozen tweets agreeing with the sentiments, including one that said Brenner wrote “like an angry ex-wife.”

As a newcomer to the conflict, which apparently has existed since Brenner gave Tesar’s restaurant Spoon four stars instead of the five he thought it deserved, it is hard to know what made the chef so mad. Was it that she attributed the chicken dish to Judy Rodgers and the pig’s head preparation to Michael Sindoni, as seems almost certain to be the case? Was it her suggestion that the restaurant would be better if the menu were half the size? Was she out of line in complaining about the stemmy watercress? Could it have been solely a matter of the stars? It’s hard to know.

When a critic sits down to write about a restaurant, the opinion of the chef under review should be the last thing on her mind. The critic’s job is to determine what the chef is trying to do and how well he or she is doing it, to elaborate the context of the cooking, and to unpack the allusions and influences. It is no different than what a good movie critic does, or an art critic, or a book critic. Brenner may not have loved the restaurant, but she obviously tried hard to understand it. And her criticism was constructive, or at least read as if she wished it to be so.

But if you read enough interviews and profiles of Tesar, you know that he wants to be a player in the food world. He openly yearns for Beard awards and inclusion on national best-restaurant lists. His envy of Anthony Bourdain, alongside whom he cooked 15 years ago, is astonishing in its breadth and complexity. He wants to be the chef that pops into your head when you think of visiting Dallas, and his resentment against regional critics who might prevent that is profound. He really thinks about this stuff. It would be almost lovable if you weren’t on the other end of his wrath.

So was his outburst out of line? Certainly – but really no more so than the actor complaining about the review of his play or an author livid that the “Times” review was assigned to his rival. Brenner and the Morning News are right to stand behind her review. And when Tesar finally gets around to trimming his menu and working a bit on sous-vide, I hope he’ll allow Brenner back into the restaurant to see what he’s done.