Last month, Leslie Brenner, the Dallas Morning News's formerly incognito and largely controversial food critic, penned an appraisal of the Dallas food scene that tasted a lot to me like validation. It was one of the few pieces of food writing in and about this city made of equal parts honesty and undiluted self-awareness of the trendiness weakening its food culture that also put forth a sort of solution.
Hers is typically not the kind of writing I prefer to read. Brenner's brand of honesty is criticized locally and elsewhere as overly critical. Her article calls cooking in Dallas this summer "remarkably unremarkable," a symptom of how the fickleness of the dining public, the exodus of chefs from top restaurants, and the lack of qualified line cooks continue to macerate any remnant of creative culinary energy. What a picture to paint!
And even as I felt my misgivings about the vibrancy of Dallas food culture confirmed by her words, I could also sense—and track on Twitter and elsewhere—the collective sigh of the city's food writers as over the Trinity and through the tollway, to LesBren's doorstep it went. This post is my way of joining them. But you should know that I use that same breath to agree with Brenner on this one important point: hospitality could fix the Dallas dining scene.
Brenner suggests chefs repair the food culture by focusing on hospitality, "giving us experiences that are thoughtful, delicious and pleasurable." But the type of hospitality that could better succeed, I think, is one food writers are uniquely suited and responsible for. And it's a hospitality that has much more to do with what what we do beyond restaurants' doors, before we cross the threshold, than what we should expect from chefs and other hospitality professionals once we arrive to their care.
There has been no shortage of articles across the city's publications that decry current Dallas food and instill fear in chefs and diners alike over the future to come. In 2015, there was Nancy Nichols's "My Five Cents: Dallas Has Too Many Boring American Restaurants" followed up by Scott Reitz's headline equivalent of an exasperated shoulder shrug, "[whelp]Another Critic Says Dallas' Dining Scene is in a Rut." And these were written five years after two-editors-ago Hanna Raskin's "Homesick Restaurants: How Dallas Became a Dining Nowhereville," revealing time had not improved eating here. But both Nichols and Reitz have left their posts as critics at D Magazine and The Observer, respectively, and two wonderful writers have followed after them—in position, that is, though much less in style. Eve Hill-Agnus and Beth Rankin edit and write stories that celebrate Dallas food (theirs is the kind of writing I like to read), and manage to do so without the irreverent tone I had come to believe was Dallas food journalism's only operating speed.
And you can't blame me for believing irreverence overpowered sincerity in Dallas food media. The Observer's food blog adopted a curious moniker, City of Ate, that echoed the city's reputation as the City of Hate. For an outlet that covers the hospitality industry—even if an alternative, edgy weekly—this association with the hostile environment of its past confounded me. Thankfully, this name, though it remains in print and as a Twitter handle, seems to have become de-emphasized in the alt weekly's online publications. But that it was ever part of the city's food culture might offer clues about where and how it has, apparently, been going wrong.
Critique is hostile in its way, isn't it? The presence of an overly critical press machine has churned out not only a casserole of contested restaurant reviews but also a local food culture remarkably devoid of harmony. Hanna Raskin, in the Washington Post's survey of the critic-chef turmoil and its damage, said, "What's unique about Dallas is the total absence of mutual respect in the food-writing community." And Robb Walsh, co-founder of Foodways Texas and longtime Texas food writer, echoed her sentiments, calling Dallas "a vortex of negativity."
When I first became a Dallas diner in 2013, I waded quickly and cautiously through story after story describing the city's food and restaurants as "hot," "pretty," and "sexy," rolling my eyes with each unsavory adjective, submerging any doubt that Liz Lemon had taken deep root in my heart. But I maintained hope, and still do, that somewhere beneath its glossy exterior resides a smart, sincere core replete with culinary profundities to explore. Practicing hospitality—as eaters, as readers, as writers—is the start of a voyage to know it and its people better.
Raskin's article all those moons ago was not simply another complaint, but a genuine concern for Dallas's food identity—the matter that's really at stake in all of this hand-wringing. She believed then that "Dallas has done such a good job of disguising its edible traditions that few eaters—here or elsewhere—can confidently describe the city's cuisine." The recent spate of articles devoted to or gesturing toward a restaurant bubble on the verge of bursting suggests that her concerns linger in the minds of many.
All of this combines into a marvelous opportunity—and grand responsibility, really—for food writers in this city. We tell the story of Dallas through food with each stroke of the key, each picture snapped, each chef-writer relationship formed, each meal shared. Such stories play a larger role than we often admit, alongside chefs, menus, servers, and atmospheres, in shaping food experiences. These stories, to properly honor their subjects, must be more than Hot 10 Lists and hotly anticipated openings (though these are important too). Like proper dinner guests who never arrive empty-handed at a host's door, we too must relentlessly arrive to the occasion of crafting food stories with generosity in tow.
Generosity of this kind is required of diners, sure, and Brenner suggests this, too. But it perhaps applies especially to food writers, who must sit down to write each feature and every blurb having asked questions first and arriving at judgment only later, if ever, much more often telling the stories of the people who wish to make their living by enhancing the lives of others from the inside out—by nourishing them in ways biological and intangible. Could we strive to know them even better than what they offer us on their plates or, at the very least, yearn to know both in equal measure? I think so.
Food journalism can—even if just for a time, like during the present moment of repair—principally seek and spread the good in lieu of the critical, thereby modeling for diners how to engage generously with the food scene—to eat it up without devouring it. This is hospitality.