Chefs Versus Critics: Why Public Rage Attracts the Wrong Kind of Attention

He really thought he deserved that fourth star. Photo: Ugurhan Betin/Getty Images

What if, at your workplace, a small, select group of people showed up, occasionally and unannounced, hung around for a few hours, then left before possibly, at their discretion, writing up a survey of your performance on a few random workdays that they would then urge the public to read as a general assessment of your abilities? You can see why chefs and restaurateurs don't love the idea of critics. They're intruders within a carefully curated dining-room ecosystem. And when said intruders then go and write negative things about the restaurant where you bust your ass for 15, 16 hours a day, 7 days a week, not taking a single day off for months at a time, well, it's going to sting. Unfortunately, the most therapeutic option for dealing with that sting — lashing out and telling someone to fuck off — is also almost certainly the worst possible way to react.

"Even when you write a bad review of a chef after several good reviews, they don't forget it," Adam Platt, New York's critic, says. "Especially if you follow that up with another bad review." So you see blowups, like the time Platt himself was escorted from ZZ's Clam Bar in New York, a response to a not-exactly-glowing review of Carbone. Or Red Medicine, which refused to seat Los Angeles Times critic S. Irene Virbila before publicly releasing a photo they snapped of the then-anonymous writer. Or, most recently, Dallas chef John Tesar's Twitter tantrum in response to critic Leslie Brenner's review of his restaurant Knife

Everyone loves a good meltdown, and some people will inevitably cheer on any chef that lashes out at a critic. But the problem for those in the hospitality industry is that calling anyone out in public — a critic, or even a customer — is at odds with the larger service that restaurants provide, namely creating an environment that is all about making people feel cared for. A tirade reveals the truth a little too cleanly: Underneath the veneer of congeniality, chefs and servers might secretly hate your guts.
For that reason, the establishments or people involved tend to forever carry a mark, albeit a small one. No matter how many awards or accolades Red Medicine receives, it will still be remembered by lots of people as the restaurant that kicked Virbila out for no good reason — and who knows what they'll do if they don't like a customer? A restaurant won't close because a chef or manager flies off the handle on social media, but doing so will never help bolster's a spot's reputation, either.
In the case of Tesar and Brenner, the review in question wasn't even all that bad, or at least it didn't seem that way. A three-stars-out-of-five write-up that found much to like. Then again, there's apparently a history and maybe a few of the review's sharper lines were all it took to make Tesar snap.
A cynic could say that this kind of outburst is an easy publicity grab, guaranteed to draw attention (and inevitable comparisons to the plot of Chef). But when someone blows up over a fairly balanced review, it looks petty. "Critics all view stars as fungible, to some extent," says New York's critic Adam Platt. "But chefs focus maniacally on it." 
But what can chefs do? As Mario Batali pointed out after this all went down, restaurant professionals are as entitled to their opinions as everyone else. It's a tough situation to be in, and the best chefs tend to either deal with it privately or suck it up and move on. Nobody will begrudge a person for standing up for themselves, but taking umbrage at specific parts of a review is different than booting a critic without explanation, or tweeting "you really suck." The latter isn't discourse; it's one-sided hostility that only amplifies anything negative a critic might have already said. 

Earlier: Chef Takes to Twitter to Curse Out ‘Self-Serving’ Critic