Leave it to national food website The Daily Meal to add a little spice to Valentine's weekend by releasing its annual ranking of the country's most prominent critics and food writers. For the third year in a row, a panel of anonymous chefs ranked 28 critics according to their culinary knowledge, prose style, integrity and with who you'd "like to share a meal."
For the third year in a row, the representatives from Texas fair poorly overall, with none in the top third of the 28 critics that are ranked by the survey.
Texas Monthly editor Pat Sharpe comes in the highest at 11. She's followed by former Houstonia critic Robb Walsh at 19, Texas Monthly barbecue editor Daniel Vaughn at 21, Houston Chronicle critic Alison Cook at 22 and Dallas Morning News critic Leslie Brenner at 26.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the rankings is how poorly Cook fares in the category of "integrity." At only 1.6 stars on a four point scale, she's third from the bottom. Even Brenner, who's so reviled by some Dallas chefs that they've banded together to lobby the Morning News to change its ranking system, comes in ahead of Cook in integrity.
The only hint at to the chefs problems with Cook comes from a summary that reads "Plays favorites and is heavily swayed towards any chef from Houston."
The most surprising aspect of the rankings is how poorly Cook fares in the category of "integrity."
That national perception is at odds with how Cook is perceived locally where most chefs seem to value her opinions. A party that celebrated her annual ranking of Houston's Top 100 restaurants attracted a who's who of the city's culinary community. Ronnie Killen was so disappointed by his steakhouse dropping out of the Top 10 that he hired a new chef to right the ship.
In 2012, Cook reacted strongly to the results of this survey, when she placed 18 out of the 20 restaurant critics reviewed. "So. Does it hurt to find your lifetime of work is disrespected nationally and locally? Yes, it does But please continue," she wrote at the time.
How does Cook feel about it today? So far, the Chronicle critic has yet to respond to an email asking for comment on her low integrity ranking.
Elsewhere, New York Times critic Pete Wells takes over the top spot from Jonathan Gold of the Los Angeles Times. Bill Addison, the Eater national critic who published a well-regarded look at the country's 38 most essential restaurants, comes in at No. 12.
With the overall rankings, is it any wonder that the most high profile, nationally prominent critics fare best? How often do chefs from outside of Texas read either Cook or Brenner?
It's certainly possible — even likely — that the answers are "not very" and "not very often, if ever." Even including Walsh, who stepped down from a full-time role at Houstonia and has now left the magazine entirely, seems a little out of touch with the current state of Texas food writing.
Daily Meal executive editor Arthur Bovino tells CultureMap in an email that the survey includes responses from dozens of chefs across America. "We certainly reached out to chefs in Houston, but the state’s city that represented the Texan chef perspective this year most was Dallas," Bovino writes. Two who chose to identify themselves are: Fierce Brenner critic John Tesar of Knife and Brian Zenner of Oak.
While Bovino emails that the chefs didn't offer any specific examples of Cook's perceived favoritism, he does note that she has never ranked highly in the survey.
"Consider that she did fall five spots overall this year to 22nd after last year’s brief blip up," he writes. "And while her overall 2.15 star score may be higher than the 1.84 she scored in 2012 . . . her 22nd place finish this year is not far from her 18th place finish then (1.92 stars)."