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Dining and Whining: Chicago Magazine's Overcooked Conflict

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An extra dollop of disclosure and Chicago's first couple of cuisine might have escaped the sticking they just got from Newsweek.

A busily researched, bouncily written little item headlined "Food Fight" showed up in last week's issue next to a picture of Berkeley's famous "Naked Guy." Despite this competition, the story caught the eye of every serious restaurateur in the city. It's one long paragraph that begins:

"Chicago's swanky Le Francais restaurant was once again rated one of the city's very best restaurants by Zagat's and the Chicago Tribune. So why was it missing from Chicago magazine's vaunted 'top 25' list? Some restaurateurs say it's because of a major conflict of interest at the glossy monthly: Le Francais has never hired restaurant consultant Allen Kelson, who happens to be married to Chicago magazine dining editor Carla Kelson. On the list are several restaurants of uncertain distinction; others that have never hired him fell off the list, along with stars they had previously earned. Meanwhile, the magazine printed Allen's interview with a chef who has been one of his clients--without noting the conflict . . . "

"Everything in the article is accurate," says bureau reporter Karen Springen, who spent a lot more time on the phone and filed far longer notes to New York than the little rip Newsweek published might lead you to suppose. We agree with her. Newsweek's sins are sins of omission--just like Chicago's.

It used to be the Kelsons guarded the gates of culinary quality at the city magazine. Allen Kelson, come to think of it, did a lot more than that. He was editor in chief, then publisher, always chief food critic (nom de plate Archy), and he and Carla pasted up the magazine at home. (Carla formally joined Chicago as dining editor in the mid-80s.) But a few years ago new owners brought in Dennis Ray Wheaton as chief dining critic and sent Allen Kelson out into the world to make a living at whatever he knew best. He knew eating out.

Here's what the November Chicago could and should have said about its "Critics' choice . . . our annual roundup of Chicago's 25 most noteworthy restaurants": "Allen Kelson, husband of Chicago dining editor Carla Kelson, is or was recently a paid consultant to Blackhawk Lodge, Bistro 110, Carlucci, Gordon, Cafe Provencal, and the Ritz-Carlton dining room." And with the magazine's conscience as its guide, it should have gone on to say: "Carla Kelson had limited responsibility for our choice of restaurants, and her husband's business relationships with some of them did not enter into Chicago's considerations."

Instead, there was a silly picture on the editor's page of Wheaton, secondary critics Anne Spiselman and David Novick, and also, alas, Carla Kelson, hiding behind funny hats, menus, and sunglasses--a pose that understated Wheaton's role in Chicago's intelligence gathering and exaggerated Carla's.

Mixed among the profiles of the top 25 were brief interviews with six of the restaurateurs--conducted by Allen Kelson. Gordon Sinclair offered his views on organic foods, and even though it may not matter a lick who ran the tape recorder and transcribed the notes, Allen's professional connection to Gordon again should have been mentioned.

Full disclosure never looks as simple as it is. Carla Kelson's mind raced with objections. "It really wasn't relevant," she told us. "He had no input." To even raise the matter is to suggest that maybe he did. "There's reverse discrimination as well. If you say all the places he worked for that made it, it implies they may not have made it otherwise. Should we also highlight the places that didn't make the list he consults for?" What about clients like Va Pensiero that were dropped from the list? Should Chicago have made something special of that?

Allen Kelson pointed out that the Newsweek piece would be no less accurate if Le Francais were replaced by Seasons and "has never hired" by "hired." "A lot of bullshit," he said. Springen called every top-25 restaurateur, but in the way of reporters she was after the story she was after, and that rubbed some owners the wrong way. Jimmy Rohr of Jimmy's Place told us, "She said, 'I'm trying to verify you're a winner of Chicago's critics' choice.' I said, 'Yes, I'm proud to say I am.' She said, 'Have you or do you now employ Allen Kelson as a restaurant consultant?' I said, 'I certainly have not. I have no restaurant consultant of any kind. I don't like what you're implying.' She said, 'We're checking. We're thinking of doing a story on it.' I said, 'Well, Chicago magazine is very important to me. Newsweek isn't important at all.'"

"I was very annoyed," said Charlie Trotter, another nonclient who made the list. "I felt, what is this? What are you doing? I was kind of pissed. I called [Carla Kelson] and said, there are these people from Newsweek asking me these kind of fool questions. Be prepared."

Said Rohr, "For us who really worked hard to win this award, it's a bit of an insult."

Also unhappy with Springen is Dennis Ray Wheaton, who feels he was asked a couple of perfunctory questions and kissed off. "She never asked me what I thought were the relevant questions, like how is that list generated? It's generated by me." Wheaton said he developed the list of 48 restaurants that eventually was cut in half, he alone visited them all, and "there's no restaurant on that list that I didn't approve of or want on there."

What about Le Francais? we asked. "When I went in August I had a terrible meal," he said. "I wrote up a list of 13 problems, from really off wines served by the glass, which no sommelier should do, to really badly salted dishes. When a restaurant's trending downward that way, it's not one we wanted to put in critics' choice."

But this was Le Francais, for God's sake, under plucky new owners, Roland and Mary Beth Liccioni. So Spiselman and Novick made visits too, then Carla Kelson herself, and everyone agreed to leave it out. When the issue appeared, Carla and Mary Beth spent 45 minutes on the phone going over the critics' notes. "I told her to please get back to me as soon as they felt things are under control and they've addressed the problems," Carla said. "I'll put her on a priority assignment as soon as she tells me the restaurant is functioning where it should be."

Have the Kelsons ever suggested that Allen step in? we asked Mary Beth. "No. This particular word of consulting never was mentioned between us," she said. "Sometimes he expressed concern about our ability to succeed in a place that had this big reputation. But I didn't receive that as a solicitation." Would you ever hire Allen Kelson? No, she said. "If you hire a consultant, a place will lose its personality. A family-owned business reflects its owner."

Mary Beth described her conversation with Carla Kelson as sympathetic and convinced us she and her husband were not the source of the Newsweek article. Who might be? we asked. "There are a lot of people who can't stand the Kelsons," she said. "They feel the Kelsons have a lot of power without having sufficient knowledge."

"Everyone's a little skittish," said Rick Bayless, who runs the critics' choice Frontera Grill/Topolobampo. "That relationship [with Chicago] is a very important one." He told us, "A lot of what I hear from other chefs and restaurateurs is just barely above plain gossip, but there was a lot of undercurrent and it didn't surprise me this whole thing hit the press. When the November issue of Chicago magazine came out there were such rumblings among the group that was included and the group that wasn't included that people began to say, 'Wait a second! What's going on? It's time to take a look at it.'"

Primarily, this means looking at Chicago's connection with the Levy Organization (favored by Chicago with three choices), where Allen Kelson has been a consultant since 1989. A Kelson basher told us Allen pulls $100,000 a year from Levy restaurants alone for inconsequential services. "Are you kidding?" Allen retorts. "I don't make $1,000 a month from any restaurant or organization." Vice chairman Mark Levy calls the $100,000 figure "preposterous."

Nevertheless, Levy's Blackhawk Lodge and Bistro 110 are Kelson clients. The Blackhawk is the critics' choice skeptics are quickest to point to. The anonymous Kelson basher mentioned above called it a "fucking stiff."

"Ask them when they were last there," Allen told us. "Six or seven months ago they got a new chef [Steve Vranian], sous chef, menu, and manager." But that's the point. The place only opened last fall, and Vranian arrived in April. Why the rush to hail it? But Wheaton tells us he liked the place when it used to be a rib house called Randall's, and he thinks it's just gotten better and better.

Wheaton says he doesn't pay attention to what joints Allen Kelson's working for. In the case of the Blackhawk, this disinterest helped make the magazine less fastidious than it needed to be. The whole crew tested Le Francais. But the Blackhawk joined the list entirely on Wheaton's say-so, plus a good word from Carla Kelson, who knew the establishment as the wife of its consultant. In her role of dining editor, Carla should have asked for a second opinion that wasn't her own.

Fortunately, a former Chicago reviewer we know thinks the Blackhawk is a fine place. Unfortunately, this reviewer isn't so sure about the Kelsons, recalling that they used to have "a lot of emotional responses [to criticism of themselves] in the way they threw people out of the magazine."

A few months ago we visited the Blackhawk and had a wonderful time. Then again, the meal was on Mark Levy. One of his daughters and one of ours are good friends. A day or two after the November Chicago hit the stands, our Kelson basher called us at home, and as this fine-dining notable filled our ear with testy allegations against the Kelsons and the Levy Organization the two kids whooped it up in the next room. We mention this in the spirit of full disclosure.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yael Routtenberg.

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