|FOR THOSE OF YOU who live in Montreal and conduct your lives in English, it would be difficult, if not improbable, to not know who Lesley Chesterman is.
Lesley Chesterman is, of course, the food critic for the "only English-language daily" in Montreal, the Gazette. Love it or hate it, it's the only game in town. And if you're an old Montreal hand and you take more than a passing interest in Montreal's food scene, you'll remember that for the longest time the food critic for the Gazette, and ergo for all of Anglo Montreal, was the venerable late Helen Rochester.
After her passing the post changed hands more often than a Liberian presidency and wandered in scope and focus further than a herd of grasshoppers. Until Lesley Chesterman, that is.
About a year ago, after a rather bizarre "battle of the reviewers" that the Gazette conducted, in which three or four different reviewers including Lesley were alternated each week, Lesley landed the job, and a sigh of relief was heard all round.
I emailed her with a request for an interview and she graciously accepted. I sat down with her electronically, and here is what she had to say.
What's your day job? What was it, if different, before you started the Gazette thing?
My last day job was as a cooking teacher at a school called Pius X Culinary Academy. I taught the pastry course to students in the professional cooking program. I taught over three hundred students, many of them up-and-coming chefs today. This past year Ive been writing a pastry and baking book which will be published this fall.
Have you ever worked in the food industry?
Yes. I have two diplomas from the ITHQ where I attended full-time professional classes for three years. My two diplomas are in patisserie, boulangerie and chocolate, ice cream and candy making. At that time at the ITHQ pastry students were required to take cooking classes and I studied with the great chef/teacherJean-Paul Grappe who encouraged me to work in France. I worked as a pastry chef at the Patisserie de Gascogne, primarily in the chocolate department. I worked in the top catering/pastry shop in Lyon France called La Minaudiere and later worked in the restaurant of one of the most renowned chefs in France, a man by the name of Yves Thuries who has written 11 books and now publishes a professional cooking magazine called Thuries Magazine. Back in Montreal I worked for three years as head pastry chef at Roger Colas Traiteur where in the same week I made wedding cakes for both the Parizeau and Bourassa families! That was a great job, but very stressful.
Whatever possessed you to think you could review restaurants?
Food has been my primary interest since Day 1. Ive been reviewing restaurants mentally for as long as I can remember. I ate out a lot as a kid and Ive always had strong opinions about what makes a restaurant tick. And since Ive worked in professional kitchens, I understand the pressure of a service, food costs, high standards and how much effort has gone into a plate. I also have this strange talent for recalling meals Ive eaten in the past. Ask me what I ate on a trip to Ireland in 1985 and I can recount every meat, garnish and sweet. My flavour memory is strong as well. The first dish I ate at Toque was a salad with quail and raspberries and, to this day, I can recall every bite.
How did you come to be among those selected for the Gazette gig?
I was writing articles for the Gazettes food section so the editors were already familiar with my work. When Byron Ayanoglu resigned I sent the Weekender editor a letter and he gave me a crack at the job. But then they made me "audition" for the assignment with other writers. That was very stressful -- Im sure as much for me as the others.
What went through your mind when you started considering actually taking the job?
I thought it was important to really focus on the restaurant, not who I was eating with or how flashy the writing could be. It had to be about the experience -- nothing else.
What did your family and friends think of the whole idea?
Since my friends and family always had to put up with my endless, tiring, annoying criticisms when we went out to eat, I think they were happy to see I would finally get paid for all my opinions.
Did you talk to anyone who's done something similar before you took the job?
Yes, I spoke to a food writer friend who told me it was a tough gig, very isolating. Another told me it would take a lot of guts. They were right on both counts.
What was your biggest reservation about the whole thing?
I was afraid to lose friends in the food world. I was also concerned that people wouldnt respect my opinions. But you know, Ive been obsessed with food forever and I read about the subject constantly. Im a professional pastry chef and a good cook. I like to think I know what Im talking about -- not just shooting off my mouth. I do my research. And most importantly, Im not out to "get" anyone. I just recount what happened. There is absolutely nothing personal in that column. As it turns out a few foodie friends have kept their distance, some give me compliments and many people I barely know have encouraged me. So there you go.
What did you hope might eventually come out of the job later on, if anything?
I wanted to have a weekly column -- a voice. I also wanted to try my hand at this kind of writing. The big bonus about this job is that you end up tasting a lot of food and your knowledge increases dramatically. In the long run, Ive gained on both counts: as a writer and as a foodie.
Were you given rules when you accepted the job?
A few: to be honest, to maintain my anonymity, to stay within my budget, to write 1200 words, and to not be swayed by what other critics had written in the past.
What has been the response from the public and/or the resto owners?
Ive gotten a couple letters from restaurateurs. The letters are usually from people who have trouble with any criticism, who think that no matter what, their place should be awarded four stars. I once received a letter from an angry chef saying that I obviously hated French people if I gave this certain French restaurant such a scathing review. I found that attack unfounded, especially since my husband is from France and I spend all my vacation time there.
I think Id be afraid if I was writing in a very harsh, critical manner. No one wants to get their legs broken and there is certainly no point insulting anyone. When Im very critical, I make sure my facts are rock solid. Im aware there are people taking every word to heart. I'm also very aware of the money, time and effort that goes into running a restaurant. Thats why I think its important to have a food and restaurant background before taking this job.
What have been the positive or negative side effects for you so far?
Many people told me they liked my writing style and that they were learning new things about food. That was nice. The negative was that after the first reviews, 1200 words didnt flow as easily.
What's your process in coming up with a review?
I have a list. I try to mix up the reviews, no two French restos in a row etc. I often drive around the city early in the morning to look at menus and see if any new places have opened up. And, BTW, I no longer write reviews quickly or on the day after Ive been to a restaurant. Reviews can take days for me to write. Some just flow and others are tediously trying.
Do you agonize over the actual writing?
I try to make reviews amusing, but sometimes Ill cut an especially funny line because its so blatant that Im trying to show off, kind of a "wasnt that line brilliant" mode. Otherwise I always write what I think. Sometimes I have to tone it down. Im far more critical in person that in print. Lets not forget this isnt a novel. Its a restaurant review. Im providing a service to the public, not my ego.
When you're actually at the restaurant you're reviewing, how do you mix the working part with the enjoying part?
Theres no enjoying part. Its all work. I usually invite one of two people who I can count on to have a working night out, not a fun night out. Whenever I take new people to restaurants it rarely works out. Theyre out to have a good time while Im busy taking notes under the table. And worst of all they dont let me eat enough of their food -- food, that Im paying for!
Do you have any pet peeves?
Sloppy food bugs me more than sloppy service. Sometimes I question whether or not the kitchen staff has had any solid professional training. When Im not out to review, which is rare, I stick to a handful of restaurants where I know I wont be annoyed by the food or service.
How much of the resto experience is the service?
In Montreal were lucky to have such good service. I worked with many waiters in the past. Some take their job seriously, others dont. I can spot them right away. Even if the waiter is friendly, Ill nail him if he isnt doing his job. An excellent waiter can make all the difference to a meal. Sometimes Ill mention someone by name because he/she was really outstanding -- as important as the decor or food.
Do you ever feel that a bad meal is because you might have just happened on the restaurant "on a bad day," or do you ever think later, "Hmm, maybe I should have toned that down a bit?"
So far, Ive never regretted a harsh word (or compliment). I dont believe a restaurant should have a bad day. Sorry, no excuses, you pay the same price on the good days as the bad. But since I make a point of returning to about 90% of the restaurants I review, many get a second chance. There have been a few restaurants that lost or gained stars because of that second visit.
Has anyone ever given you a really hard time about your reviews?
Ive only run into one restaurateur who threatened to take everything away from me if its the last thing he did. He really got my goat because I tried to talk to him nicely and he just kept screaming insults and saying that he heard you had to pay off the Gazette reviewer if you wanted a good review. Please. Françoise Kayler of La Presse told me to ignore everyone who gives me a hard time. So, I do. But there have been no more than five negative letters in my year of restaurant reviews, and none published in the paper.
What do you wish your readers would be thinking when they read your reviews, if anything?
Id like to be so presumptuous as to say that I hope readers can maybe, perhaps learn a bit about food and what to expect in a restaurant. Id like them to have a giggle and I hope theyll try out some of the good places. Most importantly, I hope theyll trust my opinion.
Will you graduate to greater heights, becoming a reviewer for a major food magazine, or will you give up the job in disgust, buying a farm in Abitibi and specialising in rutabagas?
Ha, ha. The problem in Montreal is that I get the impression no one is reading my reviews. I would like to work for a major food mag, but not as a reviewer. I really miss not working as a chef. I would like to open up a chocolaterie or pastry shop. Or a restaurant! Ive learned so much from this job. I know exactly the decor, style of food and ambiance Im after. And I, for one, wouldnt mind seeing a critic at my table... but only one whose opinion I respected.
It's just a job, after allor is it? Do you still like it? Did you ever think it would be your dream job?
Complaints: Some nights Im just not up to a restaurant meal. I used to get so excited about eating out. Now I get moody and serious. I wish reviews would be easier to write after a year, not more difficult.
Do I like it? I like it when the food is good, worth the money AND when theres a story behind a restaurant -- that certain something that makes it worth 1200 words of Saturday morning reading.
Dream job? It was until I started. Now that Ive done it, I have new dreams. I think thats to be expected. No?