One Last Bite: The AJC’s John Kessler on leaving Atlanta

Eighteen years. 750 reviews. 75 kajillion calories. The food critic is leaving town before he spots “the first douchebag drinking broth.”
John Kessler
Photograph by Mike Colletta

The city John Kessler found when he arrived here in 1997 was neck-deep in an inferiority complex. A year after hosting the Olympics, Atlanta was still trying to prove itself worthy of the distinction. The dining scene was no different. Asian fusion—an instant buzzkill in today’s dining room—was en vogue (remember Fusebox?), and Pano Karatassos of Buckhead Life Restaurant Group was still packing in the crowds at every big and splashy venture he owned (Buckhead Diner! Atlanta Fish Market!). Southern food was relegated to the meat-and-threes. Neighborhood restaurants kept to little houses (Bacchanalia, Anis, etc.). Buford Highway was still considered weird and far away. Kessler was the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s new restaurant critic, hired from the Denver Post. A Maryland native, Kessler’s career path was not the one his parents had imagined for him. After majoring in the “History of Ideas” at Williams College (“a flaky-sounding major,” Kessler admits), he spent two years in Japan teaching English. Shortly after returning to the States, he decided to follow a passion that had been building since he was a child—cooking. Kessler recalls the first dinner he made for his family: cheese and cauliflower soufflé, hamburgers, and chocolate mousse. He was eight. Still, Kessler’s parents were not thrilled about his decision. “It was a surprise to my Jewish psychoanalyst father,” Kessler says. “I at least had to take the MCAT or LSAT to prove I had some interest in being a doctor or lawyer. Then the guilt would subside.”

Kessler enrolled at L’Academie de Cuisine in Bethesda and soon found jobs in kitchens, first in D.C. and then in Denver, where he and his wife moved in 1988. It wasn’t long before Kessler grew dissatisfied with Denver’s culinary scene, which was leagues behind D.C.’s, both economically and creatively. In 1990 he took up writing for Westword, the city’s alternative weekly, as its food critic. He’s been writing observations from the dining room ever since.

Over 18 years at the AJC, Kessler has written, by his count, 750 reviews. He helped champion the overlooked ethnic haunts along Buford Highway and called out chefs whose toques needed downsizing (in an open letter to the city’s chefs in 2011, he challenged all of them to up their game). All the while, the Internet was slowly—and then suddenly—giving everyone a platform. Blogs crept up, giving way to today’s Yelpers, Urbanspooners, and Instagrammers. Today, everyone’s a critic.

This month the four-time James Beard Award nominee and one-time winner will move to Chicago, where his wife has taken a job. The AJC hasn’t yet announced whether it will hire a critic to take Kessler’s place. Kessler is leaving at a time when newspaper budgets are shrinking, institutional knowledge is expendable, and the traditional restaurant critic is being treated more and more like a quaint anachronism.

How has our dining scene changed since you first arrived?
Once the millennials came on board, the restaurant scene changed. People want different things out of restaurants. It’s more spontaneous, coming up with more inventive ways to make people happy. Every rule is being challenged. When I first started reviewing for the AJC, so many places had polyester tablecloths because they couldn’t afford the linen ones.

What kind of rules are they breaking?
That there has to be a certain look to the menu, a certain number of items in the first and second courses. That there has to be a uniformity to price structure. That the kind of food you serve has to correspond to the visual clues and style of service. You’d eat foie gras in fancy restaurants and not in cheap ones. A waiter had to follow a certain ritual and choreography to open a bottle of wine. [Today] there’s so much good food happening in so many different kinds of places. A food court can be as good as a sit-down restaurant.

There’s not as much formality.
Millennial [chefs] go into it for the love of the craft. There’s a real interest in the kind of community that gets built around service, food, and decor. Community matters. A really key thing that’s different is that everybody is friends, and they learn from each other. Back in my day, they used to be antagonistic toward each other. Chefs didn’t go out and have drinks at other restaurants as much. Chefs today go to Buford Highway all the time. They have much more open-minded palates.

John Kessler
One of the first reviews that Kessler wrote (for Westword, the alt weekly in Denver), framed with a caricature of him done by the comic artist at the newspaper.

Photograph by Mike Colletta

When you first got here, what was your philosophy of food criticism? How did you see your role?
To be a reader’s advocate. I still do. I had a sense that the city could use another strong voice, that the city could use some evening out, an egalitarian voice. I think the previous critic [Elliott Mackle] had his strengths, but he was more involved in the social scene and the rich clientele in Buckhead. I don’t mean to criticize him for that, but he would not eat sushi. He didn’t like raw fish. He had different tastes. I felt like there had to be more humor to food criticism.

How did you plan on standing out from the other critics?
Christiane [Lauterbach] was at Atlanta magazine. Elliott went to Creative Loafing for a bit. Cliff Bostock was there, too. I felt like I wanted to make a personal connection with a broad variety of readers. My humor was more self-effacing, and I always felt like that’s a good voice to have as a critic. It’s so different now. There are so many voices.

On the Internet, everyone has a voice.
Right. Is there still space for somebody who knows what they’re talking about, who has the budget, and tries to be fair? What I worry about isn’t so much anonymity, but how social media has become a milieu for conversation. You get vested in people. You go to events with them. I wonder, is there still space for somebody who is just an average Joe?

You go to a restaurant, Instagram your dinner, and the chef gets tagged. And then he messages you back.
And then people see your interaction with the chef, and you’re locked in.

It makes it hard to be unbiased.
I think people who are critics fool themselves into believing that they’re more unbiased than they are. I think I do, too, but I think I do it less than others.

What restaurant from those days do you miss the most?
Seeger’s was just so much better and more interesting in ways that I couldn’t imagine. It didn’t fall into any category. The way [Guenter Seeger] cooked, I always learned something and always experienced food differently than expected. I remember eating these rouget filets with tiny breadcrumbs that were fried and little currants of green olive. It was so perfect the way each little thing popped. I remember foie gras that was steamed inside fig leaves. Seeger was giving you a new preparation where you’d experience the flavor and texture of foie gras in a different way. [But] the whole experience could get a little frustrating.

What do you mean?
There was a chilliness to the place; it was very formal. The food could be nice, but it wasn’t begging to be loved. It wasn’t that sloppy dog kiss of a Holeman and Finch burger. There might be some course where there was one very gamey-tasting quail, but it made sense. There was also a note on the menu that said they would only serve Vittel water and that there was a $3 surcharge. People were so furious they vowed never to return.

Is there a review you regret writing?
No. I always feel like I’m half a star too nice in them. I don’t mind saying this: Is Atlas a three-star restaurant? Atlas was so close to three stars that compared to everything else around, yes, it’s a three-star restaurant. (Editor’s note: See how many stars our own critic, Corby Kummer, gives Atlas.)

Do you feel like Atlanta can’t take the heat?
It’s much more basic than that. Reviews read harsher than you realize, so you write what you think is nice. You frame it on the positive side. Just like how the camera puts on 10 pounds, the printed word puts on snark. My feeling is that [criticism] hits more evenly and better when you say it as nicely and as respectfully as you can.

Do you think chefs are more sensitive these days?
I’ve always had that belief. I think having a critical voice that hits right, that readers connect with, and that is impactful is hard to do. Pete Wells [the New York Times food critic] is a great reviewer for the half-star-too-nice because you can feel where the disappointments are, but you can see where it’s going, and when you readjust those things, you see what the place is about better.

Is there one restaurant you love but fear for its survival?
One Eared Stag. It’s great, but I think there’s just a slight clutch of hipsters around the place that scares people off who would otherwise enjoy it. The vulpine hipsters hovering nearby. I’ve always loved Robert Phalen, but I worry the place is a little too weird. I think Tomo is really good, and they’ve always had a hard time growing in that space. I hope he finds the right kind of clientele; I think he will.

Five years from now, how would you like Atlanta’s restaurant scene to look?
I’d like to see at least a dozen chefs who really have the conviction of their own vision of what a restaurant could be, and who have enough people supporting them to make it viable. So many good chefs get lured to the big cities and are now making it big in New York or L.A. People like Sean Telo (STK Atlanta) at Extra Fancy, Joshua Skenes (Teaspace) at Saison, Troy Thompson (Fusebox) at the Beverly Hilton, and Chantelle Pabros (Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton, Buckhead) at L20. I’d like to see more people like Kevin Gillespie.

Does anybody else come to mind?
I mentioned Robert Phalen at One Eared Stag. I love Billy Allin at Cakes & Ale. That’s always what I say when people ask me what my favorite restaurant is.

Do you think there’s something holding Atlanta back?
Atlanta is so weird, isn’t it? It’s such a great place. There’s such a good, warm spirit here. But there’s also something that keeps our institutions from realizing their potential. I don’t know what it is. Atlanta isn’t great for the crazy, genius artist, and I don’t know why.

What distinguishes Atlanta on a national level?
Thanks to the Atlanta Food & Wine Festival, Atlanta has become the city people most associate with this whole Southern food aesthetic, even though a lot of the top chefs are in Charleston or Nashville. It seems to me there’s a real camaraderie here, a wonderful inclusiveness. I feel like the Giving Kitchen could happen in Atlanta in a way it couldn’t in other places. Atlanta is becoming another pole the way Portland, Austin, and Brooklyn are. Atlanta has a certain hipster polarity.

What is Southern food to you?
Oh God. It’s always changing, and it’s whatever food is made with ingredients grown in this region. There’s a great synergy between bringing back historical ingredients that have fallen by the wayside—things like sorghum or Sean Brock drying pole beans, stringing them, and drying them again to bring out the umami—and people like Linton [Hopkins, at Restaurant Eugene] who are also focused on just what grows well here. A Southern vegetable plate, for example, is so of this place.

Southern is in right now. Does that come at a price?
Anything that gets marketed is in danger of becoming of a cliche, but I hope not. There are a lot of great stories to tell here. And that’s the thing—there are so many great microclimates here. Wherever you go in the South, you’re up against this new set of traditions. It’s amazing how the coastal communities are so different from the inland places where the Scotch-Irish came down through the Appalachian Pass.

Any regrets?
Sure. I think in my heart I’m somebody who appreciates food because I’m a cook, rather than somebody who likes to go out and eat. I’ve had this conversation with Christiane [Lauterbach], and she loves to dine, and she says that if she ever found herself in a lifestyle where she didn’t go out as much, she’d miss it. I’ve always enjoyed dining as a treat, but to me, cooking your own food is the key to really appreciating it. This is a very roundabout way of saying that I worry I’ve overstayed my welcome as a critic. After a while, there have been times I’ve just felt much less vested in the work of chefs.

What do you cook for yourself at home?
I’m 53 years old, and every time I cook an egg, it comes out differently. You can always learn something from paying attention to your eggs. But also just going out shopping and seeing where it leads me. The other day I got some Tuscan kale florets from the farmers market and some duck breast from the DeKalb Farmers Market. I scored the fat, rendered it in the pan, flipped it, and threw in the kale. By the time the duck was medium rare, the kale was deep-fried. It was so delicious.

Does anonymity for critics matter anymore?
It’s the best way to review restaurants, if you can do it. If you can’t, then being unbeholden completely matters. That’s what I try to do.

Why do you think chefs are mostly white men?
That’s such a great question. A lot of it has to do with who your role models are. For whatever reason, people often pick role models who are the same race as themselves. If you look at the two best-known African American chefs in Atlanta—Todd Richards at the Pig & the Pearl and Duane Nutter at One Flew South—they both trained under Darryl Evans, a nationally known chef who was a trailblazer and who ran the kitchen in the Four Seasons. He was written up in the national press, and Duane was a kid in Seattle and came out to Atlanta to work under him. It’s hard for up-and-coming African American chefs to see role models that look like them and that give them the encouragement to fuse their cooking knowledge and tradition with something that works in a larger setting.

Did you ever gain a ton of weight?
Soon after I got here. Coming from Colorado, where there was great exercise and weed, I definitely gained a bunch of weight and had to start training. I usually hover 10 to 15 pounds too much, and I’m looking forward to somehow drastically changing my diet. But I don’t think I ever totally just blew up.

John Kessler
Photograph by Mike Colletta

Are there any trends around now that you wish would die?
So many. I just wish trends themselves would die. I don’t want to spot the first douchebag drinking broth here. I know he’s here somewhere. We’re in a period right now where there’s a paradigm shift happening. We’re moving away from the laughably hyper-local farm-to-table—everything on a blackboard, all of the farmers called out—to people showing more technique again. It got very loose. You’d get good produce, treat it simply, and put it on a plate. That was the aesthetic for so long. That’s nice, but [now] you’re actually seeing people who know how to make a beurre blanc sauce or a roulade. People are using the chemical tools and immersion circulators toward a more classic-looking cooking. When you get to be my age, all trends just seem so stupid.

And this constant tasting of little bits. Like, Kevin Gillespie has grown into a very good chef. He’s done that by letting his people bring their own things to the table and coming up with a format. When he was at Woodfire Grill, I remember the five course tasting would be the little cube of pork belly with the little dabble of sauce. It wasn’t very interesting cooking, but you could at least see he was thinking and starting to grow.

We’re seeing fewer oysters on menus.
The only people doing oysters now are the ones who do them well. You know what, I’m sick of bad cocktails made by people who don’t know how to make cocktails. I’m also getting sick of cocktails being the first flavor I get in the meal. I’m going back to starting with a glass of Champagne because cocktails can be too aggressive. They throw me off track. The guy at the Last Word [Cole Younger Just]—boy, that guy makes good cocktails. He gets the fact that cocktails have to be subtle. They have to invite you into it. They shouldn’t be like a pie to the face.

How have social media and sites like Yelp changed food criticism?
There’s so much more noise, but I like to think there’s also somebody out there who knows about food, does the research, makes it very clear they’re ethical, and visits more than once. I like to think there’s still a place for that. But that place has to be somewhere people can find it, and then it can help lead the discussion. I don’t know if my liking Atlas is going to matter. My readers tend to be older and richer, so I’m sure they’ll come down from Alpharetta or Roswell to try it, but I don’t know if your friends are going to say, “Kessler liked Atlas.” I don’t think so.

I don’t think my friends are reading anything.
Yeah, exactly. I hope [food criticism] continues. I think it’s important to have something to coalesce around, but I don’t know.

At the AJC, you’ve weathered a lot of buyouts and editor changes. How was food and food criticism treated at the paper when you first joined, and how has that changed over time?
When I first joined, the editor then, Ron Martin, was very into food, and they promoted me quite heavily. They wanted me to step up the level and scope of restaurant writing. We introduced a cheap eats column, a restaurant column, a neighborhood column. There was very much a commitment to food. At one point, one editor thought it made perfect sense to have two critics.

When I first announced I was leaving, the editor told me he was committed to bringing in another critic, someone who had national recognition and who could give the beat some love. I sure hope that happens.

How would you feel if the AJC decides not to bring in a critic?
I’d be sad. I really hope they bring in somebody who is 33, loves to stuff his face, and doesn’t have to take statins. I think you need a certain amount of physical fortitude. But now more than ever so much is going on. I think you need an iconoclastic voice.

Do you foresee being a food critic again?
Hell no. I see being a food writer. [In April, Kessler was named chairman of the James Beard Foundation’s journalism awards committee.] I feel like I’ve been able to have some knowledge about what I’m writing and share my joy and sense of humor. That’s fun to do. I’m at that point right now where taking a break from criticism sounds very appealing.

This article originally appeared in our June 2015 issue.