John Kessler, AJC restaurant critic, leaving the paper next year

Let the encomiums begin
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John Kessler

Photograph by Gene Lee

John Kessler, who’s covered Atlanta’s restaurant scene for the past 17 years for the Atlanta-Journal Constitution, will leave Atlanta in late spring to move to Chicago, where his wife will be taking a job. Kessler himself declined comment, but afterwards posted this note, which added that Jenny Turknett, the AJC’s current food critic, would be leaving the paper at the end of the month.

Just last week, Kessler, a four-time James Beard Foundation nominee and one-time winner, announced he was returning to restaurant criticism after two years off the beat. He’d needed a break, he wrote, and he also felt that there were too many amateur critics who were passing judgment on restaurants too soon after they opened: “I began to feel it was my duty to go on an anti-meh crusade and at least get the story out there about what a restaurant is trying to accomplish before passing judgment on how well it hits its mark.” Last week’s review of Mamak restaurant marked his return to criticism, though now it appears that return—at least for the AJC—will be short-lived.

When we heard about Kessler’s scheduled departure for points north, we hit up a few notables in the local restaurant scene, asking them to gauge Kessler’s impact since 1997, when he came to the paper:

Bill Addison, restaurant editor for Eater.com, and former dining editor and restaurant critic for Atlanta magazine:

“John changed the restaurant criticism game when he arrived in Atlanta in 1997. His writing was sharp, his observations often hilarious, and, with his particular zeal for Asian cuisines, he turned a bright spotlight on the city’s lesser-known global eats. When I began writing about food in 2002, his excellence inspired me weekly to be a better critic—fairer, more knowledgeable. His authoritative voice helped some of our finest chefs through the years (including Guenter Seeger and Sotohiro Kosugi, who now runs Soto in Manhattan) to gain the national recognition they deserved.”

Christiane Lauterbach, restaurant columnist for Atlanta magazine and editor and founder of Knife & Fork:

“Of all the food critics I have met, he is the one whose interests have matched mine the closest. He is clever, literary, curious, informal, restless in the best way, and his combination of skills (he is truly a polymath, a chef at heart but with the soul of an intellectual) makes him a fun, formidable opponent and friend. Also, he is always fun to read and I will miss some of our capers deep into pockets of ethnicity where his experience and quick judgment calls have always been invaluable. He has made Atlanta proud of its wildly diverse restaurant scene.”

Ford Fry, chef/restaurateur of No. 246, The Optimist, St. Cecilia, King + Duke, The El Felix:

“I’ve said this to him before: sometimes we get a review that may be a little hard to hear, but I’ve yet to find something I didn’t feel was valid. I really believe that. He’s consistent and truthful – At the end of the day I have the utmost respect for him. The things he says you can really take to heart and trust.”

Kim Severson, covers food for the New York Times and is the former Atlanta bureau chief:

“Even before I moved from New York to Atlanta, Kessler was the first call I made when I wanted to know what was going on in the kitchens here. Kessler eats a lot both locally and when he travels. He’s constantly working on expanding his library of taste and technique. He has a great eye for a narrative and cheers for the little guy, but would also let you know if the little guy was putting out lousy food. The best thing is that he cooks. A lot. There is usually something odd or rare or delicious (sometimes all three!) on his counter or in his fridge, waiting to be coaxed into dinner. The guy is generous and kind, but I pity the person who was making mediocre food on his watch. It’s not like he took any joy in writing a bad review, but he felt deeply committed to the consumer journalism aspect of his job. He didn’t want readers to waste their money, and he wanted Atlanta to eat better.”

Anne Quatrano, executive chef/owner Bacchanalia, Star Provisions:

“John Kessler’s approach to food and writing has made it possible for small budget, chef-driven restaurants to not just thrive but shine in a previously big-budget restaurant city. His writing and criticism has always pushed us to be better chefs and restaurateurs. I will miss him and Atlanta will miss him.”

With additional reporting by Evan Mah

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