Lesley Chesterman is a Montreal-based journalist and restaurant critic who has been covering the local and international food scene for years. Born and bred in Montreal, Chesterman started a career in pastry before getting into journalism full-time. Journal Boire Vrai spoke with her on a number of topics ranging from the perils of writing reviews to her ideal restaurant.
Journal Boire Vrai: You’re a trained pastry chef, correct? Where did you study?
Lesley Chesterman: I did my schooling at the ITHQ for three years in the two-year pâtisserie/boulangerie program that included a cooking course with Jean-Paul Grappe, a chef/instructor who acted as a mentor to many Montreal chefs, including myself, sending us to work for starred chefs in France during the first 2 years. My third year course was chocolate, ice cream and candy making. I’d spend mornings working at Pâtisserie de Gascogne in their chocolate department and afternoons at the ITHQ. After that I went to work for a pretty famous pastry chef by the name of Yves Thuriès in the South of France. It was quite the experience. I got the measles, I broke my back in a car accident, I met my future husband, and we worked like dogs!
JBV : Was cooking always part of the plan? What did you do before working pastry?
LC : No, my intention was to be a ballet dancer, but I had an injury that just wouldn’t go away so that dream eventually faded. When I quit ballet I knew I had to do something artistic and not sit at a desk in a classroom. I spent my entire spare time cooking and reading Gourmet Magazine. I couldn’t think of anything that I loved more so I said, that’s it, I want to be a pastry chef. But being a pasty chef in the nineties wasn’t what it is today. I had zero female role models and eventually wanted to get out of the kitchen because I didn’t find the work very stimulating. After spending days making quiches, rolling cheese straws and moulding hundreds of mousse cakes, I didn’t see a future in it for me, and going in to business at the time (when Montreal was in a recession) was not an option.
JBV : When did you begin to write? What inspired you to do so?
LC : I got to know Johanna Burkhardt and Julian Armstrong at The Montreal Gazette because they called me to get quotes for stories. One day I saw an article in the Gazette about chocolate that was full of mistakes and I mentioned it to Johanna. She said, “If you think you can do better, why not pitch a story?” So I did, and the editor let me write about Irish tea customs for St-Patrick’s Day. Then I just kept pitching and writing.
JBV : What were some of the first gigs you as a critic, and when? Who did you write for?
LC : My first gigs writing were for The Montreal Gazette. My first reviews were for The Montreal Gazette and my only restaurant reviews are for The Montreal Gazette. I write for many other publications, but save for a few French reviews for Le Devoir last summer, all of my reviews are for The Montreal Gazette. When I started I had no idea how to write. I had strong opinions, I had good food knowledge, but I really had to learn to write on the job — and I’m still learning. I don’t really enjoy the journalistic side of what I do. I’m a food person, 100%. Even wine, as much as it interests me, is not as deep a passion for me as food. I just love to track down delicious things, and they don’t have to be fancy. I’m as passionate about a good hamburger as a Michelin-starred meal. Actually I’m probably more passionate about the hamburger because it is such a common food item, it’s more of a challenge to find the BEST.
JBV : What are some of the challenges of doing reviews? Here are a few key issues to discuss.
LC : I have always firmly believed that an anonymous review is the most honest. The best reviews are the ones where the chef knocked it out of the park without knowing there was a critic at the table. I’ve been in kitchens when a critic is at the table. We would stop cold and focus 100% on the critic’s plates. Chefs who say they don’t do anything differently when a critic is in the house are either lying or stupid. I would make a serious effort for a critic because that person can bring in business or, on the flip side, hinder your business. I never felt a bad review could close a restaurant, but it can diminish the buzz, hold people back.
LC : This, I have no problem with. I have given bad reviews to chefs I like and good reviews to chefs I do not. I’m just doing my job, telling it like it is. My newest policy though is that if a chef has made it pretty clear he or she has zero respect for my work, I’m not reviewing. If the chef is a harasser, I’m not reviewing. There are plenty of others to be reviewed.
LC: I think keeping it fresh for readers after 20 years on the beat is a real challenge. A restaurant review is entertainment. I always consider the reader on Saturday morning, with a coffee at their side, reading a review. I don’t want to bore them, or drown them in dropped names or pomposity. I want to make them think, make them laugh, and best of all, make them hungry!
Relevance of trends
LC : Food trends don’t really matter to me. Either something is delicious or not. As for trendy restaurants, I’m as open to the cool hip restaurant or the old-school restaurant. Just be nice to me and serve me good food!
LC : Social media changed all that because now they leave their comments under reviews, and people can be nasty. I recently spoke to my editor about eliminating reader comments. What purpose do they serve other than giving a lot of trolls a podium to spew their venom? What I really don’t appreciate are people writing lies about me, as in I take money from restaurants in return for good reviews. Ridiculous. Someone also wrote that I had a ghostwriter. If I had a ghostwriter, my garden would look a hell of a lot nicer.
LC : I get it. Who the fuck wants a bad review? I will tell you honestly that I enter every restaurant optimistic, but I can only write about what and how I’m served. People talk about an agenda. I have none. Never had, never will because that kind of shit catches up with you. I just tell it like it is. Some people take criticism as constructive, others see it as destructive. I can understand both attitudes. But I think it’s more productive to see it as constructive. Rethink what you are doing, and fix things if you agree. And if not, hey, it’s your name on the door, not mine. Many restaurants I rated poorly still do well and vice versa. That’s ok. Ultimately, a restaurant is responsible for its own success or failure. You can’t blame or credit the reviewer for all your ups and downs. Frankly, I’m surprised that young chefs take such offense at negative reviews. It takes years to be a great cook. No one starts out with four stars. And once you get a super high rating, you have to work twice as hard to maintain that excellence. As Masaharu Morimoto once said to me, the secret of success is not to think big, but to think medium, and then work your way up from there. Very wise.
LC : I go absolutely crazy when I see bloggers give rave reviews to mediocre restaurants that served them free meals. The problem with this is that they are wined and dined to the max and then feel beholden to the restaurant that treated them and inflate expectations for people looking for advice on where to go. There is WAY too much of that going on in food media today. There are also plenty of people writing about restaurants who have never set foot in the places in question or simply attended the opening party. There are even people who vote for restaurants and chefs on all these lists these days who have NEVER eaten in those restaurants. Are these lists accurately acknowledging the “best” restaurants, or have they become popularity contests? And don’t get me started on the number of reviewers hanging out and partying it up with chefs. Note to those reviewers: you’re being played.
LC: Another drawback this job is making your living eating. I LOVE to eat, but now the idea of a long tasting menu depresses me no end. Five hours at the table eating? No thanks. All this eating and drinking gets harder with time. It took me three days to recover from an especially rich dinner last month. I did a best hamburgers list for the newspapers and tasted about 25 burgers over a week. I actually enjoyed doing that but physically, you pay a price.
Part two coming soon on Journal Boire Vrai.