Weekend Bite: Lesley Chesterman moves on after two decades of food writing
Published Sunday, January 13, 2019 12:32PM EST
Last Updated Monday, January 14, 2019 8:15AM EST
It’s possible that no one knows Montreal’s fine dining scene quite like Lesley Chesterman does – the Montreal Gazette’s restaurant critic has tasted it all.
But after 20 years of writing about the best and the worst, she’s moving on.
Over the years, culinary enthusiasts have looked to her for confirmation of what’s hot – and what’s not – in the local fine dining scene.
As a child, Chesterman self-identified as a foodie, and later channelled that enthusiasm into a career as a pastry chef.
All of that changed, however, after reading an article in The Gazette in 1998.
“I talked to one of the food editors at The Gazette, and I mentioned there were a few mistakes there,” she explained. “They said, ‘if you think you can do better, why not do it yourself?’ And I did – I pitched a story.”
When she became a restaurant critic the following year, she started with a bang: giving only one star in her first review.
“I remember writing ‘the only reason I finished my foie gras was because I felt sorry for the duck,’” Chesterman said. “I always had a lot of confidence, but I did have to learn to write along the way, because I came in as a chef and not as a journalist.
In her early days she interviewed Paul Bocuse, and other great chefs like Alain Ducasse.
Up until recently, Chesterman’s reviews were done anonymously.
“I would always book a table under a made up name. It was always ‘Jessica Simpson’ – I never told anyone that!” Chesterman added.
Over the years, she says local gastronomy has changed for the better – featuring more Quebecois chefs, and more local ingredients.
She’s only given a perfect four-star review a handful of times, even taking flak for awarding one to Joe Beef in its early days. Because the restaurant has evolved into such a roaring success, Chesterman looks back and says she got her “revenge.”
Four stars also went to L’Express – still a favourite for the beloved critic.
Of the celebrity chefs she’s interviewed, only Nigella Lawson made her a little star struck. Jamie Oliver, she says, is the chef she admires most.
“You see their star power, but when you sit down and talk to them about cooking, the ones who impress me the most are the ones who gave great answers,” Chesterman said.
The job, she contends, also came with its fair share of downsides – including, in some more extreme cases, death threats.
“I had chefs who called me every word under the sun,” she explained.
Chesterman looks forward to cooking more, eating out less, and taking on new food projects.
She’s currently hoping to write a cookbook in French; closing the book on this chapter of her life, however, is bittersweet.
“The thing I’ll miss the most are the readers and having that communication and an audience to speak to,” Chesterman said. “That was a great privilege.”