After 20 years on the restaurant beat, Montreal Gazette food critic Lesley Chesterman is leaving the table.
“I started when I was 31 and I didn’t want to keep doing it until I’m 71 so I always had in mind 20 years,” said Chesterman.
Chesterman joined Global’s Laura Casella to look back on her time reviewing with the Gazette and why she’s happy to be stepping down now.
After two decades, the food critic has decided it’s time for a new challenge.
“It’s not that I don’t find it challenging anymore, but finding the adjectives to describe the salmon tartare — ugh,” she said.
Even though Montreal has the highest number of restaurants per capita in Canada, there are some establishments that Chesterman has reviewed five times.
“I also feel a little bit — I don’t want to say bored because it’s a great job, but I feel that I’ve done it,” she said.
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As for the position at the Gazette, Chesterman thinks it’s time to leave the beat to somebody more enthusiastic.
“I feel, as the French say, j’ai fait le tour,” she said.
Chesterman is currently writing her farewell column for the Montreal Gazette. One thing she’s learned over the years is not to judge a book by its cover.
In Saturday’s review, she starts with a story of Montreal’s first Japanese restaurant, called Tokyo Sukiyaki.
“[The restaurant] looked completely run-down…I just wanted to walk out, and it ended up being a great meal,” Chesterman said.
She has also had her fair share of let-downs.
“There are so many restaurants that are so flashy and beautiful and you’re like ‘oooh,’ and they turn out to be extremely disappointing,” Chesterman said.
No matter the condition of the restaurant, “it really is about what’s on the plate,” she added.
Some of the best reviews of her time with the Gazette came from restaurants where Chesterman walked in with few or no expectations.
“To walk in with any preconceived notions is the worst thing you can do, and there were two restaurants that really floored me, and these are really gastronomic restaurants,” she said.
The first is Initiale. Known for its understated elegance, the Quebec City restaurant serves French and Canadian cuisine.
“When I walked in, I thought, ‘It looks so boring,’ and it is anything but boring,” she said.
The second restaurant that left Chesterman floored was Montreal restaurant Le Mousso, which placed 31st on Canada’s 100 Best Restaurants in 2018.
She reviewed Le Mousso before the spot gained notoriety with Montreal foodies.
“Back then, it was empty and now it’s packed, which it should be because it’s great,” she said.
Le Mousso chef Antonin Mousseau-Rivard is self-taught, “which is very rare,” she said. “To find talent like that, or to discover people, was always a treat in this job.”
One side of the job that was not so much a treat for Chesterman was the response she would often receive from chefs.
“I don’t think chefs love being criticized,” said Chesterman.
On the contrary, she believes many chefs don’t see enough of the positive side of restaurant reviewing, which is something she talks about in her last column.
In the end, it’s her job as a food critic to be honest.
“Not all reviews can be great, and I can only tell it like it is,” said Chesterman. “If the food’s not good, it wasn’t a personal vendetta, which a lot of (chefs) took it for that. It really was analyzing what’s on the plate.”
Over two decades, Chesterman has seen — and tasted — just how the Montreal food landscape has changed.
“I think, when I first started, some restaurants were more elegant, even more expensive…but I think the cooking itself is very strong right now. The plates are beautiful,” she said.
“I think here, we’re so spoiled. This is a great, great restaurant city, and I feel I’m leaving at a time where I just have great things to say.”
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