My Lunch With John Kessler

John Kessler is Atlanta’s premier food critic: our city’s culinary landscape owes a great deal to his passionate pen. I sent him a self-indulgent e-mail a couple of weeks ago, inviting him to check out my webpage. He kindly responded that he would. Then, after my blackout survival post, he e-mailed me to say that he was next door watching “The Triplets of Bellville” while I was watching “The Dreamers.” He “took it as a sign from Yahweh” that he should write an article about me. Might he take me to lunch to talk about it?

Fade in to this afternoon, where I stood outside Restaurant X (since John’s reviewing it, I don’t want to blow his cover) waiting for him. It was a strange sensation: here I was, like a bachelor on a blind date, waiting for the arrival of someone I had never seen. The drama grows richer when one considers how valuable Kessler’s visage would be to the large majority of Atlanta restaurant owners. Just the mere knowledge of his presence could make or break your fortune.

A man with funky black glasses and a pressed gray suit approached. I stepped forward. The man eyed me suspiciously. Before I could say “Mr. Kessler?” he changed direction. Wrong guy.

After several more Kessler fakeouts, a casually dressed man with glasses and shaggy hair approached. “Adam?” he asked.

I changed direction and then realized I was me.

“Yes!” I said, shaking his hand.

“Nice to meet you,” he said.

I followed him into Restaurant X, where the hostess offered us a corner table.

“Actually, can we go inside?” he asked kindly. The hostess said “sure.”

We went inside and sat in a banquette. I faced inward and John faced outward. Then we realized the table was wobbly and that John was sitting on a mound. We moved two tables down.

“My mother’s the same way,” I told John. “Except she assumes that a bad first table is part of an international conspiracy to undermine her dining experience.”

“Ha,” said John. “Your mom sounds hilarious.”

The waiter approached and asked for our drink order. John deferred to me and I deferred back to him. John said: “Well, I have to go back to work, so I’ll have iced tea.”

A man after my own heart. “Make that two,” I said.

We bantered a bit more. Then John pulled out his pad and began interviewing me. “I’ve never been interviewed before,” I demurred.

“Don’t worry,” he said, drawing a portrait of me in charcoal, “you’re doing great.”

I told him all about my life, my goals, my years as a Viennese hooker. Then the waiter returned with our drinks and asked if he could take our food order. The waiter seemed extraordinarily accomodating, and I tried to detect–as I did throughout the meal–whether or not they knew who JK was.

I ordered an appetizer and an entree, at John’s bidding, as did he. Then he told me that he would need to try some of my food and that I should try some of his.

“Very well,” I said, choosing not to mention my CDC case file.

After a long stream of interviewing, I turned the tables (figuratively, not literally) and began asking John questions. How was life as a food critic? Was it all it’s cracked up to be? Did he ever travel incognito? Has he ever received hate mail? Does he ever worry over how his reviews will affect people’s lives?

Here are his answers, in order:

1. Life as a food critic is work. It has its perks, it has its downsides. As we progressed through our meal, I could see what he meant: each course was examined meticulously; “Are these carrots?” he probed the waiter; “Wasn’t this supposed to a be a berry cocktail?” This was a job, no mistake about it. And like all jobs, it can become routine. Yet, there was little doubt of John’s passion for food. His knowledge and his zeal are rather inspiring. I found myself in Williams Sonoma, about an hour after our meal, sampling olive oil like an expert. “Too peppery!” I said, with confidence. Such is the impact of John Kessler.

2. As far as travelling incognito, it wouldn’t seem to be necessary: his manner is so discreet, his look so modest and unprepossessing. “I once dyed my beard,” he confessed, “but that was the extent of it.”

3. When we got on the subject of hate mail, John glazed over a bit. I could see that the subject upset him. “A lot of it,” he confessed. He told the story of a certain Atlanta restaurant owner that called him after John badmouthed one of his restaurants in a magazine. “He used the f-word as a noun, an adverb, an adjective and every other figure of speech,” John laughed. “He was pretty angry.”

“But also,” John pointed out, “I get a lot of great letters. I love to hear from people who follow my recipes. It’s a great feeling.”

4. And on the subject of his impact and the knowledge of how his reviews might affect people’s lives, John shrugged his shoulders and explained, rather convincingly, that it “comes with the territory.” He went on to say that if a restaurant is going to fail, “it’s going to fail, regardless of what I write.”

By the time the check came, two and a half hours had passed. Such was the pleasure of our conversation, I hardly felt them go. When it came time to pay, John pulled out a wad of credit cards, each with a different name.

“Ha,” I laughed, “You’re like a CIA agent.”

“A bad one,” he confessed, since he had to use his cell phone to activate a card with his real name. In his defense, he did so very quietly.

We stood up from our table. He told me he would be in touch next week, to follow up on the story and to arrange a visit from a photographer to get some shots of me at my computer. We shook hands and he went on his way. The waiters carried on their business, as did the hostess, blissfully unaware of the powerhouse who had just scrutinized his meal; a man whose opinion would affect the numbers on their next paycheck. I brushed myself off, a powerhouse-to-be, and made my way towards the exit.

“Sir,” said a waiter, “that’s the ladies room.”

Turning red, I shot him a glare. “Of course it is!” I boomed. “I’m John Kessler! I know these things!”

The theme from “Single White Food Critic” began to play. Roll credits.

[Click here for a comprehensive page of Kessler reviews. Also, check out his article on the Dekalb Farmer’s Market, nominated for a James Beard award.]

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