Note: This is the first in what I hope will be a continuing series of interviews with various food professionals. I really want to cover the entire spectrum of the industry, so if you have any suggestions for folks to talk to, I’m all ears!
I met John Kessler when he interviewed me for his recent piece on local food bloggers in the AJC. He was so much fun to talk to that I asked him if I could turn the tables. To give you some basic background, John has been writing for the AJC since 1997, spending the first seven years as the paper’s dining critic. Now he writes features for the Food & Drink section and maintains a blog called “Food and More.” He is a culinary school graduate (L’Academie de Cuisine in Bethesda, Maryland), but he also holds a degree from Williams College in the History of Ideas. He’s lived and worked in DC, Denver, and Japan, but now he calls Decatur home, where he lives with his wife and three daughters.
When I called to chat with John, the first thing I had to ask was…seriously, what the hell is a “History of Ideas” major??? I mean, it sounded to me like something an SEC football star would “study.” Well, turns out it’s a mix of religion and philosophy, focusing on the way ideas are transmitted from one age to the next. So how did John make the jump from the philosophical to the culinary? “As much as people were clamoring for historians of ideas,” he laughed. “I decided to be a little more esoteric.” After stints teaching English and working in marketing, John realized that it was his elaborate home cooking projects that were the most challenging and fun. He remembers reading an article by Phyllis Richman (the former Washington Post dining critic) about jobs in the food industry, and the trouble he had convincing his father (who was likely still paying for that History of Ideas degree) that he wasn’t going to be a line cook for the rest of his life.
John was 25 years old when he entered culinary school, and he says that a lot of growing up took place there. He wrote on his application that he was interested in a career in food writing, but his first job (his externship, really) was at a restaurant called Cities in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of DC. The chef was Yannick Cam, most recently of Le Paradou, and the menu was “very international” in nature. After graduating and meeting his wife, John headed to Denver to work at the more “modern-American” Rattlesnake Club. When asked which of his gigs prepared him the most for his current work with the AJC, he said, “Everything I’ve done!”
We chatted a bit about why it seems that people like reading about dining out more than they do about cooking in. “People like living vicariously,” John reasoned. He has noticed that his previous audience was larger and more diverse, but that now it is smaller “but more committed.” As a way to reach out to that audience and continue the dialogue, one of John’s recent projects was starting a blog. “I love it, I think it’s fun,” he said. “I like that it’s not edited and that I can get away with a bit more.” He also enjoys breaking news, and he is grateful for the audience that seems to have followed him from his earlier days in Atlanta. So far, he said, the discussion has been civil.
Of course, any conversation about blogging leads to the inevitable question of whether the phenomenon has been good or bad for the food industry. “Part of me feels like I’m turning into a grumpy old man,” John said. He hates the way everyone wants to get to a place first, and the hypocrisy that seems to be ever-present in online restaurant reviews. Still, he said, “I like the idea of the discussion being out there–everyone has their own insight and skill set they can bring to it.” So what does John notice when he dines out now? “I like to watch things,” he said. “How well things get communicated. How the staff works together. How they deal with problems.” Perhaps this observant nature is what made him such a memorable and beloved restaurant critic.
His critics at home are a totally different story. “They like it when I grill stuff,” John chuckled, when I asked him about his kitchen specialties. He also claims to make great salads, Japanese rice balls, and “mushy vegetables” (I think he meant Middle Eastern-style stewed veggies and the like). He says his oldest daughter has picked up the ability to just “throw things together,” and that his youngest has had a few scary projects (including cooking cat food–don’t ask). What about the middle one? “She likes to be fed,” said John. Amen, sister.
When asked about what items he always has in his pantry, John replied quickly: olive oil, lots of different vinegars, sriracha sauce, Worcestershire sauce, MSG, short-grain brown rice, and Greek yogurt. Some of these basic ingredients are building blocks for the dishes he thinks every home cook should master, such as eggs (“the way YOU like them”) and soup. He also thinks folks should know how to dress a salad by touch and how to pan-fry something.
As we wrapped up our call, I tried to get John to fess up to some horrible food-related sin, like mainlining Big Macs or eating Oreos ten at a time. What are his true guilty pleasures? “Cheap hard fruit candy,” he admitted. “I can’t walk past a can of Dum-Dums without snagging a few.” He says he’s not a big snacker but that he loves Fritos and Bugles. When no one’s looking, he can’t help dipping his finger into the peanut butter jar. And he eats Dibs, the bite-sized ice cream treats from the freezer case at the local megamart. “I wish my wife didn’t buy them!” he said.
We could have talked for another hour about how to perfectly roast a chicken or which Atlanta restaurant is the most overrated, but someone like John is pulled in many different directions each day. It was a pleasure to chat with him, just as it is to read his columns and keep up with his blog. Atlanta is lucky to have someone like John Kessler covering its ever-changing food scene–keep up the great work!