Food writer John Kessler looks back at 18 years

In 1997 my wife and I left Denver for Atlanta with three little girls under the age of 6, a Subaru station wagon and a Bernese Mountain dog. I wore a full beard with my hair gathered into a long, unruly ponytail. We could not have looked more Coloradan had we arrived on snowboards with cans of Coors in our hands.

Except, my tastes were a little fancier.

I was hired as a dining critic by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s former editor, Ron Martin, a remarkable polymath who quoted M.F.K. Fisher during my interview, and Susan Puckett, the paper’s brilliant former food editor.

At first, my job consisted of writing reviews, some columns and a monthly cooking story. It was my love of cooking that had gotten me into this line of work, and I didn’t want to lose that connection to the kitchen, even as I dined out.

Man, did I dine. The pace was unrelenting, and my 35-year-old metabolism couldn’t have been more up to the task. Atlanta during those last years was working so hard to establish itself as a cosmopolitan city, and the restaurant scene was flush with money and ambition. I had no credit to speak of, so every so often I’d take a requisition form down to the employee services window where the lady there would count a pile of $100 bills into my hand.

As fun as it was to invite friends to the foie gras and lobster restaurants, I became more interested in Atlanta’s international communities and the ways in which new immigrant populations were changing the city’s foodways. Compelling stories lay behind every dish I tried.

John Kessler’s daughter, Rachel, mixes dough for chocolate chip cookies before putting them in the Easy-Bake Oven she got for Christmas in 1998. AJC FILE
John Kessler’s daughter, Rachel, mixes dough for chocolate chip cookies before putting them in the Easy-Bake Oven she got for Christmas in 1998. AJC FILE

Credit: JEAN SHIFRIN

Credit: JEAN SHIFRIN

By the mid-2000s, I knew I wanted to become a better reporter and learn how to tell stories, and that meant taking a break from reviewing. I bounced around a bit, reporting from the Gwinnett County desk and then the G-8 Summit at Sea Island, writing feature trend stories, and trying my hand with long Sunday profiles of newsmakers. Along the way, I picked up a Sunday food column.

In 2010, the paper asked me to take the reins on the dining reviews again, and I’m glad I was able to finish out my career where it started.

As I prepare to leave the paper and move to Chicago, my editors have asked me to pick some favorite stories from the 613 years I’ve worked here, starting back in the quattrocento, when I was enamored by all the new spices Marco Polo had brought back here. Oh, wait … 18 years. That’s still a lot. But, if you’re interested, here they are. For links to the original stories, go to myajc.com.

ExploreDining at Seeger’s

When I first arrived in 1997, Susan Puckett drove me to Buckhead to show me the two homes being renovated for the season’s two biggest restaurant openings. Hedgerose was a reboot of the former Hedgerose Heights Inn, with a high-profile new culinary team. Seeger’s was the first solo effort from Guenter Seeger, who had earned a James Beard Award for his work at the Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton Buckhead.

I spent a bucket of money and made a swift call. Hedgerose wasn’t all that, and Seeger’s had the potential to become one of the nation’s top restaurants. Hedgerose did not last long (though the owners refashioned it into the very successful Aria), while Seeger’s went on to earn 5 stars from the Mobil Travel Guide, one of a handful of such restaurants nationwide.

Still, I often defended Seeger's to readers, who found it stuffy and unsatisfying. They also hated the restaurant's early policy of adding a non-negotiable surcharge for bottled water. To this day, the meals I've had at Seeger's rank among the best of my life. I can't wait for the chef's return when he opens a restaurant in Lower Manhattan later this year.

Guenter Seeger was owner and executive chef of Seeger’s restaurant, which closedin 2006. AJC FILE
Guenter Seeger was owner and executive chef of Seeger’s restaurant, which closedin 2006. AJC FILE

Credit: Mikki K. Harris

Credit: Mikki K. Harris

ExploreEasy Bake for Christmas

Of all the stories I wrote in 1998, none got as much attention as a column I wrote about the Easy-Bake Oven, which my kid wanted for Christmas. It reminded me of the time I wanted an Easy-Bake Oven as a kid and completely freaked my parents out. As I wrote, I might as well have asked for a set of hot rollers and jar of Dippity-do. National media soon came calling, and I gave an interview to NPR as the Easy-Bake dad.

ExploreTable to the world

Your DeKalb Farmers Market has long thrilled, nourished and fascinated my soul. I had, for years, been talking about doing a story, even though the relationship between the store and the paper had been strained due to a previous news story. When the paper sent me to the Poynter Institute for journalists in St. Petersburg, Fla., for a training session in 2003, I basically turned it into a workshop for this story, so I could get the A1 editor behind it.

First, I baked a variety of pastries made from market ingredients and sent them, while they were still hot, to Robert and Barbara Blazer, the market’s owners. We had a number of meetings, and they agreed to let me trail several employees through their days and even back to their homes.

Then, I spent two weeks holed up in a friend’s house, away from all distractions. Good thing there were no smart phones back then.

This remains my favorite piece I’ve written for the AJC.

ExploreAn open letter

Dear Chefs, we need a little more from you

In 2011, I decided to address what felt like a kind of slippage in the execution and ambition of the city’s top restaurants. Man, did I catch some flak for this, but people listened.

ExploreThe upstart cattleman

This is the first Personal Journey I wrote, for editor Suzanne Van Atten, and what a terrific reporting and writing experience it was.

Will Harris, owner of White Oak Pastures, remains an inspiration to many in the “good food” world, and I’m grateful to have helped craft this narrative about his work.

Will Harris inspects a chicken on his organic farm, White Oak Pastures, in Bluffton. BRANT SANDERLIN / BSANDERLIN@AJC.COM
Will Harris inspects a chicken on his organic farm, White Oak Pastures, in Bluffton. BRANT SANDERLIN / BSANDERLIN@AJC.COM

Credit: BRANT SANDERLIN / BSANDERLIN@AJ

Credit: BRANT SANDERLIN / BSANDERLIN@AJ

ExploreTwo critics go hungry

After so many years of doing this job, everyone around town knows me. I honestly feel bad for waiters who get nervous serving me and managers who can tell the evening isn’t going as well as it should.

When two known critics have to wait for a table far past the promised time? That must be a nightmare. I wanted to know what it was like from the staff’s perspective, so after this ordeal I interviewed everyone.

ExploreEnjoy more AJC articles by John Kessler

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