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Critic Lesley Chesterman Is Leaving Her Role at the Montreal Gazette

But it’s not retirement time yet

Gazette critic Lesley Chesterman

The Montreal Gazette’s longtime fine dining critic, Lesley Chesterman, will leave her role at the newspaper in early 2019.

Chesterman made the announcement in a review published on the newspaper’s website Thursday afternoon.

The review was Chesterman’s final one for the Gazette, and with a review of Normand Laprise’s famed Toqué, Chesterman doesn’t get soft, even if that might have been the plan — the review is surprisingly mixed, and slightly disappointed.

My intention was to share with you a stellar review of the Montreal chef I admire most. But the reality of the restaurant business is that nothing is predictable. Anything can happen. And on this particular occasion, it did.

(Chesterman goes on to say that she still admires Toqué.)

But it’s not retirement time for Chesterman: in a statement to Eater, she says she’ll continue working, but on other projects.

I have two projects planned that will take up a lot of time and require the same sort of commitment I put into the restaurant beat for 20 years. But I will continue on the radio at both Radio-Canada and CHOM FM, and remain a freelance writer for the outlets I already write for. My editors at the Gazette asked if I would continue to contribute the occasional story, so it’s nice to keep that relationship going. And sometimes I wake up in the morning thinking I should either start a blog, join a gym, or both!

Chesterman has been with the Gazette for 20 years — before that, she worked as a professional pastry chef in France and Quebec, having graduated from Montreal’s ITHQ. That makes her one of a relatively small club of restaurant critics in North America with substantial culinary experience.

Her work at the Gazette started with a column, then quickly switched to reviews in 1999, taking over the fine dining beat from Byron Ayanoglu. She stayed anonymous until 2013 (although of course, some restaurants knew who she was), before unveiling herself to become a columnist for Radio-Canada.

Since the Gazette eliminated its casual dining column a few years ago, Chesterman has been the sole critic at the newspaper, but it hasn’t been her only job. Proving her bilingual chops, she also penned reviews for Le Devoir, and is a Radio-Canada regular.

But her work at the Gazette is where she made the biggest splash: Chesterman has been an eminently influential figure on Montreal’s restaurant scene, with many a restaurant noting substantial boost to business after a positive review. While the Gazette’s circulation is somewhat small as an anglophone paper, Chesterman’s power seemed to go beyond that, crossing linguistic divides and maintaining perhaps a larger following than the paper itself.

The reason? Probably Chesterman’s consistency and fairness. Sure, she practically never authored a perfect four-star review (the last was in 2016, to L’Express, and before that, 2011, to Joe Beef). But that was the point: four stars required absolute perfection, an extraordinarily rare meal.

But Chesterman-as-critic showed awareness of her own power, and discretion in the way it was used. The disastrous zero-star review was often reserved for moneyed, even corporate, places — the kinds of restaurants that had the means to do better, but perhaps didn’t know or care enough to do that. Small businesses —who may have been putting in the heart and soul, but just not getting it right — were spared that embarrassment, often with one-star reviews.

Star counts aside, Chesterman’s qualitative criticisms just seemed well-reasoned. She adjusted expectations to fit the scene, and rightfully so: a boisterous resto-bar such as Kampai Garden probably shouldn’t get the same treatment as a hot new gastronomic destination like Pastel — and Chesterman adjusts, dubbing the former a great spot for a young crowd, and the latter, for a special occasion. Plus, even though her meals are covered by the Gazette, she does readers a service by routinely taking price tags into account.

She did sometimes court controversy: Chesterman was outspoken about the decision to bring a publicly-funded Joël Robuchon restaurant to Montreal’s Casino. And controversy came to her, too: for example, when restaurant Candide pushed back against her (and La Presse’e Marie-Claude Lortie) over a middling review.

But her vivid and approachable writing style endured — from the warm anecdotes that started off many of her reviews, through to the occasional, well-deserved burns.

It’s not yet known who — if anyone — will replace Lesley Chesterman, however, Eater has reached out to Gazette editors for details on their plans.