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The Montreal Gazette May Cut Back on Restaurant Reviews

But some kind of restaurant coverage will continue

The Montreal Gazette has indicated that it plans to continue running restaurant reviews in the future following the departure of respected longtime critic Lesley Chesterman, but it seems that weekly, fine dining critiques may be a thing of the past.

In an column reflecting on Chesterman’s 20 years at the Gazette, editor-in-chief Lucinda Chodan clarified the newspaper’s stance on hiring a new restaurant critic — a staple role at the English newspaper for decades.

“We plan to replace her work with regular coverage of the dining scene,” Chodan writes.

“We are going to take our time to find the right person, but one thing is obvious. We are not looking for the new Lesley Chesterman...we are looking at a different mix of coverage that might include fewer reviews and more restaurant news and other elements.”

There’s a few points to consider here — firstly, it’s probably wise for the Gazette to not try to sculpt “Lesley Chesterman 2.0” — with 20 years at the helm and correspondingly, a big following, trying to replicate Chesterman’s distinctive style of take-downs and glowingly warm praise would be a move that could easily come across as insipid.

Instead, it seems the Gazette is letting the pendulum swing rather far in the other direction: it appears that any Chesterman “replacement” won’t even inherit the same job description and will likely be a hybrid reporter and critic. That would be new ground for the newspaper, which has mostly stuck to reviews and general commentary around the restaurant scene, rather than committed coverage to happenings in that food scene (for example, non-review coverage of new restaurants, closures, and so forth).

A less charitable take on this news is that the Gazette might be seeking to cut costs by moving away from fine dining reviews. A dedicated critic can be a substantial cost: restaurant critics typically visit a restaurant twice, so every review costs much more than just paying a regular columnist’s wage. With her following, Chesterman was presumably worth the expense, but a less-known replacement might not justify the cost.

Given that the Gazette and other newspapers under the struggling Postmedia umbrella have routinely laid off staff in recent years, it could have been easier to just let food coverage lapse. That considered, it’s a good thing that the paper is planning to continue it, even if it’s with a sort-of-critic, sort-of-journalist role instead. That would leave Montreal with two regular food critics — Jean-Philippe Tastet at Le Devoir, and Marie-Claude Lortie at La Presse, not to mention smaller publications like Nightlife.ca and Cult MTL periodically publishing (typically more casual) reviews online.

The Gazette hasn’t published any kind of job posting for a Chesterman replacement, and it seems like the obvious candidate, Maeve Haldane (who occasionally filled in for Chesterman), may not be taking it (if she’s even interested, of course). With Chodan noting that the paper will take its time, it seems a replacement won’t be announced until later in the winter.

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