When Lesley Chesterman decided to step down from her role as Montreal Gazette’s fine dining critic almost two years ago, she couldn’t have guessed that a deadly pandemic would stymie the profession and bring the entire industry to a grinding halt. But, looking back, she admits the decision was auspiciously timed.
“My timing couldn’t have been better. I mean, I hate to say that, but who saw this coming? It’s going to be a while before restaurant critics are back,” Chesterman tells Eater. “First of all, going out to restaurants is extremely dicey. I mean, here they’re closed, but when they do open, who wants to criticize all these men and women who’ve been going through hell? I can’t imagine for a couple of years that people will really be writing anything but positive reviews. It’s going to change radically.”
Written over the course of summer 2019, long before whispers of social distance and quarantines, the cookbook, titled Chez Lesley, feels oddly prescient in content, too: It is filled with comforting home cooking, which for Chesterman means drawing largely on European and American influences for recipes for breads, cakes, pastas, soups, and roasted meats. It even includes one for something called “Comforting Spaghetti,” a dish she resorts to when feeling out of sorts.
“I started cooking when I was 12, and I think everybody should cook — not just to feed themselves and control what they’re putting in their mouths, but also to relax,” she says. “I mean, when I hear a Donald Trump speech, I just suddenly start baking some cookies or something. Cooking is an amazing therapy that not enough people depend on, and I’d like to help change that.”
Now, at 53, Chesterman has amassed enough recipes to populate a 400-page book that serves as a culinary diary of sorts. There’s a recipe for a chocolate mousse she picked up while working as a pastry chef in Lyon at 22 years old, and one for “the most amazing” potato soup conferred to her by a chef she met in a small German town while travelling. Her simplified chicken Kiev recipe gestures to her Ukrainian grandmother, and her “Carbonara de Max” is for her eldest son, Max, who begs her to make it every night for dinner. The book’s crumble recipe was supplied by her ex-husband, celebrated pastry chef Bertrand Bazin of Café Bazin. “Really, every recipe in this book seems to have a very strong tie to something in my life,” she says.
Montrealers will notice cameos from other local chefs and institutions, including a pasta recipe inspired by Little Italy restaurant Lucca, a salmon recipe shared with Chesterman by Quebec celebrity chef Danny St. Pierre (formerly Petite Maison) in her early days at the Gazette, a French onion soup from chef Jean-François Vachon of L’Express, and mashed potatoes inspired by chef Joël Robuchon. “But I do it my way because his is like butter with potatoes, and mine is potatoes with butter,” she laughs.
“When I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do after restaurant reviewing, it kind of fell into place. After all those years of restaurant reviewing and analyzing everything that I ate, I really have a very clear idea of what I want. So all that eating — the hundreds of millions of calories that have gone through my body — have been put to good use. I’ve come up with recipes according to what I learned from years of analyzing food as a critic.”
The cookbook chronicles how Chesterman eats at home, hence the title, Chez Lesley, though it wasn’t one she immediately got behind: “I didn’t initially want to put my name in the title or my picture on the book, but the publisher really wanted me to. I think my resistance came from years of journalism, where you feel like the last thing your focus should be on is yourself, but actually, for a cookbook, you need to become the brand in order to sell it.”
That shouldn’t be difficult for Chesterman, who in Montreal is a household name. (I was familiar with the name “Lesley Chesterman” far before I was ever able to visit the fine dining establishments she’d write about.) But not everyone knows her for the same reason, Chesterman says.
“To be honest, I don’t think most Francophones even know I ever wrote one restaurant review because the two solitudes in this province are so cut and dry. And there are probably a ton of Anglophones who don’t realize that I was on one of Radio Canada’s highest-rated shows for seven years. Anglophones know me from my writing, and Francophones know me from speaking. And so I’m kind of trying to find a way to get to both audiences.”
The cookbook, published by Éditions Cardinal, draws on the written medium Chesterman is known for among Anglophones, but in the language most Quebecers speak. “I thought to myself, if I’m going to do this book, I should really, first of all, serve the local clientele, which is majority French. I decided to go to a French publisher also because being an Anglophone in Quebec all my life, I just in a strange way feel that I don’t really know English Canada.”
The goal, though, is for an eventual English translation, and perhaps even another cookbook after that. “I had a large repertoire based on the radio spots that I did on Radio-Canada and a lot of the oldie-but-goody recipes in the Gazette,” she says. “But we had to cut so many recipes because it was too long. And then there are all the recipes that I did during the pandemic on my Instagram. I easily have another book in me.”
Chez Lesley is available at bookstores and online for $44.95.