Critic Who Dissed Chicago’s Food Scene Defends His Article

Chicago’s restaurant scene is a far cry from its former days of glory.

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That’s according to dining critic John Kessler, who ruffled a few feathers in Chicago’s culinary community when he served up five criticisms of the city’s restaurant and food culture in a Chicago magazine article published Tuesday.

In “The Party is Over,” Kessler argues that one thing Chicago chefs aren’t doing enough of is cooking according to season with fresh, local produce.

“Chefs up and down the food chain in the southeast, Texas, California and New England are supporting local farmers more and cooking a bit more with the seasons,” Kessler said. “Local and seasonal really has been transformative in other cities but it hasn’t quite caught up here.”

Poll: Do you think Chicago’s dining scene has “lost its luster,” as Kessler contends?

Despite the less-than-temperate climate in Chicago, Kessler says the city’s location on the Corn Belt is just one example of an ingredient opportunity for restaurateurs to seize.

Kessler, who moved to Chicago about three years ago, was formerly a restaurant critic in Atlanta, writing for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for nearly 20 years.

“I’m fascinated and falling in love with the city every day but I’ve had to ask myself these questions about the food here and I really don’t think I’m the only one,” Kessler said.

In his article, Kessler rails against restaurant groups that oversaturate areas like the West Loop with multiple restaurants where the “all the menus start to develop the same base personality.”

He also contends Chicago’s street food needs to be revitalized and neighborhood-specific immigrant food should expand to other parts of the city.

“Perhaps what I’m doing is pointing out something that is a problem, which is sad,” Kessler said. “This is a very segregated city and we tend to have ethnically segregated enclaves and it’s such a big city and the suburbs are so far out.”

Some of Kessler’s peers in the food critic community have taken aim at his piece. In a Chicago Tribune article this week, Nick Kindelsperger argues that Kessler “shows a remarkable amount of disdain for the dining public.”

Kessler said he undeniably puts some of the onus on diners to demand more from the restaurants that serve them. “What can I say? I’m a critic and I think part of it does lie on the diners,” he said. “I think we should try to get out and learn more.”

Kessler noted that several members of Chicago’s restaurant community thanked him for the article, though they didn’t do that publicly.

“I’ve gotten these off-the-record phone calls and emails from writers, chefs and restaurateurs who have said, ‘I think you hit the nail on the head,’” Kessler said.

Kessler joins us in discussion.

This story will be updated with video.

Follow Evan Garcia on Twitter: @EvanRGarcia

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