Joanne Kates’ lifelong love affair

UPDATED: Mon June 11

Joanne Kates woke up thinking about the gnocchi with toasted garlic and blue cheese salad she made for dinner the night before. She described it until my mouth was watering — and it was only 9 a.m. I suppose I should have expected it though: Kates has made a living off of bringing food to life with words.

UPDATED: Mon June 11

Joanne Kates woke up thinking about the gnocchi with toasted garlic and blue cheese salad she made for dinner the night before. She described it until my mouth was watering — and it was only 9 a.m. I suppose I should have expected it though: Kates has made a living off of bringing food to life with words.

Kates has been writing for 42 years and 38 of those were spent as The Globe Mail’s food critic. She is known for her honest and detailed reviews and for hiding behind gigantic hats to remain anonymous. Last month, the 62-year-old announced her retirement from The Globe.

Joanne Kates and food have been an item for quite some time. She became enamored with it at a very young age and began cooking when she was only seven years old. Her love affair only grew from there; she says that she always loved cooking and looked forward to it. Although her mother was a “very good home cook,” Kates taught herself to cook. The skill caught up to her quickly; when she was young she would do the cooking for her mother’s parties.

She wasn’t like most girls her age: Instead of dolls and dancing, Kates was playing with pots and pans.

“When I was 13 I started going to nice restaurants with the money that I earned. I would go home and read The Joy of Cooking because it was the only cookbook we had, I think, and I would find recipes similar to what I had eaten. Then I would cook it over and over again to figure out how to alter the recipe to make it like what I had eaten in the restaurant.”

Although she is “perennially addicted” to Chinese food and sushi, French onion soup was the first thing she ever cooked and to this day she has “a hard time resisting great French food.” She is a lover of the French restaurant Scaramouche in Yorkville and this year, placed it at the top of her coveted top restaurant list “The Kates 100.”

Instead of slaving behind the stove for a career, Kates prefers to think about food —and that’s when she traded a wooden spoon and pot for a pen and paper. She had a brief stint reviewing for Toronto Life, moved to The Star for two years and in 1974 she convinced then editor-and-chief Cameron Smith of The Globe and Mail that the paper needed a food critic — and that food critic must be her. She sent him a review of a new restaurant called Noodles and after that, she was there to stay.

If Kates was going to be the national newspaper’s resident food critic, then she was going to have to remain anonymous. And that’s when the pseudonyms, fake credit cards and stealth note taking began. We can thank her note taking abilities for her uniquely descriptive reviews. She would use a little notebook kept in her lap or sneak away to the washroom to take notes. She says doing it from memory would have been impossible. Today's technology of smartphones and tablets makes things much easier.

“Now it’s easy because everybody in every restaurant is doing what I call the thumb ballet! It was really hard prior to the advent of hand held mania.”

Kates doesn’t know if she’s been found out but she may have tipped of wait staff because she used to rarely order alcohol. She began ordering wine at most meals, to avoid getting busted by a knowing maître d' or chef.

No matter, the critiquing business place for friends. Kates mentioned how important it is that she does not get to know those in the business in order to stay objective and truthful (aside from the fact that as a reviewer, she must remain anonymous).

“I never socialize with the restaurateurs and I make it a point not to know them or have them know me, in order to prevent that kind of niceness overtaking the truth.”

She believes that degree of objectivity is only apparent journalists who review restaurants — not bloggers. She admits that bloggers help her stay in the know (hard to believe that she was ever out of it).

“I think bloggers are incredibly useful to me because they tell me who is opening, who is closing, who is moving and who has buzz.”

But she makes one clear distinction: these bloggers are not critics because readers don’t know who is paying for their dinner, whether they have any specific interests or emotional investments in the place they are writing about.

“As professional journalists those relationships are clean,” she says. 

But that clean relationship comes at a price. Kates knows that being critiqued herself comes with the territory of being a critic. Her column is extremely popular with Globe readers, and sure, she got her fair share of rebuttals about a review, but what really bothers her is what’s been written in the blogosphere lately: she has been called outdated.

“Yeah, that pisses me off because how can good taste be outdated? I think what they mean is that if I were younger I’d be more comfortable in restaurants that are uncomfortable and inhospitable. And that pisses me off because there is no relationship between age and a desire for good food.”

Her family is a good representation of that. Kates has two children and growing up, didn’t try to instill her love for cooking and food in them, but instead made it a choice. When it would reach dinnertime, Kates would ask her kids what they would rather do: cook or clean. Of course, they both always chose cooking.

“That probably started when they were only four of five years old and they learned to cook from an early age. They would cook dinner with me every night that I was home and they went on a lot of reviewing dinners so they learned to be very flexible eaters. Both of them fell in love with food and learned to cook very well.”

Food is an integral part of her family. Like many families, it is a way for hers to connect and regroup. She said her kitchen is the most important room in the house and that food “is the absolute centre” of her family’s life. So you can imagine the confusion, irony and horror when she found out her daughter, then 15, was struggling with an eating disorder. Kates and her daughter wrote their own account  of the story for The Globe and Mail in 2003. It is written very boldly: a diary style, with plenty of detail and just as much honesty. They did not write it together, though. In fact, they were in separate rooms when they wrote it and Kates said some of her daughter’s account was new to her.

“It was incredibly painful, incredibly painful,” she said. “Not as painful as living through it but horrible, terrible and painful.”

I asked then why her and daughter felt compelled to write such an intimate and honest account she simply said:

“Well, it’s because we’re both writers and writers are compelled to write. If you’re good at something you’re compelled to do it.”

(Her daughter is doing much better today and Kates mentioned she is happy, healthy and shared the gnocchi with her that night.)

But going out twice a week for 38 years, getting all dolled up on Saturday night when everyone else is ordering in and having to venture downtown in even the coldest winters gets tiring. That is a big reason why she announced she would be leaving The Globe.

“It did get to be a bit much – I think that’s part of why I’m happy to not have to do it every week now,” she said. “I’ll go out when I want to go out! I don’t have to all the time.”

She wrote in her farewell column that she often used pseudonyms in restaurants, and when I asked her for favourite one she paused:

“You know what, I still use them. It ain’t over yet!”

Joanne Kates will be writing a critique for PostCity magazine every other Saturday. Chris Nuttall-Smith has replaced Joanne Kates as The Globe and Mail’s restaurant critic