Meet James Beard Award-Winning Writer John Kessler

Updated: Apr 15

Writer eating food in Japan
Here's John enjoying a snack at a food stall in Japan.

Writer Name: John Kessler

Location: Chicago

Years of Experience: 30

Available for writing projects: Sure

Niche/Beat/Genre: Food and travel

Portfolio website(s):

Books (if applicable): The Atlanta 50; Culinaria: The United States (contributor)

Favorite food: Sushi

Writing tip for fellow writers: If something stays on the back burner too long, it never comes off. Read and reread on the regular.

John Kessler's writing has received numerous awards, including a National Headliner Award and a James Beard award. His essays, columns and food features have been anthologized 11 times in “Best Food Writing.” He's also served as chairman of the James Beard Foundation’s journalism awards committee.

Currently based in Chicago, John attended L’Academie de Cuisine culinary school near Washington, D.C., after living in Japan for two years. He worked as a restaurant cook and chef in Washington and Denver, where he began writing about food at the alternative newsweekly, Westword.

John then spent 18 years at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where he wrote about food and served as the newspaper’s dining critic.

Lately, John has been working on a book project with The Giving Kitchen, a resource for restaurant workers employed in the Atlanta restaurant community facing unanticipated crisis.

How did you get started in writing?

I responded to a cattle call from an alternative newsweekly, Denver Westword, that was looking for a new restaurant critic. At the time, I was working as a line cook.

What area of writing do you specialize in now, and have you written any books?

I still specialize in stories about food and drink, though I have written many profiles of artists, artisans and creators for Garden & Gun magazine. I have written a couple of small guide books and contributed to others. I’m working on a couple of book ideas currently.

What’s your advice for struggling new writers?

New food writers will find there are opportunities in service journalism – writing consumer-oriented blurbs, roundups and packages. It can be good, steady work but can teach the writer some bad tics and habits.

Everybody has a personal food essay waiting to be written. Go there and see how writing about food can help you write into the truth of a situation. That will not only help you with your prose but also with your reporting.

LEARN MORE: See examples of personal food essays at Serious Eats.

What has been your biggest professional struggle over the years?

My biggest struggle has been that I made my name and developed a readership for my restaurant reviews, but I got more pleasure from food feature writing, and I always needed to make room for it.

How is your relationship with food affected by you being a writer?

Restaurant reviewing can make for an unhealthy lifestyle if you let it. The very notion of a meal is skewed in restaurants. Also, I have, like many writers, framed my output with indulgences while writing and rewards at the end.

salad with olives and onions
One of John's recent salad creations.

Do you have any favorite authors or writing you would recommend?

I’d recommend reading Laurie Colwin and M.F.K. Fisher for their timeless food essays. I look for bylines by Bill Buford, Gabrielle Hamilton and Samin Nosrat, who all use their authority to explore the pleasures of food.

And as the former chair of the James Beard Awards journalism committee, I’d recommend going on the website to find past winners of these awards. They show that food can be the conduit for exploring any subject.