Introducing The Age's new chief restaurant reviewer, Besha Rodell

Illustration: Simon Letch
Illustration: Simon Letch 

It's a heartfelt homecoming and a dream job for the former LA Weekly food reviewer, Besha Rodell.

I remember the exact moment I fell in love with restaurants. It was on the occasion of my childhood friend, Sarah's birthday. Sarah and I lived in a large share house in Brunswick with my parents and her mother and an assortment of other folks.

File photo of Stephanie Alexander out the front of her former Hawthorn restaurant, Stephanie's, which was a formative ...
File photo of Stephanie Alexander out the front of her former Hawthorn restaurant, Stephanie's, which was a formative experience for Rodell. Photo: Craig Abraham

On Sarah's eighth birthday, her father picked us up at the share house and took the two of us to Stephanie's, in Hawthorn.

There was a huge, beautiful chocolate souffle that haunts me to this day, but other than that I cannot recall a thing I ate. I remember the brocade seating and deep red curtains, which gave everything a feeling of grandeur. I remember the lighting, the tinkle of glasses, the swoosh of the waiters, the mesmerising, intense luxury of it all.

I remember feeling special, truly special, that I was allowed into this room where people were spending ungodly amounts of money on something as common as dinner.

[Melbourne] forged me in so many ways, but perhaps most of all in my love of eating, of restaurants.

Quite honestly, I can't remember much about that year or my life at that time, other than the fact that my parents broke up and my mother moved out. But I remember Stephanie's.

My mother was a journalist at The Age at the time, and for a short while, she moved into another share house behind the Windsor Hotel that was full of other journalists and artistic types and was known around town as "the lane". My stepfather-to-be, who was also an Age journo, lived in that house, too, and on Friday nights the whole gang of housemates and work friends would walk the block over to the Waiter's Club and take up a large round table.

It was there that I learned to love Melbourne's distinct version of Italian food, to love the raucous conversation that took place when enough wine and enough pasta had bewitched the adults in my life. That they always took me seriously – even at eight years old – gave me a lifelong love for journalists.

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It's no wonder I became one myself, eventually. But where my parents were serious journos, covering politics and business and high culture, I became a food writer, much to their bafflement. That was after I was a waitress and then, for a brief time, a cook. And it was after I moved, as a teenager, to America.

In the above paragraphs I have breezed over the two great heartbreaks of my pre-adult life: first, the dissolution of my parents' relationship and, second, the shock of being taken from my home town at 15. I grieved Melbourne like a lost love.

In 2009, a few years after I became a food critic, at a weekly newspaper in Atlanta, Georgia, I learned that The Age's then-reviewer was moving on. I wrote an impassioned email to the hiring editors, explaining why reviewing restaurants in Melbourne would be my absolute dream job. I never heard back. Instead, a few years later, I moved to Los Angeles, taking over from Jonathan Gold when he left LA Weekly. I loved LA. But it wasn't home.

The Waiters Restaurant (nee The Waiter's Club).
The Waiters Restaurant (nee The Waiter's Club). Photo: Justin McManus

The main reason I never did come back was because I had built a life and career for myself in the US. I had a kid, got married, accumulated possessions and cats and friends. I think we tend to forget how recently the world was barely connected at all for normal people. My career there mattered none to the people who might hire me here. Why would it?

In 2017, I got two assignments that would change my life. One was to write about the World's 50 Best Restaurants, coming to Melbourne for The New York Times. The other was a long personal essay about Melbourne for the website, Eater. In the process of writing the latter, I realised that it was time to stop yearning for my home when a move back was possible. And the story for The New York Times allowed for a conversation with the folks who were opening a bureau for the newspaper in Sydney. I wondered if they might consider a food writer among the journalists they were gathering to launch their Australian coverage. Miraculously, they said yes.

I spent an incredible couple of years writing Australia Fare, a column about Australian food and food culture, for The New York Times. During those years, I also was hired by Food & Wine magazine to travel the world solo to pick the 30 best restaurants in the world.

Spaghetti bolognese at The Waiters Restaurant.
Spaghetti bolognese at The Waiters Restaurant. Photo: Justin McManus

Like so much, COVID-19 disrupted both of those jobs, and when we all came up for air, many things had changed. One major change for me was, despite Melbourne's lockdowns, despite everything, I loved being at home. I didn't want to travel as much any more. I wanted a routine, I wanted a schedule, I wanted to swim at my local pool and go to pub trivia every week and eat at the Waiter's Club (now known as The Waiters Restaurant) on Friday nights.

It feels like fate that, exactly at that moment in time, there was an opening for that job that I long ago coveted. Not only that, but that the food coverage has expanded to include a second weekly review in Good Food's sister publication Good Weekend, in The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald. I can't tell you how thrilled I am to take on both.

In all my years as a critic, I have aimed to maintain anonymity, for dozens of reasons. I plan to do so here, as well, for as long as possible.

This city forged me in so many ways, but perhaps most of all in my love of eating, of restaurants. I think there's a perception among some readers that I'm American, and I do have a tendency (one that I'm working on) to compare the two countries – something that was almost necessary in my work for the NYT. Earlier this year, while visiting Los Angeles, I posted something on Instagram about the superiority of that city's sushi compared to Australia, and one Australian commenter who took offence told me that I should "go home".

Where is home, I wondered? Should I respond that I was born here, was raised here, never stopped missing it, gave up a fully formed life to get back here? I decided against that, because it seemed to bolster the argument that immigrants and refugees have less of a right to call Melbourne "home" than I do. A huge part of why I love this city is because of its diversity, because so many kinds of people call it home.

I would be doing Melbourne a disservice if I pretended our sushi is as good as LA's. No city can be all things to all people. But I gotta say, this town comes close. There's nowhere I'd rather be. I have lived in San Francisco, New York, Atlanta and LA, and I've travelled the world looking for fantastic food, and this is the place to which I yearned to return. I only hope I can do it justice.