The Woman Who Ate Atlanta
The South’s most knowledgeable, enlightening and badass restaurant critic has lived in our region for more than four decades. But that hasn't diluted her staunchly Parisian identity. We asked Atlanta writer Wendell Brock to take us inside the world of the deliciously opinionated, French-born food writer.
Her mother left her when she was a baby, and the grandmother who ended up raising her could be mean and difficult. This paternal grand-mere was a terrific cook, though, and a gardener. So when she wasn’t bossing her granddaughter or tending to her fruit trees, chickens and rabbits, she fed her sumptuous food.
We should probably mention that this was the Paris of the 1950s, a moment in time when the cuisine was as rich as the culture. At her grandmother’s table, the lonely little girl might stuff herself on duck eggs, lamb brains sautéed in black butter, apricot pies and freshly fried beignets. Then, with nothing more than a Paris Metro card tucked in her pocket, she could escape her grandma’s smothering presence to wander the City of Light, looking for delicious things to fill her belly.
So while Edith Piaf trilled songs of love and sorrow, and the existentialists contemplated the meaning of being and nothingness, little Christiane Françoise Luc would save her coins to buy a can of pâté de foie gras — or shyly approach the counter of a gourmet deli and ask for a scoop of hearts of palm salad.
When the great Atlanta food writer Christiane Lauterbach describes the Parisian childhood that shaped her palate, there is a fairy-tale, rags-to-riches quality to her story — a touch of Cinderella.
“If you have seen the movie ‘The 400 Blows,’ it’s a little bit of my background,” she tells me as she sips a cup of cortado at Little Tart Bakeshop in the Krog Street Market in Atlanta’s Inman Park neighborhood on a cool winter morning. She’s referring to François Truffaut’s New Wave classic, about a troubled young boy who eventually finds freedom by running off to the seashore.
“I had a pretty fierce grandmother, but otherwise, it was pretty loosey-goosey and not wealthy for sure,” says Lauterbach, who was born in the 6th Arrondissement of Paris and later moved to suburban Colombes, which she describes as “about as glamorous as living in Queens.”
Her mother, a schoolteacher, ran off with another man when she was 2. Her father worked in a factory that made X-ray tubes.
“We were a weird family,” she says, punctuating her heavily accented English with girlish giggles, nervous hiccups of laughter and, every once in a while, an unapologetic little snort. “We were definitely a weird family. At the time, it was very unusual. I didn’t know anybody whose parents were divorced, who had been abandoned by their mother.”
When The Bitter Southerner asked me to profile the fearlessly opinionated Lauterbach — a longtime restaurant columnist for Atlanta magazine and the publisher of the indispensable, 32-year-old Knife & Fork: The Insider’s Guide to Atlanta Restaurants — I immediately agreed.
Over the years, my interactions with Lauterbach had been brief but pleasurable. I met her in the late ’90s when I first began to write about food for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Later, when I became the paper’s theater critic, our paths rarely crossed.
Many will tell you that Lauterbach is intimidating. But from the get-go, I found this short woman with spiky red hair, cat-woman glasses and fishnet hose to be a fabulously fascinating feline.
A bit of a performer, a purring sensualist, a delightfully dishy conversationalist, Lauterbach was sexy in a bookish kind of way: a great person to sit by when you found yourself dateless at the wedding of a mutual friend, a raconteur who responded to tedious questions about her work with dismissive, coquettish jokes.
On the occasion of her 20th anniversary as dining critic of Atlanta magazine, Rebecca Burns, then editor-in-chief of the publication, recalls the scene at which she introduced herself to Lauterbach.
This was 1995. At that time, Burns was a bit of a reticent freelancer, while Lauterbach was the resident diva and exotic. When Burns asked the preening glamor-puss her favorite thing to eat — a question that nearly every critic loathes — Lauterbach responded: “My favorite thing to do when I get home is to get naked, crawl between the sheets of my bed and eat a big bowl of thick, plain yogurt.”
In 2010, the Southern Foodways Alliance gave Lauterbach the Craig Claiborne Lifetime Achievement Award. Around that time, John T. Edge, the director of that organization, quoted Lauterbach in the Oxford American as saying: “In my declining years, I’d like to run a dominatrix training school for waiters and waitresses. I’ll wear fishnets and carry a whip. I will help them see it my way.”
These are the kind of glib comments Lauterbach, who is cagey about revealing her age, tosses off when she doesn’t want to give serious answers. They are part of a highly crafted public persona that has been called punk and futurist, difficult and demanding, snobby and unfathomable, quirky and just plain weird.
It’s the armor a vulnerable, intensely private woman puts on to protect herself from the prying interlopers who dare to put her in a box. What I was eager to discover, and what I pursued over the course of a half dozen meetings and meals with her, was the complex personality within.
I wanted to see what was behind the mask.
Here are some things you should know about Lauterbach, who has been eating her way around Atlanta since moving to the city in 1974:
She forms opinions quickly and sticks to them, even when the consequences are costly.
She likes to eat alone, often sitting at the bar of a restaurant. That way she can gather her thoughts and concentrate without interruption. Naturally, it doesn’t always work out that way. Sometimes she needs company so she can try as much food as possible in a single sitting. In that case she prefers men with large appetites. She lets them take home the leftovers, so that she’s not tempted to indulge.
She has an ego. “Sometimes I want to tell people: ‘Don’t tell me what you think because you are just a prop. You are there so I don’t look like an idiot ordering five meals. But your opinion” — she pauses for a second, and makes the sound of a whining cat — “it really doesn’t matter.”
She wears Prada glasses. She hates cats.
English is her third language, after French and German. She also speaks Spanish and gets by in Italian and Dutch. She has studied ancient Greek and Latin, Russian and Arabic.
She is fastidious about cleanliness. Servers whom she sees playing with their hair or otherwise touching their bodies are unacceptable to her.
She has been terrorized by restaurant owners. “One time I moved out of my house, because I got death threats and they sounded pretty serious. …. I reported it to the police, and I moved out for a few days because I was freaked out about that. It hasn’t happened in a while, but people used to scream at me and carry on. ‘Oh, how could you say my chandeliers are vulgar?’ Because they are.”
Once, after a particularly withering review of an Atlanta establishment that shall go unnamed, she was told never to return to any of the restaurant group’s locations. She defied the ban, appearing at the company’s next new place with two well-known restaurant reviewers. No one got thrown out. She told me that she didn’t care what the restaurant owners thought of her: She refused to be intimidated. “I know I am a fat French fuck,” she says.
At this point in her career, she is frequently recognized. Not by her appearance. But by her voice. I have witnessed this.
She does not own a TV but she does stream video via the Internet. She loves “The Wire” and the Korean TV series “Boys Over Flowers.” She’s up to date on Netflix's “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.”
She is a Pisces. She likes to knit.
She is not interested in social media. No Facebook, no Twitter, no Instagram. “If I had wanted to take pictures of cheeseburgers, I would have made a different career. I’m not super visual.” For the record: For a short time during the rise of the Atlanta food-truck scene, she kept a blog, Atlanta Food Carts. The last post is dated Sept. 10, 2010. Knife & Fork has no online presence — and never has in its 32 years of existence. “I don’t follow anybody, and I don’t want anybody to follow me,” she says. “I don’t want to be followed!”
She prefers not to drive on interstates. She is likely to find more surprising places to eat on the backroads. Also thrift stores, which she adores.
She has two grown daughters and three grandchildren. She is a doting grandma who uses Skype to communicate with her 2-year-old grandson in Washington state. In her home, there is a tiny menagerie of miniature animals that she plays with during these conversations. Apparently, the kid has picked up grandma’s favorite word: “Bleh!”
She has survived things that would send other souls clamoring for psychotherapy, yet I have never seen her play the victim. For example: Her second husband abandoned her with two small children. Simply didn’t show for an Easter brunch, where they were waiting. As a result, Lauterbach and her two daughters don’t care much for Easter. I learn this when I take her with me to research a piece for the AJC on the Blue Willow Inn, an iconic Southern restaurant in Social Circle, Ga. We happen to stop by the Blue Willow gift shop, which is laden with toy bunnies, eggs and candy, and she opens up about her divorce. By all accounts, she was devastated when her husband left her. “I was crazy about Jeffrey,” she tells me. “He may have been a monster. But he was my monster.”
Since starting Knife & Fork in 1983, she has chronicled the ethnic cuisines of Atlanta, from Buford Highway to the Korean boroughs of Duluth. In this way, she can indulge her curiosity for new discoveries, just as she did as a little girl, wandering the streets of Paris. “The thing is,” she tells me, “very few people go to a restaurant they have never heard of. Me, I’ll be driving around and I’ll just be going in and out, in and out, and I make up my own mind. If you don’t go to the bad places, you shouldn’t be able to talk about the good places, because you don’t really know the gap, the difference. So that’s very much the way I conduct my life.”
This endless pursuit of the city’s changing dining demographic is part of her remarkable legacy and one of the reasons she is Atlanta’s most essential omnivore.
How did Christiane Lauterbach evolve into the person she is today?
As a young woman, Lauterbach says she wanted to become a librarian. But her grandmother told her she’d never get married if did. She later considered archaeology. “Then I thought: No. Creepy. Bleh! Digging in real places!”
This is how Lauterbach talks, how she entertains me during our first interview at Little Tart. She ended up being a preschool teacher in the Paris public school system. This was partly for mercenary reasons. She wanted to be independent, and by attending teacher’s college, she could draw a small salary. So she left home at 17.
“I was very impatient as a teacher,” she says.
“You terrorized the children?” I ask her teasingly.
“A little bit. I’m a disciplinarian in many ways,” she answers. “So being a teacher, it satisfied my desire to perform. But I was way too impatient. Forty kids in a small Paris (classroom). Bah! Insane!”
In her early 20s, Lauterbach met Volker Süssmann, a man almost eight years her senior, the son of Gen. Wilhelm Süssmann, a German air force officer who was killed in the Battle of Crete. They married, lived in Munich and ate well.
“He taught me how to travel in style,” Lauterbach wrote in the 2004 issue of Atlanta magazine celebrating her 20th year as the publication’s restaurant critic.
Süssmann was a corporate lawyer for a subsidiary of an American pharmaceutical corporation, and the two moved to New York in the early ’70s. She was excited and invigorated to be back in a big city, but soon her world changed again.
Süssmann introduced her to a paralegal named Jeffrey Lauterbach. “I fell in love with Jeffrey, who was five years younger than me,” she tells me later in an email.
When I asked her if she was not in love with Süssmann, she replied, “I was a confused and ambitious chick on the make, more than anything else. … I was also seduced by the New York lifestyle — so free, so exciting.”
To stay with Süssmann would have meant returning to Germany. Instead, she and Lauterbach married and moved to Atlanta in 1974 so he could study law at Emory University.
As a European who didn’t drive, Lauterbach was shocked by Atlanta, which was then a rather provincial black-and-white town.
“I loved the city and the trees kind of thing,” she says in her curious English. “But it was not enough city for me. I was not able to do what I normally do, which was walk constantly — explore. It was very difficult just to even conceive of that in Atlanta, but I was charmed by the vegetation and a new culture. I mean for me, invading a new culture is incredibly interesting.”
Forty years later, she is still investigating this strange city, where she has maintained the tricky duality of being both an outsider and an insider.
That is the great contradiction that is Christiane Lauterbach. But is it a gift, or a limitation?
When somebody gave Jeffrey Lauterbach an Atlanta guidebook, his wife picked it up and thought: “Gee, I could do that.” After all, she had always been an adventurous eater. “For me, comparing food experiences has always been part of what I have done — subconsciously.”
Soon they were reviewing restaurants as a couple, and in February 1983, they formed Knife & Fork with three friends: Bill Cutler, now deceased, and Sue and Steve Kreitzman, with whom Lauterbach has since lost touch.
The Lauterbachs’ daughter, Hillary Lauterbach Brown, can’t remember a time when the family wasn’t reviewing restaurants.
“I remember them doing the paste-up for the layout on the floor or the kitchen table every week,” says Brown, who has been proofreading the newsletter since she was a kid and has been the designer since she was a high-school teenager at The Paideia School, a private academy in Atlanta.
Knife & Fork Vol.1 No. 1 - Click image to enlarge
According to Lauterbach, the original group met to assign reviews. The couples often paired up to write; at the end, everybody got together again for a group edit.
From the get-go, Knife & Fork had a slightly stilted, rather dandified Old World tone that Lauterbach attributes to Cutler. “We used the ‘royal we’ from The New Yorker, which we all read,” she says.
Visually, Knife & Fork hasn’t changed much in its three decades; it has retained its eight-page, three-hole-punched format so that it can be filed in a folder.
“Every once in a while, a subscriber will call me and say: ‘I have 25 years of Knife & Fork. My wife wants to throw it away. Can I give it back to you?’” says Lauterbach, doing a very good imitation of a creaky-voiced elderly person.
“That’s exactly what we wanted, what I wanted,” Lauterbach says. “So it’s just like a blog, but better digested than most blogs.”
One by one, the original writers died or left town. The Lauterbachs divorced in 1989. Since then, Lauterbach has maintained the ship solo, writing in a tone that is consistent with the earliest issues.
Today Knife & Fork remains the single most comprehensive record of Atlanta dining history — an encyclopedic, 30-year database that exists in written form and in the brain trust that is Lauterbach.
“She is the holder of our collective culinary knowledge in Atlanta,” says Bill Addison, who replaced her as Atlanta magazine’s chief dining critic in 2009. “At a time when criticism is transitioning in Atlanta, she is more vital than ever, and her voice remains not just authoritative but enlightening.”
John Kessler, the AJC dining critic who befriended Lauterbach after he moved to Atlanta from Denver in 1997, agrees.
“Knife & Fork is such a living document of where Atlanta was, the way nothing else has really been,” he says. “It’s not prettied up and presented at all. It’s not marketed. It is a snapshot of a month in the life of Atlanta’s restaurant scene.”
According to Lauterbach, Knife & Fork has 1,500 subscribers. They pay $28 per year or $46 for two years.
“We virtually never go out to eat without consulting Knife & Fork and make a practice of giving it to new colleagues when they arrive in Atlanta,” Bill Amis, a subscriber since the beginning, told me in an email. “We currently give Knife & Fork to 11 friends.”
And yet Lauterbach is so fiercely competitive that she has been known to ignore subscription requests from some Atlanta food writers and news outlets. Some get around that by subscribing anonymously.
“She does not make it easy to subscribe to Knife & Fork,” says Brown, who has followed in her mother’s footsteps and reviews restaurants for the Athens publication Flagpole. “It’s like a speakeasy. You have to know the number.”
Apparently that strategy is working. Even in the digital age, when news updates are just a click away, Knife & Fork consistently scoops competing publications like the AJC and Atlanta magazine.
Brown told me that her father, now a Philadelphia-based financial planner, still subscribes.
Lauterbach may not have the name recognition of Kessler or the national readership of Addison, who left Atlanta magazine last year and is now is the national dining critic for Eater.
But in the circle of American dining critics, she cuts a formidable figure. Since 1997, she has been a member of the James Beard Foundation’s Restaurant and Chef Awards Committee.
Back in the ’80s, when Atlanta magazine hired Lauterbach to review restaurants, the trend in Atlanta fine dining was “continental.” Her European background was an obvious plus. In her early days at the magazine, she shared a byline with her then-husband, Jeffrey Lauterbach.
“For Atlanta magazine, we were fascinated with her European savoir faire at the beginning,” Addison says, “while she herself found a devotion to Buford Highway, and the cuisines that were much more far-flung. I feel like over the years she has tried to blend the two in the publications that she’s written for.”
Now, he says, “the rest of the population has caught up with Christiane’s curiosity.”
Lauterbach has never been shy about talking to restaurateurs — unlike reviewers for American newspapers, who generally try to dine out anonymously.
“I think there is no conflict in that in her mind,” Kessler says. “And there isn’t in her copy.”
Says Lauterbach: “Anonymity is very overrated. … I’m sure I know the 20 most important food critics in the nation, and they are not very anonymous, believe me.” According to Lauterbach and every restaurant critic I know, there is only so much a chef can do to alter a restaurant experience once a reviewer has been spotted in the place.
Lauterbach never makes a reservation in her own name, and she always pays her own way. If she doesn’t like a dish, she will ask that it be removed from the bill.
“I have been with her,” Kessler says, “when the waitress, the sweet little hi-my-name-is-Kimberly, comes over and says: ‘Is it fantastic?’ And she goes, ‘No, I wouldn’t say it’s fantastic. This is inedible.’ And you’ll just see this girl going, ‘I’m sorry???’
“‘This is inedible. I can’t eat it. I don’t want it sitting here. And you have to take it away.’ And [the server] goes: ‘Oh, my goodness! I’m so sorry! Everyone else loves that dish.’ And then she’ll go: ‘I don’t care what everyone else says. I hate it. It’s inedible. Take it away.’”
In her words: “If you are a restaurateur and I say something bad about you, you should seriously consider that it was bad. And fix it. I am giving you the benefit of my opinion. You could be paying dearly a consultant to find out why this or that aspect of your business sucks.”
If that sounds harsh, Lauterbach can be insanely funny, too.
Kessler quotes her as saying the best advice she could give him was this:
“If they bring the wrong dish to your table, if it was meant for the neighboring table, take a bite quick so you can try it.”
While I was researching this article, Lauterbach invited me to Watershed on Peachtree, a restaurant she has followed since its founding in 1999 by Emily Saliers, of the rock band Indigo Girls, and restaurateur Ross Jones.
Lauterbach championed the Southern restaurant during its heady early days, when Alabama-born chef Scott Peacock ran the kitchen. A protege of Southern-food doyenne Edna Lewis, Peacock won a James Beard Award while at Watershed. He and Lauterbach became friends. (Once, while driving them back from an event in South Georgia in the middle of the night, he hit a deer with his red Volvo, she told me, remembering the moment with some horror.)
But when Peacock passed the toque to chef Joe Truex and the restaurant moved to Buckhead, Lauterbach lost interest. She panned Truex’s cooking and wasn’t so crazy about designer Smith Hanes’ gray decor, either.
Recently, Zeb Stevenson replaced Truex, who moved to Dubai late last year to operate a pizza joint, and Lauterbach wanted to sample the new executive chef’s menu.
I make a reservation under an assumed name. We arrive. We blend in.
But when Lauterbach begins to order, her demeanor changes. She tells the server she wants to try Stevenson’s new menu items and that’s all she cares about. She grows stern and professorial.
Not long after that, Stevenson arrives at our table to say hello. The server has told him about this rapt woman who is only interested in his food. When he asks if the lady has a French accent and the staffer tells him “yes,” it’s a giveaway.
Soon, co-owner Jones and her girlfriend, Susan Owens, stop by with a bottle of rosé. The meal is impeccable.
When Stevenson swings by again, Lauterbach tells him the half-pint portion size of his chicken-liver mousse is too large, that it could give somebody a heart attack.
“She said the portion size was ‘immoral,’” Stevenson recalls on the day I call him to ask about the experience. “That is a verbatim quote. I laughed my ass off.”
But he listened to her advice. Instead of serving it in a chubby jar, “I now make it in a terrine mold and cut a slice for service,” Stevenson says. “It's quite a bit more moral.”
Knife & Fork may have a small readership, but Lauterbach’s words, good and bad, are wildly influential.
“In the community of chefs in this city, a kind word from Christiane is equivalent to bragging rights,” Stevenson says. “When I am fortunate enough to have her say something nice about me in Knife & Fork, you better bet that I get text messages from other chefs in the city saying, ‘Hey, I read that. Nice job.’ ”
Apparently, getting too close to Lauterbach can be a slippery slope.
“It’s live by the sword, die by the sword,” she told me. “If you want to know me a little better, be aware that it doesn’t buy you a better opinion. On the contrary, I may be harder on you because I know you.”
“She pulls no punches,” Addison says. “A chef being charming and speaking to her at the table for a few minutes does not sway her judgment. She will say what she feels needs to be said about a restaurant.”
During the course of our meal at Watershed, I ask Lauterbach if she considers herself Southern after living in the region for so long. She responds with an unequivocal “Noooooooooo.”
She’s a Parisian. First, last, always.
Lauterbach lives in a beautiful modern space in Atlanta’s Candler Park neighborhood. Except for the office where she keeps her files and papers, it is sparsely furnished, with a calm, minimalist aesthetic that reminds me a bit of the house of Alvar Aalto in Helsinki.
The kitchen has an industrial-size stainless-steel refrigerator and sink, and a movable worktable with a white marble top. Stacks of white china, of the sort you might find at Parisian café, are stacked neatly beside the sink.
A central skylight illuminates a small collection of tall, lush-looking plants. Her dining table originally came from a school, and has the markings to prove it.
A pair of white slippers are on the floor next to her bed — Japanese style — and when I comment on the TV, she reminds me that it is a computer monitor, not a television.
Lauterbach rarely lets strangers into her home. But she takes obvious pride in the clean, well-lighted space and in showing me and a photographer around a garden where she grows tomatoes, lettuces, herbs and other edible things.
Like her grandma, who loved her lilacs, ferns and hydrangeas, she is a devoted gardener. But she only grows edible plants. Once I arrive to find her with a reference book on weeds in her hands: She is trying to find the name of particularly invasive specimen — using the approach of a librarian.
But there is one thing beside the door she will not allow us to photograph, even though she points it out with her usual chattiness.
It’s a blood stain.
Last July, while her daughter and grandchild were sleeping in a bedroom, Lauterbach awoke to find an invader prowling through her home. He punched her over the eye, and took her car and her iPad.
She later found the car herself, doing the job of the police.
It was, as her daughter Hillary recalls, a horrific moment. When they went for takeout at Taqueria del Sol in Decatur, Lauterbach was so spooked that she only ordered one fish taco instead of her usual two.
That became the family’s little joke.
Even though her face was bruised, she didn’t stop eating out.
Nor is she likely to.
So this is what I learned about Christiane Lauterbach over the two months I spent following her around: She’s been abandoned. She’s been demoted. She’s been bullied and she’s been bludgeoned.
But she is a survivor. And she refuses to stop doing what she loves.
When I ask her if she is tired of reviewing restaurants, she seems to have trouble understanding the concept. Burned out? Au contraire.
This feisty, indefatigable Parisian intellectual with the rapier wit and ravenous curiosity is nowhere near pushing back from the table.
She was born hungry — always ready for her next great bite.