Christiane Lauterbach would rather eat an Oscar Meyer hot dog slathered in German mustard than a seasoned sausage that costs ten bucks.
“I would never say one duplicates the other,” says Lauterbach, the renowned restaurant critic for Atlanta magazine who is not afraid to share her opinions — glowing and critical — about the city’s dining scene.
“But nobody talks about the ratio of price to pleasure … there is a simplicity factor,” she says, explaining the difference between a cheap, tasty mass-produced hot dog and a chef-made, tasty hot dog.
“But I do love hot dogs, they are one of my vices,” she adds with a chuckle. This is pretty high praise from someone who served nearly 20 years on the James Beard Awards Committee tasked with selecting the best of America’s food culture.
Lauterbach, who says she is “70ish,” was born in Paris. Her mother abandoned her when she was an infant and she was raised by her father and a stern grandmother. As a child, she wandered the streets of Paris and discovered a world of architecture, parks, and food.
“I was a very lonely kid growing up in a very big city,” she says. “So, when you don’t have anybody and you live in Paris, you walk incessantly. And you look at stuff, you follow your own intuition.”
The young explorer observed what her family could and could not afford, and she was very interested to see what other people were eating. She would taste the free bites of food handed out by vendors, noticing the textures of a pâté or a pastry, for example. She also began paying attention to how different foods made her feel — excited, warm, sensual. These emotions come back to her still today when she writes about dining.
She continued her explorations and moved to Munich, Germany, in her 20s and then later to New York City. She eventually settled in Atlanta where her husband attended Emory Law School. In the early 1980s, she helped found Knife and Fork, the premier guide to local restaurants that was mailed to subscribers.
The popular newsletter is currently on hiatus after nearly 40 years. In Knife and Fork’s heyday not too long ago, however, it caught the attention of Jeff Bezos who advertised subscriptions to the newsletter on Amazon. He didn’t ask Lauterbach before doing so and didn’t have copies of Knife and Fork. Lauterbach angrily sent him a letter demanding he take her product off his website. He did.
“He listed it for so much more money than it really is,” she says, anger in her voice. And she adds, only half-joking. “It is worth living long enough to see him die.”
Although she has lived in Atlanta since the 1970s, Lauterbach identifies solidly as a Parisian.
“There’s many, many cultural differences between Americans in general, but of course between Southerners and where I come from, where we are the world champion of pessimism,” she says. “I’m an admirer of many things about the South but I still feel like I’m an odd duck at times.”
People here are mostly shocked by criticisms of anything, including some of her negative reviews of restaurants. She’s received death threats. But Lauterbach cannot write what years of experience in the global food scene has taught her.
“I can’t lie. I don’t lie,” she says.
“I don’t think there’s anybody who does what I do,” she says. “I have eaten more meals at more restaurants than anyone in Atlanta. The main concern nowadays has been the lack of opinion journalists — that nobody expresses strong opinion. It’s all descriptive.”
In the past several years, only two restaurants stand out to Lauterbach for their fine dining experiences: Lazy Betty in Candler Park; and Japanese restaurant Mujo in West Midtown, where she said she had her best meal in 20 years.
One of the terrible things about being a food critic, she says, is being only interested in the extremes. If a meal is very bad, food critics can have fun writing about the disaster. Peak experiences at a restaurant also help words flow.
“What’s happened in the middle is not all that fascinating to us,” she says.
“But I have to remind myself all the time that it is people’s real lives. I think whatever your critics or your customers say, it doesn’t matter all that much in terms of economics,” she says.
There are plenty of bad but incredibly successful restaurants there are many very good but not as successful restaurants, she says.
“Whatever my influence is … I say to the restauranteurs it is best to listen to your cash register.
“But I guess I am addicted to knowledge and to mastery,” she says. “Mastery is important. … I want people to know I am still looking out for their best interest.”