It’s 7 p.m. on a Saturday night, Memorial Day weekend 2012, and I’m up to my elbows in tickets (orders) and food. A new line cook and I battle away at a full house. The room is buzzing with the anticipation of summer when I see my cell phone flashing again and again. It’s Saturday night and I never answer calls, but this one is from my husband, who, as a former chef, would never interrupt service unless it were really important.

I pick up the call to find that my daughter, who was 2 at the time, has bounced off our couch at home and cracked the back of her skull open on our coffee table. My husband tells me he is covered in her blood and she is covered in her blood and the couch is covered in her blood. It’s the most horrifying moment in my life and, as a new mother, I can’t believe I’m 40 minutes away from them, standing in a restaurant kitchen making a Brussels sprout salad.

Bresca was a tiny restaurant with 18 seats. With a new cook on his first Saturday night, I faced the most conflicted decision in my life. Wrenching as it was, I decided to stay put and finish service as best as I could while staying on the phone with my husband as they waited for the ambulance and then made the seemingly endless 45-minute trip to Mercy Hospital in Portland from our home in New Gloucester. I stayed on the phone as the doctors examined my little girl and then as they plugged staples into her scalp to seal the wound.

You are probably asking what this has to do with restaurant critics and stars. My daughter was fine after that evening, but a few days later I received a message that the Portland Press Herald had called to get information on a few dishes and our contact information updated. Every chef in the business knows that such a call is an alert that you have been reviewed. As it turned out, the reviewer was in the restaurant on Saturday night just when I got the phone call about my daughter.

I have never known when a reviewer was in the restaurant at Bresca, and I am thankful for that. It meant that we were assessed based on that night, those dishes and our merits. The review Bresca received was thoughtful and complimentary; we got 41/2 (out of a possible five) stars, which is between “Excellent” and “Extraordinary,” according to the paper’s system. A great rating. But the review mentioned that the Brussels sprout salad the reviewer had so often heard about lacked seasoning, possibly what knocked us down half a star from our five-star rating of five years before. Yes, the salad that was made and plated while I was on the phone with my husband went right to the critic.

Looking back, there was nothing I could do but press on. What the review did for us that summer was keep us booked into October and beyond. For that I am grateful. That said, the application of stars has been a hotly discussed topic, as much for the ones who dole them out as for the chef and owners. Stars measure a moment in time and the perspective of one individual, an idea that can be as big as the cosmos and all the particles it contains. The human need to quantify everything around us is, I believe, a way to feel in control of the unrelenting expansion of technology and our own place in the universe. But do stars really make or break a restaurant? Yes and no.


On the positive side, stars can fill seats, and they give a measure that lets chefs place their restaurant against others in their genre. A lukewarm review may not affect an already busy and popular restaurant. In this business, we all know the restaurants that meander up and down the scale of consistency and quality, yet remain popular regardless of a critic’s awarding (or withholding) of stars. This is an enigma of the restaurant world and shows why stars do not always tell the whole story.

In May 2013, I decided to close Bresca and focus on family and a new venture, Bresca & the Honey Bee at Sabbathday Lake in New Gloucester. I said goodbye to the very long days of organizing the one million details that go into fine dining and the pressures of nightly cooking on the line (restaurant lingo for prepping and cooking at a set station, say grill or sauté). I felt sad but also somewhat relieved that I could turn my attention toward the outdoors and to rebuilding this historic property, developing a summer snack shack that serves casual food made from local and seasonal ingredients. I wanted a place where adults and children, who are so often excluded from the world of fine dining, would be welcomed, where their laughter would replace the deafening hush of haute cuisine.

Fast forward to the summer of 2014. On a muggy July afternoon, I am approached by a woman with a genuine and sunny smile who informs me that the Press Herald has just reviewed us. “Why?” I think to myself. I am cooking in a shack on the edge of a lake over a wood fire with no dining room, no servers, nothing other than paper plates and plastic cutlery. Who will you measure us against? Are there other shacks and other chefs doing this?

A few weeks passed. One cool gray, drizzly Sunday morning, I gathered my staff round and we read the review in the Maine Sunday Telegram. Four stars and another very complimentary write-up, but a mention of an overdressed salad. Ah, a salad again. A new cook again. It seems that whenever I need to train a new cook and try to let that person build confidence by cooking on his or her own, that’s the very moment when I will be reviewed. The universe seems to have a good sense of humor.

But the review also reminded me that perfection is in the eyes of the beholder, that the application of stars and the conversation about salad can never really give readers the feeling of what a place is. Bresca & the Honey Bee was packed for the remainder of the summer, and we sold much more food than I had ever imagined, so again, a good review brought customers.

But for me, the question remains: Do stars really matter? Should they be applied to a place that is unlike any other? And I guess that goes for all restaurants, as each one is a place unto itself, defined by the cooks, waiters, dishwashers and other staff who put it together every day and break it down every night.


I’m not sure I know the answer for a better way to measure a reviewer’s experience. But I do think that a well-written account of a meal – or two or three – and a desire to look beyond the plate and into the “soul” of each business could provide depth that is so often missing in food journalism. I’m told that stars are meant to be a short summation, a quick reference point for readers who are in a hurry. But why give readers the chance to miss out on a write-up that reflects more deeply on the experience of the restaurant?

By the “soul” of a restaurant, by the way, I mean the energy of the space and the feeling created by the interplay of the food, service and decor. Actually, in the case of Bresca & the Honeybee, the location is as important as the food, if not more. It sits on the edge of Sabbathday Lake in a small building out of which food has been sold for nearly 100 years. Generations of children, and their parents, and grandparents have come here. The land is owned by the Shakers, part of a land trust that does not allow development. As the owner of my little beach business and shack, I will be there for as long as I have the energy. But the soul of this place will go on long after my strawberry ice cream and HoneyBee burger have faded in the haze of summers past.

Food is visceral and provokes feeling, and feelings create memories. How can you apply stars to a feeling? You cannot. As I sit writing this, I am weighing the pros and cons of opening another restaurant and again having to face critics bestowing stars. I think back to last summer and recall standing on the lake shore with my now 4-year-old daughter, holding her hand and watching her wide, lovely eyes lift up to the night sky as she tells me that stars were given to us by the universe.

I wonder for a moment – maybe this is where the stars should stay.

Krista Kern Desjarlais is the former chef/owner of Bresca in Portland, a James Beard Award finalist, and the owner of Bresca & the Honeybee. She is considering opening a new restaurant.

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