Saturday, November 17, 2012
Restaurant reviewer Dolores Kostelni was known for tact and taste
The Roanoke Times writer died after an accident.
Courtesy of the Kostelni family
Food writer Lindsey Nair
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In restaurants, Dolores Kostelni was always somebody else.
Whether she made reservations under the fictitious name of Colette Wakefield, used a credit card stamped with her daughter's married name, or admonished her husband to not call her "Dolores," it was done to protect her anonymity as a restaurant reviewer.
On Friday, I learned Dolores is gone.
After a doctor's appointment in Charlottesville on Tuesday, she decided to take a walk, one of her favorite pastimes. She was struck by a van at the corner of East Rio Road and Putt Putt Place, and died of her injuries on Thursday evening. She was 75.
According to The (Charlottesville) Daily Progress, the van driver, Wayne David Craft of Keene, was charged with failure to yield to a pedestrian.
If anything positive can result from this tragedy, it is that I am finally able to share with readers the real Dolores — the mother, the student, the cookbook author and the woman who reviewed hundreds of restaurants for The Roanoke Times over a 23-year span, agonizing over the accuracy and fairness of each and every article.
A busy life
Dolores Surmonte was born in Nunley, N.J., and studied English at Fairleigh Dickinson University. When she flooded the carburetor on her new 1957 Plymouth on campus one day, a student named Jim Kostelni stopped to help.
"We dated for three years," he said, then "I dialed her on a Saturday and said, 'Dolores, would you like to get married?' She said, 'I'd love to. Who is this?'"
That sharp sense of humor surely helped as the energetic, petite woman went on to raise four sons and one daughter while her husband traveled the world on business.
"She was such an inspiration to me as a mom," said her daughter, Natalie Kostelni McGrory. "She never lost her temper. She was so patient. She might get disappointed, but she never put you on a guilt trip."
Raising a large family would have been enough for some women in that era, but Dolores also wanted a career.
For a short time, she taught English at what was then Southern Seminary Junior College in Buena Vista. But it was food that really interested her, so over the next few years she took culinary courses at The Greenbrier resort in West Virginia, Le Cordon Bleu in London, Ecole de Cuisine La Varenne in Paris, and L'Academie de Cuisine in Maryland.
In 1979, Dolores started writing a column called "The Happy Cook" for The News-Gazette in Lexington, where she and Jim had made their home. Not long after, she started The Happy Cooking School and taught classes at Christ Episcopal Church in Roanoke and in her own kitchen.
Over the years she also authored four cookbooks, "The Potluck Cookbook," "Cookies by the Dozen," "51 Fast & Fun Packaged Dough Recipes," and "51 Fast & Fun Slow Cooker Recipes."
In 1989, Dolores wrote her first restaurant review for The Roanoke Times. It was about Shaker's at Valley View Mall, where she found it "as easy to enjoy a filling meal on a budget of $10 as it is to feast like a king, with cocktails and wine, for $30."
A careful critic
Those who worked with Dolores at this newspaper found that she was just as eager to review a fine dining restaurant as she was a blue-collar place.
In 1997, she brought her calm sense of professionalism to a review of Hooters.
"I've been to Hooters and back," she wrote. "I kid you not. I've made two trips and I'm here to tell you all about it. My assignment was to review the food, and not too much of anything else ... Of course, we all know what the Hooters name implies and I must admit that the moving scenery may make your eyes open as big as an owl's from time to time."
As her editor, I know Dolores took her job very seriously. She usually visited restaurants more times than we required and routinely turned in her reviews far before deadline even though, according to her daughter, she wrote and rewrote them several times.
"When she would have a restaurant where the food was bad, the restroom was filthy and the wait staff was surly, it pained her to have to write about it," McGrory said. "We would talk about ways to get the message across without making it sound too harsh, but she always knew if she wasn't honest, she would lose credibility."
Dolores was keenly aware of the weight her reviews carried, which is why she chose every word carefully and called chefs before the reviews were printed. She felt it was her responsibility to be truthful because it would give the restaurateurs an opportunity to improve.
Her last review, of The River and Rail in south Roanoke, was published on Nov. 1.
"The role of restaurant critic carries great responsibility, because a critic can make or break restaurants," said Debbie Meade, president and publisher of The Roanoke Times. "Dolores approached her craft with meticulousness, taking care in every review to balance her criticism with praise. Because of that, she was our most trusted restaurant critic. She will be remembered for her superb writing, her vast knowledge of food, and for the extra lengths she went to always to be fair."
A public legacy
When she wasn't writing about restaurants, of course, Dolores loved to cook. Her husband of 53 years said it was not uncommon for her to spend three days preparing for one big family meal with their five kids and eight grandchildren. She no doubt was already planning what she would be serving this holiday season.
As word of Dolores' death spread Friday, it was met with great sadness. But details of her life evoked a sense of wonderment among people who had been reading her reviews for years but never knew what she looked like, how old she was or what she had accomplished.
It turns out that no matter how fiercely Dolores protected her identity for professional reasons, she still left behind a very public legacy. We will remember her as the bighearted "Happy Cook" who never lost her appetite for learning — or teaching — about the joy of food.