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Fond farewell

Bill Addison takes on San Francisco

How many people do you know who can write a sentence like the following?

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"The first encounter bewitched me. The breading over the beef paralleled buried memories. I'd forgotten that odd, toothy-yet-soggy amalgam of textures that makes country-fried steak so ... irrefutable."

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That's Bill Addison writing a few weeks back in his review of Restaurant Eugene. Bill recently packed up his collection of adjectives, his fork and his pen and set out for San Francisco. He's going to become the junior dining critic at the San Francisco Chronicle.

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I'm going to miss Bill terribly. His unabashed use of adjectives has always delighted me, in large part because it's not in my nature to use them much. In journalism school, I was taught to avoid them and during the years I edited magazines and newspapers, I enraged many writers by deleting them with almost sadistic zeal.

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I was taught instead to communicate sensation through verbs. Well, that makes sense when you're writing narrative journalism (which is actually my orientation), but it makes much less sense when you're making aesthetic valuations. Imagine Proust trying to describe madeleines with verbs only.

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In the sentence quoted here, Bill is in fact being very Proustian in allowing the food to trigger memory, then heaping on the precise adjectival description that leads (after momentary breathlessness signified by the ellipsis) to an unexpected assessment: "irrefutable." It is what it is. My God, he's anticipated Sartre!

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Meanwhile, I'm content to say the country-fried steak was chewy and tasty and riff about a total irrelevancy.

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Bill was the best dining critic to work in this city in memory. I take some credit for his success. I met him four years ago at Starbucks where he was sitting at a table surrounded by books about dining. I introduced myself and he explained that he was taking an online food writing class. I told him that our lead critic of the time, Elliot Mackle, was leaving and we were looking for someone to replace him.

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He wrote a few sample columns and was quickly hired by Jane Catoe, the section editor. His work got better and better with each column as he grew more comfortable with imbuing his work with his personality. After a year, Jane left the paper and Bill became food editor.

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He was amazingly prolific and devoted. Indeed, his tour of great Southern restaurants last year has been nominated for a prestigious James Beard Award, and he has won several top awards from the Association of Food Journalists.

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He lasted three years as editor — about two years longer than I expected. One thing about Bill: He never hid his ambition and was clear that he was passing through town on his way to Ruth Reichl's job. His is not heartless ambition. The man is completely passionate about food and his work. As he told me over lunch at Watershed last week, he thinks of himself as an artist first and a journalist second. That's partly because his first love is singing. "I didn't get to make a career out of music but how many people even get to make one out of the thing they love second-most?" he asked.

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I was quite moved by that statement. Bill is only 33 — just 29 when he became our critic — and you don't hear such sentiments from the young much anymore. To be driven by passion instead of the security that drives most career-minded people is the true mark of an artist. And when Bill felt he'd done all he could do at Creative Loafing, he quit with no job to go to, even though he says his dream has always been to be a "solvent artist."

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He had several prospects when he quit, but nothing definite. He went off for a weeklong meditation and writing workshop with Natalie Goldberg in Santa Fe, N.M., heard he didn't get the job in San Francisco, got a bit depressed, then learned he'd gotten it after all, and now he's on a two-week road trip across the country to his new home.

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I asked him for his parting assessment of Atlanta's dining scene. "Adolescent," he said, quickly clarifying that he didn't mean that in an insulting way. (He's the son of a politician.) "I mean that as the city prospers and becomes invested in good restaurants, it remains more interested in the scene, the energy of the restaurant, than the food. Restaurants like Shout and Two Urban Licks are packed while those with much better food, but less scene, don't do as well."

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Restaurants he says he will particularly miss include Aria, Floataway Cafe, Greenwood's, Swallow at the Hollow, the Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton Buckhead, and Watershed.

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"I'll particularly miss Watershed," he said, "because Scott Peacock is the only chef in this city who treats Southern cooking respectfully. During my four years at Creative Loafing, this has been the thing I've found most interesting and frustrating. The South has the nation's only truly indigenous cuisine — I've really enjoyed learning about it, studying it — and yet it's just about totally unappreciated here. I hope the culinary community catches on at some point, before it goes completely extinct in Atlanta."

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He said he intends, once he's settled in San Francisco, to host a monthly dinner featuring Southern cuisine. "I want to do my part to keep it alive," he said. "I'm looking forward to demystifying California cuisine for myself in this new job, but I want to communicate some of what I've learned, too." He will be specializing in ethnic dining but also writing about food generally, not just restaurants.

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I suspect within a few years, Bill will be one of the leading voices in American culinary writing. You're invited to stay in touch. He welcomes mail from readers at baddison@sfchronicle.com.



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