‘Xpress’ food writer moves on to make her own menu

Mackensy Lunsford and Picky Companion

Mackensy Lunsford is sitting on a barstool at the Usual Suspects in Asheville, a fan-like set of paper paint-color samples in her hands. “I’m so excited,” exclaims the woman who has written Mountain Xpress‘s food reviews for the past year and a half. “Look at this one,” she says, pointing out the color she’ll be using in her very own restaurant.

Slated to open “soon,” Café Azalea will fulfill a long-time dream of both Lunsford and her husband, local chef Judd Lohof. Located in the Four Seasons Plaza at 1011 Tunnel Road, the eatery will offer breakfast and lunch at the outset, then likely will add dinner service at some point. It will feature a coffee bar, and both table and to-go service. The food will be “healthy, wholesome” and “slightly upscale,” Lunsford says.

And while it’s good news that Asheville’s getting another new restaurant, the development leaves some of us at Xpress a little teary, since Lunsford’s new role as restaurant owner means that she’ll no longer be reviewing restaurants for this newspaper. Not to worry, though – she’ll still write about food topics from time to time, and stepping in to fill her shoes on the food-review beat is veteran Xpress contributor Hanna Rachel Raskin.

Lunsford’s left quite a legacy at this newspaper, where she launched “The Straight Dish” review column in early 2005. At the time, some readers were delighted to see regular restaurant critiques, but others insisted it was a bad move – that Asheville wasn’t “ready” for the kind of commentary and criticism a foodie like Lunsford brought to the table.

Still, she plugged away, filing columns week after week and telling us exactly what she thought about the quality of the cuisine, service and ambiance in establishments ranging from hole-in-the-wall diners to the classiest of local joints. Along the way, Lunsford built a passionate readership – which, judging from the feedback she and the newspaper received, was composed of something like equal parts fans and detractors. Either way, they were reading. What’s more, this year Lunsford won national recognition for her column, winning an award for the second-best food writing from the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies.

There was a downside, she notes. “The trickiest thing was trying not to offend people while still finding flaws,” she says. “There’s an egotism to the restaurant business that can be a detriment to the growth of the business. If you’re in the service industry, listening to what people have to say – whether they’re a restaurant critic or a customer – you really ought to listen to them. And I plan to do that myself. I hope that that’s what I brought from the whole writing experience – that I can take criticism with an open mind and not get upset or angry. How can I take that information and grow? How can I serve people better?”

Lohof – who, it can now be revealed, was the “Picky Companion” often cited in Lunsford’s articles – says he’s learned from the experience too. “Being the Picky Companion puts me in a position where I have to be pickier, standing there behind the stove.”

So, on behalf of Mountain Xpress: Thanks, Mackensy and Judd, for sharing so much food attitude.

About Jon Elliston
An Asheville-based mountain journalist: Former Mountain Xpress managing editor. Investigations and open government editor at Carolina Public Press. Senior contributing editor at WNC magazine.

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