(Don’t) Fear the Critic
BY: Amanda Lamperti AOS Culinary
Food writer turned restaurant critic Pete Wells of the New York Times earned his respect from people both heavily involved in the New York City food world as well as followers of his work throughout the country. Readers of the Times often resort to Wells as the go-to guru of all things to know in the NYC food scene when searching for the right restaurant to make reservations for a Saturday night dinner. The attraction to these artfully crafted words of wisdom published weekly from Wells can come from the curiosity of seeing which restaurants are rising above the rest, and it is arguable that some readers simply wish to have their appetite satiated by his raw display of sarcasm. Nevertheless, it is agreed that Wells holds the talent of “telling it like it is” while keeping his reviews both constructive for the restaurant and entertaining for the readers – and people love it. This is not something that is easy to do, which is why Wells is the perfect guy for the job. Chefs are intimidated by him, restauranteurs try too hard to please him, and waiters run the other way when they see him sitting in the dining room. But why? He is just an average guy with a normal opinion, but has the power to use that opinion to make or break a restaurant. So yes, he kind of is a big deal, but the way people who are affected by food critics in general view them as tyrannical, aggressive, and just plain mean. This one person can put a lot of stress on a lot of people, but if these people took the time to understand the logic of Pete Wells and others in the business, they might change their minds.
To start off, Mr. Wells is strictly a writer; and a fair one at that. In a recent phone interview with La Papillote he explains, “I got into this to write. I started off as a writer, then the food kind of came later.” Wells worked his way up in the columns of the New York Times and started to write about food, which obviously fared well for him. He now has what any student at the CIA would consider a dream job, eating his way through NYC, all on someone else’s dime. He goes into restaurants as a reporter and writes about his experience, with no favoritism or other opinions in his head. He continues saying, “I think people imagine that a food critic is supposed to be sitting there looking for faults, and you do see them, but what you’re really trying to do is experience the restaurant. Whatever experience they’re offering, you’re trying to have it.” No pre-judgements, no early predicaments on his part. “I don’t read other people’s reviews. I don’t even read that much of the publicity, or sort of pre-opening criticism. Sometimes I go into these places knowing nothing.” Going into each and every restaurant with a clean slate and open mind means that anything can either charm Wells into writing a blissful article of praise or a rather bitter review full of more sarcasm than usual.
And as far as Wells’ relationships with the chefs, no bribery or favoritism is allowed. When he writes an article that does not go over so well with the chefs, he stays calm to explain the backlash he receives from his merely honest report of their restaurant. Wells says, “There aren’t many chefs in New York City who I would consider a ‘buddy’… Sometimes chefs will write back whether it is a good review or a bad review. The worst that will happen to me is that chefs will lash out at me in public, but that’s really rare. But I don’t mind if they do that. [One restauranteur wrote to me] saying that I shouldn’t be doing my job and the Times was making a mistake by employing me.” Chefs will be some of the most fiery and passionate people you will ever meet, and Wells’ calm personality and ‘cut to the chase’ take on his influential job is a balancing act in the restaurant industry. He proves to be the less selfish and attention-focused partner in this duo of food critics and the emotional chefs of New York City. But what irritates Wells are the self-centered chefs that use the dining room as a stage and the guests an audience to fuel their ego. “There are these restaurants where the chef is taking himself or herself so seriously and they forget that people aren’t just sitting there to applaud you all night. They want the show to be all about them, and it shouldn’t be that way.”
But no matter what the cuisine, starred ranking, or generalized fame a restaurant holds that Wells is reviewing, he extends that the most important factor is that they deliver what they promise to their guests. Wells reviewed Senor Frogs, a not so high-class restaurant- chain bar located near Times Square and they received a great review… and they do not even have a chef to run the place. How in the world did that happen? According to Wells, his logic on judging these two extremes is quite simple. “A lot of it has to do with what the restaurant is promising you and what they deliver. Senor Frogs wasn’t really promising that much on the storefront, you know.” Wells laughs. “It wasn’t saying it was this new interpretation of, I don’t even know what it would be, Spring Break Cuisine? They were promising the drinks would be large, and they were. And that there would be wild, weird entertainment, and there was. For what they set out to do, they did it.”
When recalling the fame Per Se’s article retained, he says “I knew it was going to be talked about a lot in the restaurant business and at your school. People who are following the industry were going to be intensely interested in that. But what I did not know was that it was going to be read by so many people who don’t really follow restaurants and had no intention of eating at Per Se. It took off in this scale that I wasn’t predicting.” When discussing the remarks of his reviews in general, he says, “It’s nice to be read. I don’t really enjoy a backlash at all. When it’s a negative review, it makes me a little bit uncomfortable when people are cheering. It’s negative, but it’s not being cheered at the restaurant, for sure. In the restaurant, I see people’s faces where I don’t want to see people laughing at them. And I write to make people laugh, so go figure.”
So if there is one thing that must be done to impress Pete Wells, it is complete honesty and sense of realness in every aspect of the restaurant. That does not sound so mean coming from someone dubbed “America’s most dangerous restaurant critic.” To further his defense, when asked whether Wells preferred to construct his insults while writing his articles or if they were spur of the moment during his meal, he could not quite decide. “Sometimes there are things I think while I am eating, sometimes it’s things I think of when I’m sitting down taking my notes. It’s kind of better if it happens at the spur of the moment. It’s fresher, and it could be more accurate.
And do not think that Wells enjoys special treatment because of his title. The need to ensure everything for Mr. Wells is absolutely perfect at all times is unrealistic, and he is certainly aware of it. “There is refilling the water glass at the table every time someone takes a sip. They just must not realize how irritating that is. It’s distracting; every time you pick up your water glass, it doesn’t need to be refilled if it’s just gone down one eighth of an inch. But [as a reporter] you also have to pay attention to how everyone else is eating. Just looking around the room, how other tables are being treated.”
Wells finishes off by saying, “I’m not writing them a report card. I’m not writing them to give them a sense of how to improve their business. I’m really writing for the reader.” Nothing that Wells says is meant by any tyrannical, aggressive, or just plain mean things people assume are his intentions. He laughs, saying, “Well, there’s the job and then there’s the person. And it’s never been personal for me, and I think it’s hard sometimes for chefs to realize that. It’s personal for them.”