The New Yorker unleashed a lengthy profile on Times critic Pete Wells on Monday, a monster of a piece that looks at how the critic approaches his reviews and how restaurants react to him. From how restaurant nerves translate to Wells’ service to why he only pans big restaurants, here are eight things we learned from the story by writer Ian Parker.
1) Wells regularly gets spotted at restaurants, and as a result, he often experiences a slower meal than other diners as the kitchen slaves over dishes more. But the restaurant can’t acknowledge that they know who he is, making for a "fourth wall" between nervous employees and Wells. At Nishi, the manager serving Wells and Parker ended up being intense and overeager — nearly explaining to Wells what a menu is.
2) He purposely writes fewer one-star reviews.
"The restaurants don’t like them, and the readers don’t like them. It’s very tricky to explain why this place is good enough to deserve a review but not quite good enough to get up to the next level." He added, "I’m looking for places that I can be enthusiastic about. Like a golden retriever, I would like to drop a ball at the feet of the reader every week and say, ‘Here!’"
He has the easiest time writing two-star reviews as a result, but chefs like Amanda Cohen from Dirt Candy say it leads to a bubble where two-stars doesn’t mean as much anymore.
3) The critic’s happy place involves wearing a Hawaiian shirt, a rum-based beverage, and grilling on the deck of his Clinton Hill brownstone apartment.
4) Pans are more difficult, and Wells prefers only to do them for restaurants with "pedigree or commercial might." "I shouldn’t be having to explain to people what the place is," he says. The result: Restaurants that exist as part of a group or larger corporation tend to take the brunt of the no-star reviews, while bad mom-and-pops don’t get reviewed at all.
5) Wells’ viral review of Guy Fieri’s American Kitchen and Bar helped make his mark, but the success of it didn’t always translate to real life readings. He apparently awkwardly read it to live piano music at a food conference, wearing a highyway man’s mask and a Gandalf robe. He was billed as (lol) "the Masked Avenger." "[One] member of the audience still found the performance a little unbecoming, ‘like a musician who had one hit and is singing it, a cappella, years later’," Parker writes.
6) "If you look at where the good food is in New York, it’s really in Manhattan and Queens," Wells says. "I’m sorry, other boroughs, I’m sorry."
7) Wells had been to Per Se before and enjoyed it but was not excited about writing the negative review after a bad experience. "I have a loaded gun, and I’m going to have to fire it, and I don’t want to," he says. It stressed him out, and in the interim, he went back to the now shuttered Señor Frogs, which he loved. He texted a friend at the time: "Is it possible to say with a straight face that Señor Frog’s is a better restaurant than Per Se? Can you get those words out without collapsing under your own idiocy?"
8) The critic’s negative review of Momofuku Nishi had a huge impact on both Momofuku Nishi’s business and David Chang personally. The chef and restaurateur told colleagues afterward "they were experiencing something akin to a diagnosis of terminal cancer." Chang was still reeling from it while talking to the New Yorker. He whined to Parker for ninety minutes about his anger and conspiracy theories and then later sent the writer a long email about the same topic. "He’s being a fucking bully," Chang says of the critic.