Though the public has come to trust the news media less and less with each passing year, the restaurant critic still wields a remarkable amount of power in 2016. With just a few simple words, the right critic can either propel a chef to fame and fortune, or condemn a restaurant to certain death. And while business of restaurant reviews has changed drastically since 1962, when Craig Claiborne became the first writer to regularly judge the merits and faults of meal for the New York Times, few critics today are more accurately aware of the power they hold than the paper's current critic, Pete Wells.
To those who live outside the somewhat insular world of food-media, Wells is best known for penning a scathing, viral review of Guy Fieri's eponymous restaurant/tourist attraction in Times Square, and for downgrading Thomas Keller's Per Se from four stars to just two.
Like most restaurant critics, Wells operates under a veil of anonymity (though there are some caveats to this), and rarely gives interviews. Earlier this year, Thrillist published a "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold"-style article on Wells, which he declined to be interviewed for. But now, offering a rare glimpse into the clandestine workings behind some of New York's most earth-shaking reviews, the New Yorker's Ian Parker has published a lengthy, in-depth profile of the critic.
From Wells' undying love of Señor Frogs, to the anguished that gripped David Chang following the Times' review of Momofuku Nishi, here are the five biggest takeaways from "Pete Wells Has His Knives Out."
1. There’s only one photo of Wells available online, and David Chang has it hanging in his restaurant.
“Momofuku Nishi was the company’s first full-scale, sit-down restaurant to open in New York in five years. A visit from Wells was a certainty,” Parker writes in the piece. “A copy of the one photograph of him that is widely available online, in which he looks like a character actor available to play sardonic police sergeants, was fixed to a wall in the restaurant’s back stairwell. Chang recently told me that, despite the profusion of opinion online, he still thought of the Times as the ‘judge and jury’ of a new venture, if not the executioner.”
2. Wells’ Guy Fieri review marked a turning point for the New York Times.
“After the success of the review, Wells said, ‘people said that the Times had lost its virginity,’” Parker writes. “In other words, that the paper, having discovered the secret of viral success, would scramble to replicate it. One could argue that this has happened, with reference, say, to such articles as ‘How to Train Like the Mountain from Game of Thrones.”
In another sign of the changing times, the Gray Lady will also start having Wells review restaurants outside of New York City, beginning with Cassia in Santa Monica, California.
3. Wells really, really loves Señor Frogs.
“In the days after Wells and [Extra Crispy’s Kat Kinsman] ate at Señor Frog’s, they exchanged texts that, in Wells’s description, asked, “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?”
Wells also brought Jason Biggs along for the ride, and mourned the restaurant’s closing on social media.
4. Wells once wore a mask and cape to perform his Guy Fieri review.
“Wearing a highwayman’s mask, and billed only as the Masked Avenger, he walked onstage, read the Fieri review to a live piano accompaniment, then walked off,” Parker writes. “Although the article was relevant to the event’s theme—Southern food in popular culture—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.’”
5. Wells doesn’t care much for one-star reviews.
“No one likes one-star reviews,” he told the New Yorker. “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.”
“I’m looking for places that I can be enthusiastic about,” he added. “Like a golden retriever, I would like to drop a ball at the feet of the reader every week and say, ‘Here!’”
6. Chang was furious over the one-star review Wells gave Nishi.
“I can’t ever read that review again—I’ll get so fucking angry I’ll die,” Chang told the New Yorker. “I made a lot of that food! I tasted it! It was delicious. And . . . fuck! I believe in the fucking food we make in that restaurant, I believe it to be really delicious, I believe it to be innovative, in a non-masturbatory way.”
“He’s being a fucking bully,” he added.
7. Wells and Fieri might have more in common than we originally thought.
“According to [Kinsman,] who has known Wells since the late nineties, he is “never more relaxed than when he’s tending a grill and wearing a Hawaiian shirt and has some kind of rum-based drink,” Parker writes.
[via New Yorker]