Over the weekend, when the New Yorker published its profile of Pete Wells, the feared and enigmatic restaurant critic at the New York Times, the expectation was that the article would pull back the curtain on a writer who, despite his fame, has been able to operate anonymously for much of his career.
And while readers were given a glimpse into the inner-workings of Wells' mind (this guy is really into Señor Frog's and Hawaiian shirts....) the piece provided an even rarer look at how some of the country's most revered chefs cope with the devastation of a bad review. For David Chang, whose Momofuku Nishi received just one star from Wells earlier this year, the response was visceral and profanity laden, with the chef calling the critic a "fucking bully" and promising he'd get "so fucking angry" he'd die if he ever had to read the review again.
Well, now you can add Thomas Keller, the renowned owner of Per Se and the French Laundry, to the list of great chefs Pete Wells has tortured. In one of his most famous reviews—eclipsed only by a list of scathing, rhetorical questions aimed at Guy Fieri—Wells downgraded Per Se from four stars to just two.
"With each fresh review, a restaurant has to earn its stars again," he wrote, before noting that the restaurant’s soup had a quality similar to bong water. "In it's current form and at it's current price, Per Se struggled and failed to do this, ranging from respectably dull at best to disappointingly flat-footed at worst."
And while we are often tempted to think of chefs as black holes of emotion, caring only for their food and telling the critics to go to hell, in an interview with Town & Country this week, Keller admitted for the first time just how wounded he was by Wells' words.
"Everyone around me was freaking out." Keller says in just the first line of the story. "Everybody was expecting an immediate response, because that's the world we live in. It was devastating."
Still, it sounds like Wells’ review may have done some good. Per Se’s chef de cuisine called the experience a “kick in the teeth,” and Keller concedes that the restaurant might have become complacent in its success. He doesn’t believe Wells was “out for blood.”
"[A]s long as Pete Wells is the New York Times critic, I doubt he is going to come back," Keller told his staff, according to Town & Country. "Our goal is for every [guest] to walk out the door and say, 'What the hell was he talking about?'"
[via Town & Country]