"I don't know Pete but he is now inextricably linked to Locol forever," wrote chef Roy Choi in an emotionally raw Instagram post last week. The Kogi founder was calling out Mr. Wells, the New York Times food critic, whose recent zero-star review of Choi's and Daniel Patterson's Locol enterprise in Oakland incited a backlash about the moral hazards of restaurant criticism.
Portrayed as the "People's Critic," Wells is no stranger to controversy. His satirical review of Guy Fieri's restaurant in Times Square went viral five years ago, spawning a sea of think-pieces about whether it was worthy of Times column space. Earlier last year, he stripped Per Se of its four stars, shaking the hallowed ground of fine dining. But the outrage directed at his most recent review is hitting a decidedly different nerve.
The controversy has much to do with the roots of Locol, which was inspired by a lecture Choi delivered at the prestigious MAD Symposium in Copenhagen. Addressing an audience of some of the world's top chefs, he asked a simple question—do we have the guts to feed delicious food to people who need it most? With the help of Patterson, he launched Locol, whose aims were ambitious from the get-go: to create healthful fast-food in underserved communities at competitive prices.
Many people saw Wells' review as undermining this noble message. But in a broader context, the piece reinforced an all too familiar theme—the contentious relationship consumers and chefs have with critics, and what role the latter should play. Locol's culinary shortcomings raised all sorts of ethical questions—about whether certain restaurants are off limits, whether its activist bent should protect it from scrutiny, and whether our current system of criticism can handle the nuance of what exists beyond the plate.
Divisions were immediately drawn. The L.A. Times ran an op-ed piece titled "The New York Times taking down LocoL was like booing at an elementary school musical." Others saw it as a moment to reflect on why critics need to be skeptical of everyone, regardless of how much praise they've received in the past. And for some, Wells' words seemed to pose a very real threat to the future of culinary justice and ethical fast-food.
With the dust having settled, we called upon several food writers to weigh in on the controversy surrounding Wells' review. Here, John Birdsall, Michael Twitty, and Joshua David Stein examine the flaws and enduring strengths of restaurant criticism, and what kinds of historical precedents we can call upon to offer perspective.
John Birdsall, Oakland-based food writer
I believe in restaurant criticism as a form with the power to educate, to draw readers out of themselves—revealing worlds they might not visit in the physical realm, but ones they should probably know about anyway. That’s why I love reading Pete Wells. He grounds his reviews in topics that matter, and I don’t mean matter like, "Three-ingredient cocktails are totally a trend this year!" or, "Holy crap, some chef just put Gowanus on the map!" In reviews of restaurants I probably will never go to, Wells has taught me things—like restaurants’ role in pushing back on urban erasure, the cynicism driving popular food media, and the arrogance that builds up in some great kitchens like plaque on a tooth’s buccal. I read Wells like I read creative nonfiction. He has the power of a good reporter.
Wells’ review of Locol in Oakland, my city, made me admire his courage. In 60 years of serious American restaurant criticism, there have been only a few times when reviewers took unpopular stands. In 1969 at New York magazine, Gael Greene lobbed silver chargers against the patriarchy of the Claiborne era; in 1973 at the Times, John L. Hess struck down with vengeance and furious anger the bosses of New York’s gourmet oligarchy. Looking back, it seems easy to call out pretension and overpriced Wellingtons. It’s harder to speak the truth about chefs fighting poverty and racism and everything fucked up about fast food.
The thing about Locol, though, is that it isn’t Alice Waters’ Edible Schoolyard; it’s not a nonprofit. It’s a for-profit venture that, for as many good things it seeks to accomplish—the positives it's already achieved—it has to survive as a chain of restaurants, places where we all willingly choose to eat, for altruism, maybe, but ultimately for food and service. Jonathan Gold isn’t the only one saying, or implying, that Locol is unreviewable because of its ideals. Chef Edward Lee wrote on Instagram that Wells was guilty of putting “an antiquated template”—a starred review—“on top of a fresh new idea.” Restaurants stay in business because customers show up to buy food, because it tastes good, which is pretty much the least fresh idea about a restaurant, and also the thing that makes them bloom.
Gold said Wells was “ungenerous,” but he didn’t say to whom. To the readers of the Times? To Roy Choi and Daniel Patterson? To Locol’s employees? If the food isn’t good enough for customers to line up (and, to be honest, I’ve had better food at Locol than Wells described), it wasn’t a review that served them badly. On the day the review dropped, Wells tweeted, "Our culture overvalues cynicism, undervalues skepticism, and is vague about the difference." Wells walked into Locol not a cynic but a skeptic—just like a good reporter.
Michael Twitty, culinary historian, food activist
Those interested in social justice in food are finding out who their friends are. Wells commentary, which everyone agrees he has a right to, doesn't privilege food justice as an ingredient the same way others don't give weight to history or cultural repatriation when assessing the importance of my work. At the same time, who in Oakland is Wells speaking to? Who in that community did he share his meal with? What happens when it's all or only about the food? Food is not an idol. Food is a vehicle of survival to maintain our humanity.
This brings me back to my original point. Unfortunately "social justice" has become as detestable as "affirmative action." The word "bubble" has been cast on those who don't want to live in chains, and to be fair, those who are clueless that they do. "Food justice" and "culinary justice" are in for a test. This review is clear: Your message and your meaning and your morals aren't enough. We cannot allow that to be the new norm. Otherwise we're all dining with Gordon Gecko and Patrick Bateman.
Joshua David Stein, Tasting Table editor-at-large, former food critic
At some point, a critic needs to move beyond the idea of pleasure and look at the morality of the enterprise, and have that be part of the conversation as well. As far as criticism goes, I'm on the end of the spectrum of including overall morality and ethics—where a restaurant fits into society—in the review. Restaurant reviews are the sheep's clothing to discuss bigger topics, like gentrification and income inequality.
As far as this pertains to Locol, it's within Wells' rights to say the food wasn't particularly good. He’s critiquing the idea and concept as much as the execution, and that’s totally within his right to do. Holding the food to a lower standard would be more offensive. Just because Locol is directed at low-income communities, the food doesn't have to be delicious?
The more universal nerve being touched is the idea that if something is noble, it's unkind to criticize it. I fundamentally do not agree with this. How does something good get better? Locol is a great idea, and if the food is not on par, it needs to become great in order to be a successful enterprise. Protecting it from criticism is not helpful to anyone. Generally you try to review a restaurant two ways: against its own terms—how it lives up to stated aim—and how you feel about its stated aim regardless of the execution.