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Pete Wells, the reticent critic


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Ian Parker writes a very long and very entertaining profile on the New York Times Food critic Pete Wells. Since taking up his post in 2012, Wells has become the stuff of criticism legend, notably reviewing Guy Fieri’s Time Square establishment in the form of many sequential, exasperated questions: Did panic grip your soul as you stared into the whirling hypno wheel of the menu, where adjectives and nouns spin in a crazy vortex? When you saw the burger described as “Guy’s Pat LaFrieda custom blend, all-natural Creekstone Farm Black Angus beef patty, LTOP (lettuce, tomato, onion + pickle), SMC (super-melty-cheese) and a slathering of Donkey Sauce on garlic-buttered brioche,” did your mind touch the void for a minute?

As it happens, Wells is actually somewhat of a quiet man who has a complicated relationship to the power his reviews hold. As Parker notes, he also somewhat looks like a cartoon police sergeant. Read Parker in partial below, or in full via the New Yorker.

In 1962, Craig Claiborne became the first person at the Times to review restaurants regularly; two decades later, he published a memoir, noting that he had “disliked the power” of being a critic. He added, “It burdened my conscience to know that the existence or demise of an establishment might depend on the praise or damnation to be found in the Times.” Much of that power remains, even as it has seeped away from reviewers of theatre and painting; Wells is a vestige of newspaper clout. And, because successful chefs now often sit atop empires, a single bad review can threaten a dozen restaurants and a thousand employees. When Wells reviewed Vaucluse, on the Upper East Side, he began by identifying the restaurant’s parent company, founded by the chef Michael White and Ahmass Fakahany, a former Merrill Lynch executive: “A critic could run out of new ways to express disappointment in Altamarea Group restaurants if Altamarea didn’t keep coming up with new ways to disappoint.”

The Momofuku Group, run by the thirty-nine-year-old chef David Chang, has in recent years expanded into fast food, overseas restaurants, and a quarterly magazine named Lucky Peach. But 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. 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.

In the logjam by the restaurant’s door, a young woman in a dark fitted jacket—later identified as Gabrielle Nurnberger, one of the restaurant’s managers—smiled at Wells, then turned away. Wells said to me, “Look at this,” and we watched as she strode toward the kitchen with her arms down, like a gymnast starting a run-up. (At the equivalent moment of discovery in another restaurant, I saw a manager mouth to Wells’s server “Good luck,” and place a reassuring hand on her arm.) There was increased activity in and out of the kitchen, which was half exposed to the room. We waited a few more minutes, and were then shown to a spot at the edge of the hurricane, against a wall. Our neighbors were taking photographs directly above their bowls of Ceci e Pepe. The dish, a riff on pasta cacio e pepe, using fermented chickpea paste in place of Pecorino, was central to the restaurant’s promoted identity, suggesting technical expertise in the service of amused nonconformity. (Chang told me, later, that he had conceived of the menu as a “Fuck you” to Italian cuisine.) We were given menus with wry footnotes. Wells took off his fake glasses and put on his reading glasses.

Nurnberger became our server. Wells is an unassuming man who has become used to causing a stir, and this can be disorienting: it’s odd to hear him wonder, not unreasonably, if restaurants ever think of bugging his table. But a restaurant can’t openly acknowledge him. A while ago, he happened to sit next to Jimmy Fallon, the host of the “Tonight Show,” at the counter of a sushi restaurant in the Village. Both men were recognized. As Wells recalled it, Fallon “got the overt treatment”: “big smiles and ‘Thank you for coming in’ ” and perhaps an extra dish or two. Wells’s experience was that “every dish of mine was an object of attention and worry before it got to me”—he often has a slower meal than other diners do, because dishes get done again and again until they are deemed exemplary. As usual, his water glass “was always being topped up.” But it was “as if none of this were happening.”

Experienced for the first time, this covert cosseting feels slightly melancholy, like an episode of Cold War fiction involving futile charades and a likely defenestration. Nurnberger was a gracious server but, understandably, not quite at ease. She risked overplaying her role, like Sartre’s waiter in “Being and Nothingness,” who “bends forward a little too eagerly” and voices “an interest a little too solicitous for the order of the customer.” In her effort to help, Nurnberger came close to explaining what a menu was. Rote questions about how we gentlemen were getting on—usually asked of me—had a peculiar intensity. “I’m very reluctant to break the fourth wall,” Wells had said to me earlier, speaking of restaurant staff. “But I wish there were some subtle way to say, ‘Don’t worry!’ ” He sighed—he often sighs—and added, “I can’t honestly say that. Because sometimes they should worry.”

When Wells speaks, his fingers often flutter near his temples, as if he were a stage mentalist trying to focus. He ordered several plates of food; after hesitation, he asked for a glass of white wine. He does not follow Craig Claiborne’s practice, in the nineteen-sixties, of weighing himself every day, but he has begun to think of alcohol as calories that he can skip without being professionally lax. He is not fat, but the job stands between him and leanness: he can’t turn down food. “My body is not my own,” he said.

When dishes arrived, he looked at them sternly for a moment. We talked, or shouted, about his older son’s food allergies, and about a decision, just made at the Times, to have him regularly assess restaurants outside New York. (The first of these reviews, from Los Angeles, appears online on September 6th.) He talked of his earlier career, as an editor at Details, a columnist at Food & Wine, and the dining editor of the Times, when he had opportunities to watch chefs work and ask them questions. In his current role, he’d probably leave the room if someone like Chang turned up at the same cocktail party. “The danger is getting friendly with people you should feel free to destroy,” he said, and then stopped. “That’s not really the word, but you get the idea. People you should feel free to savage, when you have to.” Over my shoulder, Wells could see into the kitchen. At the start of the evening, Chang wasn’t visible, but then he was. “He may have been airlifted,” Wells said. For the critic’s benefit, a chef-commander, summoned from a sister restaurant or a back office, may take over from a lieutenant. Though Chang’s brand is built on unconventionality, he respected the convention of the fourth wall. The two men, who were on friendly terms before Wells became a critic, made eye contact but did not acknowledge each other.

*Image of Pete Wells via alchetron.com