It sounds like everyone’s dream job: getting paid to eat. And at the most high-profile restaurants in New York City, one of the greatest culinary cities in the world. But a profile of The New York Times’ food critic, “Pete Wells Has His Knives Out” from the September 12 issue of The New Yorker, delves into the responsibility, pressure, and contradictions of this not-as-easy-as-it-looks job.
Writer Ian Parker follows Wells as he writes his one-star review (out of a possible four) of Momofuku Nishi, the new restaurant from David Chang, the James Beard Award-winning chef, TV star, and editor of Lucky Peach. The piece also details just how Wells, who’s been the Times’ restaurant critic since 2012, writes his reviews. For example, he visits a restaurant three times before reviewing it and no longer writes out his notes in restaurants, instead committing them to memory.
One of the article’s highlights is how, despite his half-efforts to disguise himself, restaurant workers recognize Wells and respond to his presence, with the tone of an evening noticeably shifting if he’s spotted. His meals take longer to come to his table, as chefs worry over his plates before sending them out, sometimes even preparing two of the same dish so that one can be tasted before delivering the other to Wells. It’s considered uncouth, however, for the staff to outright acknowledge his presence. This recognition without acknowledgment, fellow journalist Jeff Gordinier says, is a mark of a good restaurant: “‘If they don’t recognize who he is, then they are missing a very important detail, and therefore they may not be paying attention to other important details.’”
The piece also helps dispel the cliché that critics are angry writers who wish they could create the art they’re critiquing (though everyone loved this scene from Birdman, right?). Wells comes across as a self-deprecating, unassuming man who isn’t entirely comfortable with his own power, as his reviews have the potential to make or break a new restaurant. After eating at Per Se in Manhattan, a restaurant he’d previously enjoyed, Wells struggled to describe a meal for four that didn’t live up to its nearly $3,000 bill, knowing he had to write an honest review: “‘I have a loaded gun, and I’m going to have to fire it, and I don’t want to.’”
The full article can be read at The New Yorker.