Pete Wells has a job that most people can only dream of. As restaurant critic for The New York Times, he gets paid to eat out four or five nights a week — often at quite pricey places — on someone else's dime.
But for Wells, going out for drinks and delectable meals is still work. He tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies that coming up with words to describe flavors is something he "wrestles with all the time."
"I find that the dead-end route is to try to describe what's going on in your mouth," he says. "If you say, 'Oh, there was a little bit of acidity from the lime juice on the left side of my tongue, and then this beautiful, smooth pureed potato with some crunchy shallots on top, and it all came together,' you never will get out of that sentence alive."
Instead, Wells likes to describe a food's presentation in a way that gives the reader a feel for what it is like to eat: "My feeling is, if I can describe the way a steak looks on the plate, when it's just kind of juices are coming out, and it's almost alive, and just wants to be eaten, I hope that people will feel it, more than they will feel me describing the tangy minerality of the dry-aged beef between my teeth."
On beginning his very critical review of one of New York City's most expensive restaurants, Per Se, by describing the poor service as "the slow creep of mediocrity"
There is often with restaurant reviews in particular, I think, this kind of impulse to be deferential and bow down to the greatness of the restaurant and the greatness of the chef, and then with great regret to say, "And yet, all is not as it should be in the kingdom," and I didn't want to do any of that. I just think that we show an awful lot of deference to chefs in our culture and maybe not enough deference to customers, and I wanted this review to come out and say, "Yes, this is a very respected chef, but are the people at the table being respected in the same way?"
On his infamous takedown of Guy Fieri's restaurant, Guy's American Kitchen & Bar, in Times Square
I wanted to like the restaurant. I wanted the restaurant to be the same kind of celebration of grease on your elbows and grease on your ears and grease on your nose, Americans wallowing in unhealthy, unwholesome joy. ... It's flashy and energetic-looking, and it seems like it's going to be this wild, crazy party. And then the food arrives and it's no party at all. At all. All of the promises of the restaurant kind of die on the plate ... [like] these nachos that had this kind of gray turkey pulp on them. I don't think I've ever met nachos that I didn't like before. It's almost inconceivable that nachos can be bad. It makes no sense.
On the reaction to his brutally negative review of Fieri's restaurant
A lot of people rejoiced and thought that I was putting this interloper from television back in his place, which was not my intention. And then a lot of people thought I was being a snobby East Coast elitist who was belittling the common people and making fun of their tastes, which was not my intention at all. I wanted to say, "This can be great food, this should be great food, why isn't it great food?" But it was wild. It was really wild. I try to respond to emails that people send me after reviews come out, and that was the one time when I just absolutely could not. I couldn't keep up. There were so many and all over the place, positive and negative. After a few days, the really nasty ones started to come in, which really surprised me, because the review had been out for three or four days and then all of a sudden I started to get these really profane and vicious emails, one after another. Somebody wished that my kids would get cancer and I thought, "What have I done here?"
On his joyous review of Señor Frog, a spring-break-themed restaurant in Times Square, where he danced in a conga line wearing a 3-foot-high crown of yellow and orange balloons and drank a margarita out of a phallus-shaped glass
The reason I wanted to write about it was because — it's not the most sophisticated fun in the world, it's maybe not even my kind of fun, but it was fun. And I was really struck by how solemn so many of the restaurants I review have become. As I said in the review, it's become like going to church. Everybody used to say going to restaurants ... is like theater, there's stage sets, there's drama, there's play acting and you watch the show. And now, boy, everything's just become so serious. And you sit at the counter and the chef comes out and tells you what he did to the Brussels sprouts leaves and no, there's not a lot of dancing.
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. Imagine having a job where you get to eat out four or five nights a week, often at some of the finest restaurants, and bring your friends on somebody else's dime. Our first guest, Pete Wells, is restaurant critic for The New York Times, and while he has fun on the job, he takes dining out and evaluating the food service and ambience of restaurants pretty seriously. As you'll soon hear, he reviews expensive four-star places, as well is nacho and burger joints and even a place that has a roving balloon artist. Stay tuned. Pete Wells joined The New York Times in 2006. Before becoming the restaurant critic, he was the paper's dining editor and wrote a column for The Times Magazine called Cooking with Dexter about the kitchen life of a working father. He's received five James Beard Foundation journalism awards for his writing about food and drink. Pete Wells, welcome to FRESH AIR.
PETE WELLS: Thank you.
DAVIES: Let's talk about the job - being a restaurant reviewer. Take us through the process of reviewing a restaurant. How many times do you go?
WELLS: Typically, for a review that's going to get stars on it, I need to go at least three times, and this has been New York Times' custom going back to Craig Claiborne in the '60s. Sometimes I may go more than three times if I'm not quite sure where I'm coming down or if the menu is vast, and I need to really get a handle on it by multiple visits. Or if I'm interested in seeing how the chef deals with seasonal changes throughout the year, I might go once a season. But typically, each review, you're looking at at least three meals.
DAVIES: And so they can be spaced out over a period of time, so you're just not getting one bad week.
WELLS: I try to space them out. I try to space them out as much as I can. I don't always have that luxury because of our deadline schedule, but I try to space them out.
DAVIES: And when you do take a lot of guests and go more than once to a restaurant that could be pretty pricey – I don't know - maybe this isn't your problem, but what does it cost?
WELLS: It can cost money. The New York Times has been very, very good about subsidizing this job so that it can be done the way we all think it should be done, which includes multiple visits and multiple guests, generally, on each visit. And it includes taking a look at the cocktails and the wine. All of this runs into money. I always like to say that I'm also very happy to be a cheap date, so I try to round out some of the more expensive meals with something really inexpensive. And, you know, it helps the budget, but I think it also helps readers. The readers who are really put off by the $1,000 meals can get a nice $50 meal a couple weeks later.
DAVIES: So I want to review some of your work, and I'd like you to read from a review you did very recently of an upscale restaurant called Per Se. You want to just set this up for us - tell us a little bit about the restaurant before you read your review?
WELLS: Sure. Per Se opened in 2004 in the Time Warner Center as part of a big, splashy collection of restaurants opened by marquis chefs. Jean-George Vongerichten had a steakhouse in there. There was - Masa moved from Los Angeles to New York, and Thomas Keller of The French Laundry in Napa Valley opened his first restaurant in New York in many years called Per Se. And it was given four stars in The Times later that year, was given four stars again as my predecessor's final review – Sam Sifton's last review. And its number had come up again. It was time to take another look at it, and I started going.
DAVIES: OK, so let's read from the beginning of this review of Per Se.
WELLS: (Reading) The lady had dropped her napkin. More accurately, she had hurled it to the floor in a fit of disillusionment - her small protest against the slow creep of mediocrity and missed cues during a four-hour dinner at Per Se that would cost the four of us close to $3,000. Sometime later, a passing server picked up the napkin without pausing to see whose lap it was missing from, neatly embodying the oblivious sleepwalking that had pushed my guest to this point. Such is Per Se's mystique that I briefly wondered if the failure to bring her a new napkin could have been intentional. The restaurants identity, to the extent that it has one distinct from that of its owner and chef Thomas Keller, is based on fastidiously minding the tiniest details. This is the place, after all, that brought in a ballet dancer to help servers slip around the tables with poise, so I had to consider the chance that the server was just making a thoughtful accommodation to a diner with a napkin allergy. But in three meals this fall and winter, enough other things have gone awry in the kitchen and the dining room to make that theory seem unlikely. Enough, also, to make the perception of Per Se as one of the country's great restaurants, which I shared after visits in the past, appear out of date. Enough to suggest that the four-star rating it received from Sam Sifton in 2011 - its most recent review in The New York Times - needs a hard look.
DAVIES: And (laughter) an ominous note on which one might read the rest of the review - you took it from four stars to two…
DAVIES: …After this careful review. What was the reaction?
WELLS: I knew that it would cause waves, but, boy, things really exploded.
DAVIES: And I know you don't want to expand on a review. I mean, it's pretty detailed about the issues that you saw with the food and the service. It's an interesting lead that you chose. I mean, when you're – you want to just talk a little about beginning with a woman dropping her napkin?
WELLS: I chose that lead because it does two things at the same time. First, it establishes this theme of the restaurant not quite noticing what's going on and not quite following up and, I would say, not taking opportunities to come over and make sure that everything is all right at the table. And it also introduced the idea pretty early on that this was going to be a tough review, that we were not having a good meal. And I want to get that out in the open immediately because there is often, with restaurant reviews, in particular, I think, this kind of impulse to be deferential and bow down to the greatness of the restaurant and the greatness of the chef and then, with great regret, to say - and yet, all is not as it should be in the kingdom. And I didn't want to do any of that. I just think that we show an awful lot of deference to chefs in our culture and maybe not enough deference to customers. And I wanted this review to come out and say, yes, this is a very respected chef, but are the people at the table being respected in the same way?
DAVIES: You know, it's also fun to read, which is, I guess, also part of what you have to do.
WELLS: I think I have to do it. There are all kind of ways to write a review, and I think if you're writing for a very narrow, local audience whose only concern reading the review is – do I want to go to this restaurant or not? - then maybe you can be a little more cut and dry about it. But The Times is read all over the world, and a lot of people reading me are never going to go to any of the restaurants I write about. And in the case of Per Se, I'm sure I have a lot of readers who would just never spend that kind of money on a meal, even if it were very, very, very good. So the – there's a little more pressure on the critics, I think, now in this, you know, age of global electronic readership to do more than just provide a consumer service - to bring in some things that are interesting, even if you're not going to go there, bring in some context, bring in some larger ideas and, yeah, to be a little fun while you're doing it.
DAVIES: It brings us an interesting question. How do you describe taste? I mean, this must be something that you wrestle with every day.
WELLS: Oh, I wrestle with it all the time. It's really hard. It's really, really hard. I find that the dead-end route is to try to describe what's going on in your mouth. You know, if you say, like, oh, there's a little bit of acidity from the lime juice on the left side of my tongue.
WELLS: And this beautiful, smooth pureed potato with some crunchy shallots on top, and it all came together, and it's – it just – you never will get out of that sentence alive. So I try sometimes to just - almost just describe the dish on the plate in a way that will allow the reader to imagine eating it. Almost like showing them a picture, but with a little extra information that you can't quite get from a photograph. My feeling is, you know, if I can describe the way a steak looks on the plate when it’s just kind of - juices are coming out, and it's almost alive and just wants to be eaten. I hope that people will feel it more than they will feel me describing the tangy minerality of the dry-aged beef between my teeth.
DAVIES: Right. You describe a mushroom bouillon in one review as murky and appealing as bong water. In that same (laughter)…
WELLS: Yeah, I did say that.
DAVIES: And in the same review, you described a lobster that was chewy rather than tender as gristle of the sea. That's kind of fun, too.
WELLS: I said that, too. Yes. (Laughter) Yes. I mean, I have to say, I think a lot about how much humor to try to put into a negative review, and it's something I always get asked about. Do you have to make fun of them while you're criticizing them? And because I'm making jokes, it looks like maybe I'm having fun. I'm really not having that much fun. I mean, writing – I don't know how it is for other people, but it's not like a day at the beach. But I find that if I describe things that were bad in a very, very dry, clinical way, it's harsher somehow, and it's harder for the reader. It becomes a real slog, but it just seems joyless and rougher. So I try to do it with a little humor at the risk of seeming like I'm a mean insult comic.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Pete Wells. He is the restaurant critic for The New York Times. And we'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, we're speaking with Pete Wells. He is the restaurant critic for The New York Times. Another review that got a lot of attention - this goes back three years – is a review of a restaurant on Times Square opened by Guy Fieri. Now, a lot of people will know who Guy Fieri is from his Food Network series, but for those of you who don't, just describe who he is and what this restaurant was.
WELLS: Well, he is a restauranteur from Sonoma County who had a couple of restaurants out there and then won a reality competition, the prize of which was getting his own show. And he got his own show, and he's a huge success. He has a great persona for television. He just kind of is almost three- dimensional on the screen.
DAVIES: Spiked hair.
WELLS: Right – spiked hair and shirts with flames and…
DAVIES: It's a real kind of down-home, working-class approach to food. The shows called "Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives," and he, you know - he rejoices in stuff that's, you know, high-caloric, greasy and fun, right?
WELLS: Yeah, he absolutely rejoices in it, and so do I. And I really like that show. I like what it does and wanted to like the restaurant. I wanted the restaurant to be the same kind of celebration of grease on your elbows and grease on your ears and grease on your nose - you know, American, wallowing in unhealthy, unwholesome joy.
DAVIES: Right. So just describe the restaurant. I mean, this is on Times Square – big place, right?
WELLS: Yeah, it's this great, big place. I mean, I don't think I ever saw all of it, although I went four times. It's just sort of cavernous, and I never quite came to the end of it. I never came to the end of the menu, either, but I certainly saw enough while I was there. And, you know, it's kind of flashy and energetic looking and seems like it's going to be this wild, crazy party. And then the food arrives, and it's no party at all – at all. It's just, you know, all of the promises of the restaurant kind of die on the plate. And that was why I wanted to write the review. The – you know, the promise that Guy Fieri made on the show, the promise that the restaurant made when you walked in, the promise of his brand, the promise of his personality just absolutely did not translate to the dining experience.
DAVIES: A particularly disappointing dish come to mind?
WELLS: Oh, gosh. These nachos that had this kind of gray, like, turkey pulp on them, and it just…
WELLS: I mean, I don't think I've ever met nachos that I didn't like before. It's almost inconceivable that, you know, nachos can be bad.
WELLS: It makes – it makes no sense.
DAVIES: So you gave it a tough review. And this was an interesting one in that it consisted entirely of questions aimed at Guy Fieri.
DAVIES: Did you look at the menu? Did – da-da-da-da-da-da (ph) - and on and on it goes. This – you know, it's a famous guy. It was – you know, what was the reaction to panning that restaurant?
WELLS: Wow. It was very, very animated and very split. A lot of people rejoiced and thought that I was putting this interloper from television back in his place, which was not my intention. And then a lot of people thought I was being a snobby East Coast elitist who was belittling the common people and making fun of their tastes, which was not my intention at all – at all. I was – you know, (laughter) I wanted to say this can be great food. This should be great food. Why isn't it great food? But it was wild. It was really wild. I got – I try to respond to emails that people send me after reviews come out, and that was the one time when I just absolutely could not. I couldn't keep up. There were so many, and all over the place – you know, positive and negative. And then after few days, the really nasty ones started to come in, which really surprised me 'cause I – you know, the review had been out for – I don't know - three or four days. And then all of a sudden, I started to get these really, you know, just profane and vicious emails one after another. And, you know, somebody wished that my kids would get cancer.
WELLS: And I just thought - what have I done here?
DAVIES: I think at least two of the morning network shows did feature pieces about the review and the reaction, and they had Guy Fieri on.
DAVIES: So he certainly got a lot of attention. That was three years ago, right? And you haven't been back, have you?
WELLS: I have not been back. In fact, somebody a little while ago sent me a picture taken up by the host podium in the front that had my picture in case I go back, but I haven't been. No.
DAVIES: I want to talk about one more review – Senor Frog. Tell us what Senor Frog is.
WELLS: Boy, I'm still not sure what Senior Frog's is.
WELLS: It's this hallucinatory spring break, psychedelic experience in the basement of Times Square that was imported from Mexico originally, and it's just nuts. Their motto is fun, food and clothes, I think. So I kind of (laughter) went into it thinking, like, OK, food is obviously going to be secondary, and it was, as the food was not the primary focus. But it was fun in a really weird, cheesy way that I tried to fight and found that I was just completely powerless to fight. You know, I just - I just couldn't do it. After a couple of margaritas and these glasses that are shaped like phalluses, I – you've surrendered your dignity at that point, so you might as well get in the conga line.
DAVIES: Got in the conga line – really? Literally?
WELLS: Yes, and I'm sorry to – I'm sorry to reveal that, yes, I have congaed in the course of doing my job. Yes.
DAVIES: With a hat made of, like – what? - balloon animals on your head or something?
WELLS: Oh, yeah, I had this big orange and yellow hat that was kind of like this - I asked the balloon artist – there's a roving balloon artist who'll come to your table and take requests. And I asked him to make me look like the sun. I don't know what I was thinking, but I wanted to look like the sun, so he made me this thing that kind made me – made me look like I was Simba in "The Lion King."
DAVIES: And so, as I recall, the review said don't come for the food, but it really is a good time, right?
WELLS: Yes. Yeah, a particular good time. And the reason I wanted to write about it was because, you know, it's not the most sophisticated fun of the world. It's maybe not even my kind of fun, but it was fun, and I was really struck by how solemn so many of the restaurants I review have become. They have - as I said in the review, it's become like going to church. Everybody used to say going to restaurants now is like theater. There's stage sets. There's drama. There's, you know, playacting, and you watch the show. And now, boy, everything's just become so serious. And you sit at the counter, and the chef comes out and tells you what he did to the Brussel sprout leaves, and, you know, there's not a lot of dancing.
DAVIES: Pete Wells is restaurant critic for The New York Times. After a break, he'll talk about how diners sharing photos of their dishes on social media has affected the way chefs prepare them. And chef Danny Bowien tells us about his passion for Sichuan cuisine. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross who’s off this week. We’re speaking with New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells. He's won five James Beard Awards for his writing about food and drink. You know, when you go out and you bring guests - you know, you have you and maybe three friends there – they’re there for an evening on an expense account and are having fun. You’re working.
DAVIES: Does that make a difference in perspective that affects perceptions of the food or the experience?
WELLS: I think it makes a difference. I mean, sometimes I am more critical than they are. Sometimes I’m less critical than they are. I mean, there’s this funny thing that happens where people want to impress the critic by showing how much they notice, so they’ll point out some really, really small detail that might be technically, you know, not ideal but isn't affecting anyone's enjoyment of the meal at all or, you know, some little, you know, supposed defect with the food that I end up not caring about. You know, at the same time, you know, they also get to relax, and they get to be in the moment, which is really hard for me. So I do sometimes rely on them to have a good time or not have a good time for me while I'm working. You know, if people seem really kind of not to be enjoying themselves even though I'm sitting there thinking, oh, this dish is pretty good, this is all right, this is fine, and the people I'm with just aren't having fun, then I’ll start to look around and say, what’s going wrong here? What is it about this restaurant that is not lifting us up, you know? Or the other way around - if I think the food’s kind of blah, but everyone's having a great time and they’re talking and really enjoying it, and we walk out and they say, oh, I'd love to go back there again, then I'll take a closer look at the restaurant. What are they doing right? You know, often it's the service. The service just lifted everybody up for some reason or the atmosphere. Something about the lighting - we all look beautiful and we all feel great ‘cause we’re so flattered by this light that erases our wrinkles and our, you know, dark circles under our eyes. And that stuff is important. I think that stuff is not necessarily what I focus on immediately, but it's what a lot of people take in, consciously or subconsciously, and goes into their feeling of whether they want to go back or not.
DAVIES: You wrote something about something you described as camera cuisine. What do you mean?
WELLS: Yeah, it started to seem to me, after I'd been doing the job for a little while, that digital photography and the transmission of digital photography was starting to change food. That Instagram and things like it had become the primary medium through which a lot of people were learning about restaurants and about food rather than words, which is fine. I mean, I'm a writer, but if you don't want to learn through words, that’s fine with me. But, you know, there are, I think, specific effects of getting your information from photography. And one of them is that the pressure on a dish to be really striking and arresting and different is greatly increased. It’s – and the things that might be appealing to you in person, which might be, you know, a plate of stew can look really, really good if you're hungry, but it doesn't look so good on a computer screen or on your phone. In fact, it looks kind of horrible. So it just started to seem like there was a lot of stuff that was being composed for the camera with a result that in some cases, you know, the chef took so long to plate it and put everything into place with tweezers that it's all cold by the time it gets to the table. It’s not wonderful anymore, but it sure looks great. And I also thought that because you can go on your phone and check out the Instagram account of a restaurant in Copenhagen and see this dish that doesn't look like anything you've ever done before, if you’re a chef, you can think, oh, that’s interesting. I’ve seen that dish, now I can make that dish. Well, you haven't eaten it. You haven't eaten it. You’ve just sort of seen the style with which it was presented. Maybe you have some idea of how it was cooked, but you don't really know what the effect is. And so this, you know, visual styles of putting food on the plate that chefs have developed in one country could turn up in another city in America the next day without the experience of having actually sat down and eaten the food. And that seems strange and new to me.
DAVIES: Well, Pete Wells, it’s been fun. Thanks so much.
WELLS: Thank you.
DAVIES: Pete Wells is restaurant critic for the New York Times. He’s won five James Beard Awards for his writing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.