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Opinion

Pete Wells Should Step Down As NYT Restaurant Critic

The New York Times has stood as the standard bearer for food writing since Craig Claiborne took on the mantle of restaurant critic for the newspaper in 1957. In the ensuing years, the Times critic became a kingmaker—as restaurants boomed so did the critic’s power and influence. New York Times restaurant critics are revered like monarchs, an exclusive fraternity that is mostly male and entirely white.

Influential and iconic women like Ruth Reichl and Mimi Sheraton have graced the pages of the Dining section, but their tenures are dwarfed by the litany of men who’ve served since Claiborne, among them Bryan Miller, Frank Bruni, William Grimes, Sam Sifton, Pete Wells, and others. A person of color has never occupied the food critic’s chair in the history of the New York Times.

It’s long past time for that to change.

As the restaurant industry confronts the sins of its past, the food media struggles to come to terms with its role as an enabler. The Times’ standing as a culinary ombudsman—a chronicler of the intersection of food and culture—feels less surefooted in recent years. While other big city papers like the Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco Chronicle have deepened their commitment to diversity by adding critics like Patricia Escárcega and Soleil Ho, the Times has stayed the course.

Pete Wells
Craig Claiborne began reviewing restaurants regularly for the Times in 1961

Term limits for food critics make sense regardless of optics. No matter how good a writer is, the tyranny of one individual’s palate can be oppressive. But why would anyone willfully step down from one of the most prestigious jobs in media? After vacating the critic’s role, both William Grimes and Frank Bruni have continued their careers at the NYT in other capacities. Almost ten years at the helm, there must be a graceful exit strategy that would be mutually beneficial for Wells and his publishers.

In my two decades working in New York City restaurants, I can say, unequivocally, that a visit from the New York Times food critic is one of the most stressful experiences for a restaurant staff. Photos of Pete Wells are plastered on the kitchen walls of restaurants throughout the city to ensure that everyone, from the hostess to the dishwasher, will recognize him. His photo might as well be posted above the urinal in the employee bathroom, a constant reminder to everyone of his unilateral power.

Once a staff member identifies Wells (or any sitting critic), there are typically “code red” protocols that result in everything else going on in the restaurant grinding to a halt. Screwing up a random table can be remedied with giveaways, but mucking up Pete Wells’ meal would cause irreparable damage.

In his “Critic’s Notebook” this past week, Wells penned an essay arguing that restaurant workers deserve better treatment. His article cites a recent exposé on Eater written by Hannah Sellinger, a former employee of David Chang’s restaurant Momofuku Ko, that vilifies the work culture at Ko and alleges the staff fell victim to chronic abuse at the hands of Chef Chang. From the start, Wells tempers the impact of the damage, crediting Chang’s public admission of his abusive tendencies before these accusations came to light.

Aside from Sellinger’s dossier, Wells invests no time interviewing other victims that might have provided more texture to the dysfunction within Chang’s empire. He insists that guests deepen their concern for the people serving them, but in centering Chang’s redemption arc rather than the effects of his violence, Wells is guilty of the behavior he’s condemning. Without hearing from more of the victims, we’re left wondering if maybe the whole Momofuku situation wasn’t just blown out of proportion by overly-sensitive staff. It’s nothing new. All abused restaurant workers are accustomed to having their feelings dismissed by solipsistic chefs and megalomaniacal owners.

No matter how nasty Chang’s improprieties are, Wells insists on making him the protagonist of his own perversity, told in third person. “Until recently, when we heard stories like this,” Wells writes, “they were told by chefs. Screaming and pot-throwing were things they endured in their younger days, part of the dues they paid.” As a reader, we’re left waiting to hear Pete dish on the other side of the story, but his softball treatment of Chang makes him appear undeserving of a comeuppance.

Wells also ignores the duality that exists between critic and chef, having contributed like many others to the culture that glorifies “rockstar” chefs like Chang. Perpetuating the bad boy myth has added fuel to the fire. In the end, Wells’ essay feels like nothing more than pulling up the shades while it’s still dark outside.

New York City is a panoply of food cultures, and yet the Times only contextualizes its restaurants through a white lens. Are white critics better interpreters of how New Yorkers eat? Certainly not. It’s also safe to assume that blanketing food criticism in whiteness results in many non-Western flavors being misunderstood.

In 2018, the Times dispatched Tejal Rao to cover the emerging restaurant scene in Los Angeles. Wells rarely ventured beyond his jurisdiction but caused a stir the year before when he issued a scathing zero-star review to Roy Choi and Daniel Patterson’s fast casual chainlet, Locol.

Looking back on his review of Locol, Wells’ observations are condescending and look past the mission of the restaurant’s owners. Unimpressed with one of the restaurants $7 chili bowls, Wells writes, “Supermarkets sell canned chilis that are seasoned more persuasively.” For seven bucks, it seems like a stretch to expect food to be both delicious and persuasive. He praises the ambience within the space. “Before noon on a weekday,” he writes, “you could hear Snoop Dogg advertising the health-giving properties of gin and juice.” OK, boomer.

Compared to his fellow critics, Wells tries a little too hard to democratize fine dining. Although in a New Yorker profile from 2016, he described himself as “too comfortable in expensive restaurants to be a real populist.” Despite the job requiring him to evaluate so many fancy places, his body of work suggests he clearly prefers rustic over glamorous.

Pete-Wells
William Grimes left his post as restaurant critic in 2003 but continues to write for the New York Times

In Wells’ defense, he has consistently brought attention to restaurants on the fringe and included certain marginalized cuisines in the conversation that were ignored by his predecessors. But he doesn’t approach it with the unadulterated joy of Jonathan Gold. He famously bristled about other tables receiving favorable treatment at Daniel while he was there to review it (he even sent in decoys to validate his theory). His decision to revoke a star seemed punitive and petty.

The same was true when he skewered the waitstaff of Per Se for neglecting to pick up and replace his guest’s fallen napkin. Whether intentional or not, his distaste for complacency in established restaurants often comes across as entitlement, or perhaps, if we look further beneath the surface, a symptom of white privilege. History suggests that white critics have a tendency to favor Eurocentric culinary traditions and anglicized hospitality standards.

Earlier this week, Korsha Wilson reported for the Times on the dearth of opportunities for female Black chefs in high-end restaurants. Though she doesn’t explicitly say so, it’s easy draw a direct line between the enduring whiteness of NYT critics and the barriers to proper recognition for Black chefs. Earlier this year, the James Beard Foundation was forced to publicly confront discrimination in its annual awards, cancelling plans to broadcast this year’s event remotely after no Black chefs were among this year’s honorees.

In 2018, Chef Eduardo Jordan of June Baby in Seattle was the first Black chef in twenty years to receive a three-star review from the New York Times, issued by Wells. A Black chef has never been awarded four stars by any NYT food critic. With a few exceptions, every four-star review issued by the Times has been awarded to fine dining French restaurants or upscale American restaurants anchored in French technique.

Wells may share in the blame for these structural failures, but none of this should detract from his prowess as a writer nor his strength of character. But admiring him or his work doesn’t mean he’s the right person for the job at this moment in history.

A recent thread on Twitter by a close associate of Danny Bowien describes Wells’ relationship with the chef as too cozy to be objective. This is consistent with the chumminess with David Chang that’s described in Wells’ New Yorker profile. A truly incorruptible critic shouldn’t behave like a football referee giving the star player a friendly pat on the tush every time he makes a nice play.

The New York Times has a responsibility to its readers to reflect the diversity of the community. Providing resources to non-Caucasian food critics would likely broaden the culinary horizons of its audience and increase the likelihood that BIPOC chefs are properly recognized to attract potential investors.

The pandemic presents an opportunity for the perfect coda to Wells’ stewardship of the critic’s desk. He can walk away from the game like a decorated athlete in his prime. If he chooses to stay, it’s difficult to imagine that the calls for diversity will deafen over time. Leaving now would also make a bold statement that he recognizes how his own open-ended employment is an impediment to any diversity initiatives the NYT administration may implement now or in the future.

There is no shortage of qualified Black and Latinx candidates in food media worthy of a bigger platform. When the pandemic finally subsides, the public will need help navigating a dramatically altered dining landscape. The restaurant industry will need critics to be true advocates, not just sycophants for the Thomas Kellers, Eric Riperts, and Daniel Bouluds of the world. There couldn’t be a better time for Pete Wells to relinquish his seat. Yes, even the New York Times needs to turn tables.


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Categories
Opinion

Being a Paying Customer Isn’t Good Enough Anymore

As with most consumerist pursuits in America, we think of dining out transactionally. A restaurant visit is a decision to pay for culinary pleasure, where our senses are centered in the delivery of nourishment beyond what we need and hedonism that we cannot reproduce in our own homes. Some are grateful for that exchange, others carry with them an attitude that talented chefs are lucky to have a hungry audience willing to pay to taste their cooking. To those unfortunate souls, the higher the cost of a meal, the more pleasure they expect in return.

Entitled diners have a tendency to oversimplify this calculus in a way that obscures their understanding about the proper cost of a meal. Those people might accuse a $50 steak of being too expensive by comparing it to a $20 steak they can buy from their local butcher or a $30 dollar steak served in a more casual eatery. The restaurant industry is competitive, which makes it easy for guests to abdicate their role in sharing the financial burden restaurants face like escalating rents and rising labor costs.

Aggrieved parties that write negative restaurant reviews online almost uniformly complain about prices. These guests don’t tend to evaluate a restaurant experience in terms of whether or not it was enjoyable but whether or not they perceived the transaction as profitable. Online critics and restaurant owners rarely see eye to eye on the appropriate cost of a great meal.

The forced deprivation caused by quarantine measures should make us all realize what an immense privilege it is to dine out. We’ve spent the greater part of the last few decades fetishizing chefs’ culinary imaginations and living out our voyeuristic fine dining fantasies through the lenses of our smartphone cameras. The more we conceive of our dining selves as vessels for arousal, the less we bring to the table in terms of making those sparks fly. Sex is never good if you just lay there. It’s the same at the dinner table. The restaurant industry needs your love right now, not your lust.

A restaurant’s primary function has always been to provide the public sanctuary. Its protracted absence has made public life less vibrant. Even as the pandemic ravages our industry, though, restaurants have continued to find innovative ways to welcome guests, facilitating intimacy at a time when proximity to others is forbidden.

Without restaurants, we’ve learned how integral the act of dining out is to the way we socialize. Meeting friends for drinks cannot be simulated with the same warmth remotely. Restaurants still provide the backdrop for indelible memories—romance, friendship, business deals, and celebrations. Without the adrenaline rush of a crowded dining room and the heartbeats of others, food cannot have the same impact. Restaurants are conduits for human connection.

Most of us haven’t comfortably occupied a seat in a restaurant in months. If we have, it probably didn’t put us at ease the way we remembered. The virus has placed a choke hold on the hospitality industry and suffocated so many hard-earned careers. Building a profitable restaurant takes years, but it takes only a matter of months to bankrupt one.

The industry won’t have an easy time digging itself out of this hole, but there are things we can do as guests to support the recovery effort, beginning with rearranging our mentality about the role we play in their success. If we want our favorite restaurants to survive, we need to be more than paying customers.

Having a deeper appreciation for the role that restaurants play in our communities means thinking not just about where we dine but about how we dine.

Guests who approach restaurant visits with the mentality that its primary function is to provide pleasure make it increasingly difficult for restaurants to please them. The constant burden to prove themselves is exhausting for restaurant professionals and fosters hostility in our workplaces, hastening burnout and substance abuse. Hospitality will have to change in the aftermath of the pandemic, but guests should too. You can help alleviate some of that strain by approaching future dining experiences more empathetically.

Start by thinking differently about what it means to have a reservation. With seating capacity limited in many municipalities, the effect of reneging on a reservation is even more devastating. Respecting your allotted time and being punctual is even more critical to a restaurant’s financial health than ever before. Ask the host upon arrival if he or she will need the table back. Even if there is no time limit, express your willingness to return the table if need be. The pandemic is making perilously thin margins even thinner. Yesterday’s dollars are needed to pay today’s bills. Without yesterday, there is no tomorrow.

Be vigilant about new safety protocols. Understand that doing so ensures the wellbeing of the people sacrificing their own health to serve you. Even though wearing a mask can be awkward while you’re trying to enjoy a meal, try to keep it on when servers visit your table. These sterile impediments hinder the staff’s efforts to deliver fluent service more than they do your comfort. Paying for a meal shouldn’t exempt you from abiding by the rules.

Table assignments also fall into this category. To maximize efficiency and profitability, restaurants have a floor plan that acts as a schematic for maximizing revenue. The pandemic has forced many restaurants to drastically gerrymander the way they partition space. Putting together this Tetris pattern has become even more complicated with the spatial restrictions and restrained seating capacities caused by COVID-19. Even if you don’t love the table to which you’ve been assigned, try to make the best of it without protest.

Restaurant-Customer

Return the table in a reasonable amount of time. Guests who overstay their welcome make an already challenging situation even worse. A restaurant is a finite space. It needs available seats to sell more food, and it needs to sell more food to stay open. Since March, most restaurants are operating at fifty percent capacity or less. When people monopolize their seats, it hurts twice as much.

Its helpful to think of a restaurant reservation like booking an AirBnb. Even though you’re paying a premium to stay there, you’re still a guest in someone else’s home. Good guests will recognize the privilege of occupying a space that isn’t theirs and treat it with the same respect they would their own homes. You have a check-in time and a check-out time that must be adhered to. Making unreasonable demands of your host just because you paid for it would be untoward, and doing so might risk jeopardizing your standing on the platform.

In the end, it’s incumbent upon each individual guest to monitor his or her own conduct and that of their company. This could apply to someone in your party who refuses to follow whatever safety protocols are in place. It’s unfair to put the onus on management to diffuse the situation when you and your other dining companions could easily police the situation yourselves.

There are other ways to support restaurants beyond your comportment as a guest. Since March, many people have bought gift cards from their favorite restaurants or donated to staff GoFund Me accounts. Take it a step further. Stop into your favorite local restaurant. Talk to the owners. See how they’re doing. Ask what they need. Perhaps your church group has a holiday event catered every year. Offer to front the payment. If there are any business services you can offer through your profession, make them pro-bono. Volunteer a day of labor or offer to help clean the area outside of the restaurant. Do anything that might help offset input costs or increase revenues.

Most restaurants function like non-profit businesses, so donating your time and money to support one isn’t really that much different from charitable giving. It’s for a good cause. Your neighborhood restaurants provide a vital service to the community and should be considered as integral to its health as schools, parks, religious centers and libraries. Only a very small fraction of restaurants actually make money. Sixty percent of restaurants don’t make it past their first year, and eighty percent go out of business within five years.

The disruption caused by the pandemic presents the perfect opportunity to begin changing our behaviors to be more accommodating toward restaurants. As so many of our beloved establishments close, we’ve learned how fragile these businesses are and how much less dynamic our communities are without them. When iconic restaurants close, they take an irreplaceable part of a city’s cultural history with them. As the surviving restaurants in our neighborhoods begin to reopen, we should approach them with a renewed sense of responsibility about our role in their success beyond purchasing food. Simply put: Ask not what your restaurant can do for you, but what you can do for your restaurant.


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