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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.

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—chronicling 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
Restaurant Life

Quarantine Meals at Home That Feel Like a Restaurant

Over the course of this mind-numbing period of isolation, restaurant chefs have saturated social media outlets with cooking tutorials, offering advice to ham-handed home chefs on how to improve their quarantine meals. Optimizing use of our pantries has turned even the most sophisticated epicureans into primal hoarders. Obsession over dried beans borders on the occult. Tinned fish—long relegated to the dusty back aisles of the grocery store—has become improbably trendy. Our living spaces have transformed into culinary incubators—scallions regenerating in our windowsills and sourdough starters that demand weekly feedings like quarantine pets that live in our refrigerators. Through it all, though, the collective heartbreak over missing restaurants is a lengthy trail of tears that winds its way through communities of all sizes across the globe. We all just want to fucking go out for dinner godamnit!

A restaurant in Philadelphia recently began offering video conferencing to its delivery customers through a portal where the owner virtually “serves” his clientele from inside the dining room of his restaurant. He stands beside your virtual table—water and wine already poured for you—and happily takes your order with music playing in the background. His novel approach is a timely reminder that good food always tastes better with great service.

The absence of restaurants is causing more heartache than many of us expected. They are are the glue that holds communities together—fortifying relationships and offering sanctuary for special occasions and personal milestones. Birthdays and anniversaries have come and gone in recent weeks with no brick-and-mortar place for people to congregate with their loved ones.

Great restaurant experiences are so much more that just delicious food. They etch themselves into our sense memories. The crisp skin of the Duck a l’Orange you had in Paris on your honeymoon. The briny seawater liquor of the clams in the Linguini alla Vongole you had along the water in Positano. The porky juices that erupted from the Xiao Long Bao you tasted for the very first time in Taipei.

Without being able to rely on these restaurant spaces to commune, the fabric of our society frays. Though many establishments continue to fulfill orders for takeout and delivery, the pandemic has forced many of us into the uncomfortable space of having to cook for ourselves and dine in our homes. Ironically, we need restaurants the most during times of crisis. It’s infinitely easier to put your anxieties aside when you have a trained staff feeding you and cleaning up your mess.

Home-cooked meals tend to be more slapdash. Throw everything in the Instant Pot and come back in an hour. Dining as a family unit has become less important than it once was. Digital distractions make it hard for us to dine at home with the same sense of abandon that we have eating out. It used to be that the only disruption was the occasional trill of the corded telephone—now we must deal with the constant pinging of notifications from Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, Tik Tok and the seemingly endless barrage of apps that compete for our attention.

Recreating the structure of a restaurant meal at home isn’t easy, but there are some strategies that may help you emulate the adrenaline rush. The most important element is to make it fun. Do things that will force you to stay focused on what’s happening at the table. Be creative. The best restaurants obsessively pay attention to detail. The more effort you put into making your meal at home special, the more joy everyone should get out of the experience. Here are few simple ideas to get the ball rolling:

Make a “Reservation” in Advance – This might be more challenging for larger families than for couples, but rather than sitting down to dinner whenever the food is ready to be served, set a fixed time in advance for everyone to be seated. If she lives in your home, have Alexa remind everyone in the house that dinner starts at 8pm. Having a fixed “reservation” time formalizes the event, so it becomes an engagement rather than a casual gathering. Even if dinner isn’t completely ready at 8pm, it’s a nice time for everyone to sit around the table, have some cocktails and share conversation while they wait for dinner to begin.

Light Candles at the Table – This may seem like a small gesture, but softer lighting can make the experience feel more intimate. As restaurants always do, avoid using scented candles, if possible, as they will obscure the aroma and flavor of your food. If you can’t find any candles, improvise a centerpiece using seasonal fruits, vegetables, houseplants or flowers. A little table decoration can make an everyday meal feel like a special occasion. Dig deep and channel your inner Martha Stewart!

quarantine-meals

Print Dinner Menus – These don’t have to be anything fancy. You can even write them by hand on pieces of scratch paper. Analog touches like this are often healthy reminders to everyone that we need to slow our digital lives down. If you have children, ask them to help you design the menus with crayons or markers. You can also let them role play as waiters and go around the table to take everyone’s order. It’s a great way to keep everyone engaged, and your printed menus can also be a nice keepsake as a memento of this crazy time.

Get Dressed Up – Let’s be honest, most of us have been lying around in sweatpants and hoodies for over a month. Showering has become optional. Putting on a button down shirt, a pair of nice slacks or a dress feels like such a hassle. Who are we trying to impress? But there’s something about wearing nice clothes to the dinner table that makes the occasion feel more luxurious. You don’t have to do this every night of the week, but, even if you’re having a casual meal, wearing nicer clothes is a way to make your dining room at home feel more like a night on the town.

Create a Music Playlist – Many restaurants hire third parties to program music for them because playlists are critical to creating the right energy in the dining room. Think about what you’re serving and try to match the music to the cuisine. If your recipes originate from a particular country, find some cool music by some of its native artists. If what you’re cooking doesn’t fit under the umbrella of a particular ethnicity, just pick music that you like and that you think your company will enjoy, too.

Choose Someone to Be the “Server” – It’s fun to have someone else bring you things, so you can relax and enjoy yourself. Delegating those responsibilities to one person any given night is a nice way to recreate the service experience you get in a restaurant. Even better, divvy up the duties so that everyone has an alternating role—clearing plates, getting dessert ready, making coffee. Try to set it up so that everyone can enjoy at least some time to sit back and be served, just like they would in a real restaurant.

Quarantine Meals

Plate Your Takeout Food on Proper Dishes – Whether you’re cooking yourself or ordering takeout food, break out your best plates—even the tacky ones that your grandmother passed down that’ve been in storage for years. Sure, the disposability of takeout containers is more convenient and limits the clean-up, but it also takes some of the poetry out of enjoying well-presented food. Take a little extra time to carefully remove the food from its containers and plate it artfully like a restaurant chef would. Even garnish it with a chiffonade of your own chopped parsley.

Decant Your Bottle of Wine – You don’t have a wine decanter? No problem! Find another vessel like a glass pitcher you use for iced tea or a clear flower vase. Just improvise—even a quart-sized Mason jar or a glass milk bottle will do the trick. There is something about letting your wine “breathe,” even if it isn’t an expensive bottle, that makes drinking it more ceremonious. These extra little touches distinguish restaurant dining from simple meals at home.

Invite Other Friends to Join Remotely – Don’t just plan a Zoom chat with friends, invite them to have a virtual dinner together! Share a few recipes a day or two before then connect through one of the many teleconferencing apps. Not only will it be nice to see friendly faces, but it will be fun to compare notes about your shared cooking projects. As with restaurant meals, bad food can always be rescued by great company.