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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
Restaurant Life

The Year In Restaurants That Wasn’t

To put it mildly and in proper food terms, the year 2020 has been a giant shit sandwich. There’s really no other way to describe this wretched twelve months but as a generous helping of small-batch, locally-sourced feces piled high on day-old artisan bread, sourdough of course.

A once-in-a-lifetime public health crisis pitted the intimacy of restaurants against itself, making the most endearing element of a restaurant experience its greatest liability. The service industry, once priding itself on staying open at all costs, faced a cost too great to stay open. After years of boundless expansion, the restaurant industry has finally had to reckon with its own mortality.

The economics of restaurants were already tenuous before the Coronavirus. For many years now, the only way to make money in restaurants was to open more restaurants. Most independents are lucky if they manage to break even. A majority die young.

Despite the unfavorable odds each individual business has of surviving, the restaurant industry as a whole has been an overflowing reservoir of menial jobs. It’s only recently that restaurant work offered legitimate career opportunities, owing to the exploding popularity of fine dining. Now, it’s unlikely that restaurants will continue to be a reliable source of income for transient workers, and hospitality careers may become less attractive as the industry struggles to rebuild.

year-in-restaurants-2020

The scope of the devastation is staggering. Seventeen percent of American restaurants have already permanently closed—the latest estimates totaling over 100,000. According to the National Restaurant Association, 10,000 of these restaurants have closed in just the last three months alone.

In the face of such austere lockdown measures, restaurants have had to mine new revenue streams—pivoting to carry out and delivery, takeout cocktails, meal kits, outdoor pop-up events or off-site catering. Restrictions have intensified into the winter months, prompting many restaurant owners to mothball operations until case numbers decline.

Economic prognosticators appear to be underestimating the scarring that will occur from these mass casualties. Government agencies, by and large, have absconded when faced with a growing call for financial support. The latest stimulus package passed by Congress does little to stem the tide. Applying a bandaid to a severed artery won’t do much to stop the bleeding.

The RESTAURANTS Act, a $120 billion rescue package introduced in June to aid independent restaurants, appears dead on arrival, even though it’s been publicly endorsed by many celebrity chefs and a bipartisan coalition in Congress. The message from our political leaders has been clear: Restaurants are non-essential businesses and do not carry the same preferred status as big banks, the airline industry, or tech monoliths.


Restaurants were newsworthy in 2020 for reasons other than the pandemic, rarely in ways that reflected positively on the industry. Chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten proudly boasted about punching a former dishwasher. The James Beard Foundation floundered in its handling of the results of its 2020 Awards after postponing its annual gala. When preliminary results revealed no people of color among this year’s honorees, the Foundation elected to cancel the program and conceal the results.

According to a salacious report by the New York Times, we learned that the Court of Master Sommeliers was a haven for misogyny and harassment against its female members. Even the venerable Danny Meyer—the Zeus of hospitality—was called out by his employees for failing to follow through with promised diversity initiatives. And just this week we learned from an ex-employee how rotten the peaches really were in David Chang’s Momofuku empire. None of these stories came as a surprise to any seasoned restaurant professionals. They were pretty much par for the course in a country club that has always been exclusively white and male.

The Black Lives Matter movement, among its many achievements, pulled the curtain on white privilege in the fine dining world. The restaurant industry has been slow to acknowledge its race problem. Inequities in hiring, promotion, and recruitment of executive chefs and upper level management are endemic problems that have long been swept under the lily white rug. 

Food media’s complicity in centering the white narrative in culinary also came under overdue scrutiny. With the discrediting of prominent figureheads like Adam Rapaport of Bon Appetit and Peter Meehan of the LA Times, food journalism has made modest strides toward acknowledging gender and racial inequities. Major newspapers have added a roster of critics and food writers with more diverse backgrounds like Soleil Ho of the San Francisco Chronicle and Patricia Escarcéga of the Los Angeles Times (though there appear to be some entanglements around pay disparity that cast a gray cloud over her recruitment).

A new generation of gatekeepers has a chance to alter the landscape of the food world to be more inclusive. Food writing and restaurant criticism has been unapologetically Caucasian-forward for decades, and we shouldn’t expect the old guard to go quietly. It will be interesting to see, after the pandemic subsides, whether these many lessons learned will produce tangible change or whether the industry returns to its bad habits.

year-in-restaurants-2020

The challenges ahead will require innovative solutions. For restaurants to survive, they will need to utilize technology to operate more efficiently. Unfortunately, most independent restaurants lack the capital to invest in improving IT systems. This is why so many restaurants rely on older generation Micros POS systems with obsolete software until they breakdown like a beat up old car. Chain restaurants have had a huge advantage over mom-and-pops in deploying technological solutions to facilitate off-premise delivery and curb-side pickup for takeout orders.

Third-party food delivery apps, disguised as business partners, have exploited underfunded independent restaurants that lack the technology to reach more consumers. Once app-based delivery services convince restaurants to join their platform, they become ruthless pimps, squeezing already narrow profit margins even tighter. Some companies siphon up to 30% from each transaction, leaving the restaurants to barely break even just to reach a broader audience. As rents and labor costs rise, the economics of running a profitable restaurant are untenable, irreparably broken from years of operating within a flawed system.

The pandemic has shortened the lifespan of so many restaurants already, including culinary institutions that define the character of their cities. We grieve, yet we often internalize our grief based upon the harrowing prospect of future unquenched desires. We lament missing that perfectly-cooked steak au poivre or the sun-drenched outdoor cafe where we’d meet friends for brunch every weekend. What we don’t always properly grieve for are the individuals who made those places so special that have lost their livelihoods by no fault of their own.

The impact of the pandemic is already being felt at street level, but it will have a ripple effect throughout the supply chain of purveyors that depend on a healthy food and beverage industry. The systemic risk the industry faces is widely misunderstood by politicians who appear to underestimate the importance of restaurants in their communities. Those of us who work in the service industry feel abandoned, even betrayed. How can we keep serving our communities in good faith if our communities aren’t willing to serve us?

Ultimately, the wellness of independent restaurants is a reflection of the wellness of our communities. Let’s hope the coming year brings restoration —health, happiness and, eventually, tables filled with hungry guests sitting less than six feet apart.


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