This week, the New Yorker has a giant profile of NY Times food critic/restaurant assassin Pete Wells (RIP Per Se bong water), and it is one of the best things you're going to read this week. In addition to granting us a glimpse into the feisty world of food reviewing and how Wells conducts his business, it is chock-full of memorable anecdotes and Wells' reflections on some of his most infamous reviews—including his classic takedown of Guy Fieri's formaldehyde factory Guy's American Kitchen & Bar.
— Matt Levine (@matt_levine) September 5, 2016
Back in 2012, Wells wrote a scathing restaurant review of the Times Square monstrosity written entirely in the form of questions; the piece became the paper's fifth-most-e-mailed article of that year.
A review of a bad restaurant seems to expand its writer’s reach more than an unhappy review of a book or a film. A restaurant can deceive, humiliate, and poison us in a way that “Zoolander 2” cannot. In the case of Guy’s American Kitchen, readers were shown two compelling, class-tinged power struggles: one involved an absent, wealthy celebrity and his exploited customers; the other set the institution of the Times against the institution of Guy. As Wells put it, “One would not think they exist in the same universe. It’s like Deadpool on ‘Downton Abbey.’ ” His rejection of Guy’s American Kitchen was, he assured me, not inevitable: even if he was not truly confounded by a lack of authenticity in a mega-restaurant spun off from reality-television self-caricature, his hope for something good could nevertheless be real. Shortly after the review appeared, he told Margaret Sullivan, then the Times’ public editor, “I would have liked to write the ‘man bites dog’ review.” He went on, “This is important American food that makes a lot of people very happy. And, since that’s the case, you ought to do it right.”
The column appeared online on a Tuesday. Wells was immediately overwhelmed by e-mail and Twitter reactions. “I remember having to walk away from my computer,” he said. “It was like a pinball machine—everything was lighting up.” Some Fieri fans wished harm on his family. Editors at other publications assigned think pieces about Fieri: journalism’s pilot fish, nibbling on flesh snagged between the predator’s teeth. That night, “Good Morning America” sent a reporter to the restaurant, to review Wells’s review, while shooting undercover video of French fries.
The success of the review led Wells to note that "people said that the Times had lost its virginity," meaning that the Times would scramble to replicate the viral success of the piece in the future (which...well...). It also may have gone to Wells' head a bit:
In October, Wells appeared at the Southern Foodways Alliance, an annual event held in Oxford, Mississippi. Wearing a highwayman’s mask, and billed only as the Masked Avenger, he walked onstage, read the Fieri review to a live piano accompaniment, then walked off. Although the article was relevant to the event’s theme—Southern food in popular culture—one member of the audience still found the performance a little unbecoming, “like a musician who had one hit and is singing it, a cappella, years later.” The observer added, “There may have been a cape.” Wells told me that he wore a Gandalf robe belonging to the son of the event’s organizer.
The story is bookended by Wells going to review David Chang's Momofuku Nishi; Chang compared the resulting review to "something akin to a diagnosis of terminal cancer." The last several paragraphs of the profile are devoted to Chang railing against Wells ("I can’t ever read that review again—I’ll get so fucking angry I’ll die"), calling him "a fucking bully" who has led to him losing business. Chang offered his own take on the reviewer's psyche:
“New York City is now not the city that we moved to when we moved here.” Wells thrives on discovery, Chang said, but he’s looking in the wrong places. “We live in a digital world, and Pete still lives in an analog world,” he said. “He wants the new, but he’s still in love with the fucking old. And I don’t think he has reconciled that with himself. I think Pete Wells reviews on nostalgia.”
— Sapna Maheshwari (@sapna) September 5, 2016
Other things we learned in the piece: Guy Fieri was raised by parents who ate a macrobiotic diet (this explains a lot); Wells dined one time at Señor Frog's with Jason Biggs ("Here I am with the New York Times food critic, who can make or break a restaurant, and here he is dancing a conga line, doing sugary shots, while a house band is singing the shittiest music in the world."); Wells often has a slower meal than other diners "because dishes get done again and again until they are deemed exemplary;" and Wells has some controversial views on the current NYC dining scene: "If you look at where the good food is in New York, it’s really in Manhattan and Queens,” he said. "I’m sorry, other boroughs, I’m sorry."