Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Q&A with Pete Wells, New York Times restaurant critic

You can find Pete Wells' photo easily enough, but not here
Last week, New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells trashed one of America's most expensive restaurants, Per Se, calling it a "no-fun house" and comparing one dish to bong water.

The Internet erupted with schadenfreude; many love nothing more than being told rich people are wasting their money. The review was such a big deal that the Times' public editor did a column weighing in on whether Wells should have given a lower rating than two stars. (Verdict: that's up to Wells.)

Like many readers, I was entranced by the review. Negative reviews are always more fun to read, so it's a shame we don't see more of them about wine. I decided it was time to interview a writer I have long admired.

Wells agreed to a phone interview with the condition that we not speak specifically about Per Se. He says it's his policy not to talk about negative reviews because he doesn't want to "inadvertently say something that expands on the original criticism." And sadly, I forgot to ask him how he knows what bong water tastes like. My bad! 

But we did talk for an hour about restaurant reviewing, the types of wines he likes, what he eats when he's off duty, and what he does when the restaurant recognizes him. 

The Gray Report: How many meals do you eat in restaurants in a week?

Pete Wells: I find that the sweet spot is five. It gives me the three that I need for each week's review, plus two for scouting. I go to a fair number of restaurants that don't end up getting reviewed. They either don't rise up to that level or I don't have anything to say about them.
I want each review to represent a decision that I made and not just, oh, I guess I'll do this one next.
I need to have some meals that don't work out into a review.

Wait -- you do all three review meals in the same week?

No, typically they're spaced out by at least a week. I try never to show up less than a week apart. The column requires three reviews. So there are 3 review meals a week.

Do you ever just go out to eat?

Every once in a while, depending on what type of restaurant it is, when I'm curious about it and not sure whether I want to review it, I might drop into the bar and just have a few dishes. I don't want to take up a table. I just want to try a few things.

What's your budget? Unlimited?

I haven't tested it.
I used to be the editor of the Dining section. I was always really careful to preserve that budget even when we had other budget cuts.
Every 12 to 24 months the paper would hand down budget cuts. We'd get a memo, cut your expenses by 10 to 15%. I would take the money from anywhere else other than the restaurant critic's supply. I think that's still the case today.
I like to do inexpensive places too. I like to think they balance out. It's not all Per Se. I think it helps readers to do a mix.

I've always wanted to ask this. Because it's not your money, how do you tip?

I do about 20% because that's basically the standard in New York. I do it more or less automatically. I've never left intentionally less than 20%, maybe rounding down by a couple of dollars. I never leave less to punish a server. That's not the game I'm playing.
As a civilian I won't come back to a restaurant if I get bad service. But if you tip less than what's expected you're hurting everybody in the front of the house. (The tips are) almost always pooled.

What do you see as your role?

There are several roles. I try to circle around to get to each one over time. I don't think each review has to do everything but if you look at the reviews over several months, it becomes parts of a whole.
A good number of my reviews are simply, "Here's some good news, here's a good restaurant you should know about. It deserves attention."
Another aspect is what I think they're doing. Above the simple recommendation, I generally try to put a place into context. If it's a less familiar cuisine I try to put in some background about what this kind of food is. The restaurant column goes beyond the simple consumer service approach. I try to make sense of what the place is up to. Separately, I look at how well they deliver on what they try to do.
Some reviews are about New York. Some reviews are about dining culture and how it's changing. Some reviews, the context is celebrity chef culture and how it's affecting the dining experience. The Guy Fieri review was an example of that. Here's a restaurant that opened because the chef had a name.

What about entertainment value? I was enormously entertained by the Per Se review.

Oh yes, I do try to make it readable. It's kind of boring, isn't it? Reading what somebody else ate. Who cares? You have to make it kind of interesting. I'm not that interested in what anybody else ate. I am interested in whether I might want to eat there myself.
We now have people reading that column who don't live anywhere near New York. They're obviously less interested in having the review be a long list of "order this, don't order that." Keeping in mind that we have a global readership, we have a lot of people who are not reading the reviews to decide where to eat tomorrow night.
It puts more pressure on you to make the thing interesting as a piece of writing, as opposed to a piece of service. The big readership of the Per Se review this week, a lot of those people aren't going to Per Se. A lot of the comments started with people who said, "I have never been to Per Se and will never go."

I got into an argument before yoga class with somebody just last week about The French Laundry (Per Se's sister restaurant), and I know you're not supposed to argue at yoga, but there it was. I was talking with somebody else about restaurants and he mentioned The French Laundry and she said, quite vehemently, that there was no reason anybody should go there. I've been to The French Laundry a few times and I think I'm done with it; I've seen their tricks and they don't do much new. But I had a couple of great meals there, and I said that I thought if you're a food lover in northern California, The French Laundry is a rite of passage, some place to go out of curiosity if nothing else, if you don't mind spending the money. I'm probably not going to go again but I'm not sorry I went.

I understand people who say, "I'm not interested in this." But I truly don't understand the people who say, "Nobody should be interested in this." That the experience that restaurants like Per Se and other high end restaurants try to provide are just never worth it. Sometimes they are worth it. Not everybody has disposable income. But if we do, why not spend it on something you're passionate about? If you don't want to spend that much money, that's fine. But somebody does, and people do. I read a lot of wine columns about a lot of wines that I'll never have but they're still interesting.

You don't write about wine very much. How important are wine and drinks in a review?

It is important and I think I write about it a fair amount. Someone wrote something about a year ago accusing restaurant critics of not paying a lot of attention to the beverage programs, and mentioning me as one.
I'm not going to review the one bottle out of the 50 or 100 on a list that I happen to drink. I do look at the wine list to see if it's coherent and has a point of view, and if budgets are accommodated. I'll tend to mention a list that I think is really well put together or really badly put together. In the middle I might pass. I take the same approach with dishes. I tend to write about the very good ones and very bad ones. In the middle, they're fine, but they're not something I need to write about. I even take that approach with the restaurants I review.
Sometimes the wine and drink choices stand out. It's a case by case basis.

Do you drink when reviewing?

Not always. I don't go around broadcasting this. One does put on weight in this job. The one major source of calories I can eliminate without seriously compromising my ability to review is alcohol. I do have nights off. It doesn't mean I don't look at the list. I go with people who are drinking and I get to observe their interaction with the sommelier or server. Sometimes it's better when I'm not the person ordering. And also because I often know what I want, but it's really useful for me to go with people who either don't know quite what they want or aren't adept at articulating it. That's such an important part of the sommelier job: figuring out what people want even if they aren't good at expressing it.

What do you like to drink?

I've got pretty diverse tastes in food and I've got pretty diverse tastes in drinks too.
I love a good clean well-balanced cocktail. In wine for a long time I have been in favor of a style that's becoming more and more popular now, in short, food-friendly wines. The high alcohol sherbet, almost reduced-tasting wines that were seen as the goal a few years ago are much less common now.
I am crazy about Riesling. I don't order it all the time because not everybody gets crazy about it. I don't know why. I don't know what's wrong with these people.

 Click here for part II of the interview, in which Wells reveals his favorite restaurants, what he eats off-duty, and how he stays hidden 

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