Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Pete Wells Has His Knives Out

[ed. Great article, and Pete Wells is a national treasure (his visit to Senor Frog's in Times Square has to be one of the funniest reviews I've ever read). Want to be the food critic for the world's most influencial newspaper in the world's most influencial city? Here's how you do it.]

Pete Wells, the restaurant critic of the Times, who writes a review every week—and who occasionally writes one that creates a national hubbub about class, money, and soup—was waiting for a table not long ago at Momofuku Nishi, a modish new restaurant in Chelsea. Wells is fifty-three and soft-spoken. His balance of Apollonian and Dionysian traits is suggested by a taste for drawing delicate sketches of tiki cocktails. Since starting the job, in 2012, he has eaten out five times a week. His primary disguise strategy is “to be the least interesting person in the room,” he had told me, adding, “Which I was, for many years. It’s not a stretch.” But he does vary his appearance. At times, he’ll be unshaven, in frayed jeans; in Chelsea, he looked like a European poet—a gray wool suit over a zip-up sweater, a flat cap pulled low, nonprescription glasses. He was carrying a memoir, written by a friend, titled “Bullies.”

Wells had encouraged me to arrive just ahead of him, and to ask for the reservation for two, at nine-forty-five, under the randomly chosen name of Michael Patcher. There was half a chance that I’d be allowed to sit before he showed up. If so, then at least one aspect of the evening would have what Wells calls a “civilian” texture, even if he was recognized. (As he put it, “If we’re very lucky, we might get a bad table.”) But when Wells arrived I was still waiting to sit down. So we stood near the door, at an awkward, congested spot from which we could have reached out and taken a clam from someone’s plate of Asian-Italian noodles.

The front of the room was bare and bright, and filled with thirty-year-olds on backless stools at communal pale-wood tables—a picnic held in a cell-phone store. The noise level reminded me of Wells’s review of a Tex-Mex restaurant: “It always sounds as if somebody were telling a woman at the far end of the table that he had just found $1,000 under the menu, and the woman were shouting back that Ryan Gosling had just texted and he’s coming to the restaurant in, like, five minutes!” Wells is not peevish about discomfort. His columns make a subtle study of what counts as fun in middle age—loyalties divided between abandon and an early night. His expressions of enthusiasm often take the form of wariness swept away: Wells found joy in a conga line at SeƱor Frog’s, in Times Square. But after dining at Momofuku Nishi he returned to his home, in Brooklyn, and wrote in his notes about “a hurricane of noise.”

Two minutes after Wells arrived at the restaurant, it became clear that he’d been spotted. His friend Jeff Gordinier—a journalist who, until recently, reported on restaurants for the Times—had spoken with me about Wells’s chances of remaining anonymous by referring to a famous contractual demand made by Van Halen: concert promoters were asked to supply the band with a backstage bowl of M&M’s, with the brown ones removed. David Lee Roth, Van Halen’s lead singer, has said that the request was not whimsical. It helped to show whether a contract had been carefully read and, therefore, whether the band’s complex, and potentially dangerous, technical requirements were likely to have been met. Gordinier said that an ambitious New York restaurant’s ability to spot Pete Wells is a similar indicator of thoroughness: “If they don’t recognize who he is, then they are missing a very important detail, and therefore they may not be paying attention to other important details.”

In 1962, Craig Claiborne became the first person at the Times to review restaurants regularly; two decades later, he published a memoir, noting that he had “disliked the power” of being a critic. He added, “It burdened my conscience to know that the existence or demise of an establishment might depend on the praise or damnation to be found in the Times.” Much of that power remains, even as it has seeped away from reviewers of theatre and painting; Wells is a vestige of newspaper clout. And, because successful chefs now often sit atop empires, a single bad review can threaten a dozen restaurants and a thousand employees. When Wells reviewed Vaucluse, on the Upper East Side, he began by identifying the restaurant’s parent company, founded by the chef Michael White and Ahmass Fakahany, a former Merrill Lynch executive: “A critic could run out of new ways to express disappointment in Altamarea Group restaurants if Altamarea didn’t keep coming up with new ways to disappoint.”

The Momofuku Group, run by the thirty-nine-year-old chef David Chang, has in recent years expanded into fast food, overseas restaurants, and a quarterly magazine named Lucky Peach. But Momofuku Nishi was the company’s first full-scale, sit-down restaurant to open in New York in five years. A visit from Wells was a certainty. A copy of the one photograph of him that is widely available online, in which he looks like a character actor available to play sardonic police sergeants, was fixed to a wall in the restaurant’s back stairwell. Chang recently told me that, despite the profusion of opinion online, he still thought of the Times as the “judge and jury” of a new venture, if not the executioner.

In the logjam by the restaurant’s door, a young woman in a dark fitted jacket—later identified as Gabrielle Nurnberger, one of the restaurant’s managers—smiled at Wells, then turned away. Wells said to me, “Look at this,” and we watched as she strode toward the kitchen with her arms down, like a gymnast starting a run-up. (At the equivalent moment of discovery in another restaurant, I saw a manager mouth to Wells’s server “Good luck,” and place a reassuring hand on her arm.) There was increased activity in and out of the kitchen, which was half exposed to the room. We waited a few more minutes, and were then shown to a spot at the edge of the hurricane, against a wall. Our neighbors were taking photographs directly above their bowls of Ceci e Pepe. The dish, a riff on pasta cacio e pepe, using fermented chickpea paste in place of Pecorino, was central to the restaurant’s promoted identity, suggesting technical expertise in the service of amused nonconformity. (Chang told me, later, that he had conceived of the menu as a “Fuck you” to Italian cuisine.) We were given menus with wry footnotes. Wells took off his fake glasses and put on his reading glasses.

Nurnberger became our server. Wells is an unassuming man who has become used to causing a stir, and this can be disorienting: it’s odd to hear him wonder, not unreasonably, if restaurants ever think of bugging his table. But a restaurant can’t openly acknowledge him. A while ago, he happened to sit next to Jimmy Fallon, the host of the “Tonight Show,” at the counter of a sushi restaurant in the Village. Both men were recognized. As Wells recalled it, Fallon “got the overt treatment”: “big smiles and ‘Thank you for coming in’ ” and perhaps an extra dish or two. Wells’s experience was that “every dish of mine was an object of attention and worry before it got to me”—he often has a slower meal than other diners do, because dishes get done again and again until they are deemed exemplary. As usual, his water glass “was always being topped up.” But it was “as if none of this were happening.”

Experienced for the first time, this covert cosseting feels slightly melancholy, like an episode of Cold War fiction involving futile charades and a likely defenestration. Nurnberger was a gracious server but, understandably, not quite at ease. She risked overplaying her role, like Sartre’s waiter in “Being and Nothingness,” who “bends forward a little too eagerly” and voices “an interest a little too solicitous for the order of the customer.” In her effort to help, Nurnberger came close to explaining what a menu was. Rote questions about how we gentlemen were getting on—usually asked of me—had a peculiar intensity. “I’m very reluctant to break the fourth wall,” Wells had said to me earlier, speaking of restaurant staff. “But I wish there were some subtle way to say, ‘Don’t worry!’ ” He sighed—he often sighs—and added, “I can’t honestly say that. Because sometimes they should worry.”

When Wells speaks, his fingers often flutter near his temples, as if he were a stage mentalist trying to focus. He ordered several plates of food; after hesitation, he asked for a glass of white wine. He does not follow Craig Claiborne’s practice, in the nineteen-sixties, of weighing himself every day, but he has begun to think of alcohol as calories that he can skip without being professionally lax. He is not fat, but the job stands between him and leanness: he can’t turn down food. “My body is not my own,” he said.

When dishes arrived, he looked at them sternly for a moment. We talked, or shouted, about his older son’s food allergies, and about a decision, just made at the Times, to have him regularly assess restaurants outside New York. (The first of these reviews, from Los Angeles, appears online on September 6th.) He talked of his earlier career, as an editor at Details, a columnist at Food & Wine, and the dining editor of the Times, when he had opportunities to watch chefs work and ask them questions. In his current role, he’d probably leave the room if someone like Chang turned up at the same cocktail party. “The danger is getting friendly with people you should feel free to destroy,” he said, and then stopped. “That’s not really the word, but you get the idea. People you should feel free to savage, when you have to.” Over my shoulder, Wells could see into the kitchen. At the start of the evening, Chang wasn’t visible, but then he was. “He may have been airlifted,” Wells said. For the critic’s benefit, a chef-commander, summoned from a sister restaurant or a back office, may take over from a lieutenant. Though Chang’s brand is built on unconventionality, he respected the convention of the fourth wall. The two men, who were on friendly terms before Wells became a critic, made eye contact but did not acknowledge each other.

by Ian Parker, New Yorker |  Read more:
Image: Luci Gutierrez