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The Pete Wells Thread


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i don’t know if any of you have seen this yet. i confess that i didn’t search beforehand….so apologies if you have already discussed.

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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.

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.

much more here

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According to Eater   Let the grumbling begin.

Even now when everybody has seen pictures of all the major reviewers, there's hope for anonymous restaurant reviewing.

I am not playing the Taion Game any more. It consists of hair splitting, meaningless distinctions, and when pinned in the corner, a quick change in subject. It's not fun for me or anybody else excep

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12 hours ago, Wilfrid said:

 

  • I plan to eat out this weekend and I am willing to splurge; let me look at 3 and 4 star restaurants (but not Asian, I'm not in the mood for Asian).

The socioeconomic implications of this are so unacceptable right now that if The Times were to continue on that path people would be there burning down its office tower.

And I'd be there with them.

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Again, this is like The Times' classical music desk doing what Michael Barbaro incorrectly thinks it does and privileging what goes on at Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall over what goes on in Bushwick and Ridgewood.

It would be insulting if it did.

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And again, Wilf, you have to understand that, on the basis of my non-"foodie" friends, at least, the vast majority of readers don't understand the star rating system the way you do.  They think three stars means better than two stars, full stop.

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11 hours ago, Diancecht said:

It’s also safe to assume that blanketing food criticism in whiteness results in many non-Western flavors being misunderstood.

A true statement in a pile of garbage - non-western restaurants consistently get rated higher than they should be and are not held to the same standards.

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11 hours ago, Sneakeater said:

The socioeconomic implications of this are so unacceptable right now that if The Times were to continue on that path people would be there burning down its office tower.

And I'd be there with them.

The point is not what the hypothetical reader is in the mood for. I could have written "I don't want to splurge and I'm thinking of Italian." The point is that other kinds of reviews serve completely different purposes.

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11 hours ago, Sneakeater said:

And again, Wilf, you have to understand that, on the basis of my non-"foodie" friends, at least, the vast majority of readers don't understand the star rating system the way you do.  They think three stars means better than two stars, full stop.

How am I understanding it?

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4 hours ago, Orik said:

A true statement in a pile of garbage - non-western restaurants consistently get rated higher than they should be and are not held to the same standards.

yup

well, even a broken clock is right once in a while 

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Tragedy! The hot buffet in the 18th Ave Netcost supermarket has disappeared. I can no longer demand Wells review it.

But seriously, it was a great buffet. Still, I have three kinds of headcheese, a long squishy sausage, some rollmops and a can of goulash. And am waiting on a banh mi at Em just around the corner.

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You know that Ryan Sutton DID review, not the Netcost buffet, but the one at another of the Brighton Beach/Coney Russian megagroceries (the one that's opening a branch on top of the West 4th Street-Washington Square subway station).

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5 hours ago, Sneakeater said:

You know that Ryan Sutton DID review, not the Netcost buffet, but the one at another of the Brighton Beach/Coney Russian megagroceries (the one that's opening a branch on top of the West 4th Street-Washington Square subway station).

Tashkent!

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