Critic's Notebook

How Restaurant Criticism is Done

This week’s New Yorker profiles Pete Wells.

By Kathryn Robinson September 12, 2016

Fifi peu0lo

Not Pete Wells, but celeb chef Guy Fieri.

If the subject of Ian Parker’s masterful profile in this week’s New Yorker is The New York Times’s restaurant critic Pete Wells—the critic who dinged the revered Per Se from four stars to two; the critic who eviscerated Guy Fieri’s Guy’s American Kitchen and Bar (“Why did the toasted marshmallow taste like fish?”)—one clear subtext is the importance of critical anonymity.

Wells on his disguise method: “to be the least interesting person in the room.” Wells on why he won’t engage personally with industry folk: “The danger is getting friendly with people you should feel free to destroy.” (He used to write his notes in the restaurant’s bathroom; he now relies largely on memory.)

Never did the writer explain or justify Wells’ desire to remain anonymous—itself an unbelievably refreshing stroke in an era where critics are not abashed at being widely known, openly played to, and celebrities in themselves. For Wells, the need for anonymity was simply obvious—as evidenced when, in one restaurant, he was identified, then fawned over.

Writes Parker: “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. [The waiter] 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, [the waiter] came close to explaining what a menu was.”

And people wonder why I strive for anonymity.

There is much, much more in this terrific piece—including Wells’s weakness for “fun” restaurants (“too many restaurants have become church without the singing or costumes,”), his pronouncement of which New York boroughs have the best food (cough, not Brooklyn, cough), his tortured relationship with his own power.

It’s the read of the week.

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