Dining

Per Se What?

Thomas Keller responds to Pete Wells's damning Per Se review
Photo: Deborah Jones

On January 12, New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells tore apart Per Se in a now-famous review. He compared the mushroom bouillon at the supposed paragon of fine dining to bong water. From napkins left on the floor to a wineglass left empty on the table, the service was unforgivable, Wells wrote, calling the experience "respectably dull at best to disappointingly flat-footed at worst."

For Wells, the food and service simply couldn't justify the exorbitant price tag of the meal: $325 for a nine-course tasting menu, before additional charges for alcohol, caviar, truffles or foie gras. Thus, four stars became two, and the food world was sent into a frenzy. Grub Street called it "another nail in the coffin of fine dining."

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Just last night, Per Se chef Thomas Keller released a letter responding to the review. Addressed to the restaurant's guests, the letter begins by explaining the standards to which Keller holds the food and service.

"Regretfully, there are times when we do not meet those standards," Keller writes.

Keller expresses disappointment for letting Wells down, offers an apology to guests at large and an invitation to return for what he promises will be a better experience.

"When we fall short, we work even harder," he says.

Though the letter addresses guests in general, it's easy to read it as a direct letter to Wells. Ultimately, it's an apology. Warranted or not, it highlights the power these kinds of reviews can wield.

For more insight on Wells's review and the sway restaurant critics hold, we spoke to some chefs and restaurant owners to hear their takes on the initial review. Here are a few responses:

Marc Vetri, Chef and Owner of Six Philadelphia-Based Restaurants

"I speak about this in a piece for the Huffington Post, 'How Food Journalism Got as Stale as Day-Old Bread,' but I think it's irrelevant what a writer thinks of your restaurant. It doesn't matter to me. The writer is writing that for his own agenda, not to let anyone really know about a restaurant, I feel. It's to get readers. And obviously, it worked well in this case, in getting readers. My last meal at Per Se was probably two years ago, and it was one of the most amazing meals I've had. I had a great meal there; maybe somebody had a bad experience there. Maybe the same thing happens at my restaurant, but I'm always doing the best that I'm able and always pushing forward and looking to do new things, and sometimes they're successful and sometimes they're not. I imagine Thomas [Keller] puts in that same effort at all of his restaurants. For me, it's always nice to get written about nicely, but I just don't put a lot of weight in it. He's a good writer, it was a fun read, for sure, but it's entertainment. I'm not going to stop eating there because of it."

James Beard Award-Winning Chef Tony Maws of Craigie on Main and The Kirkland Tap & Trotter in Boston

"Pete Wells is a terrific writer, which does not necessarily mean he's a terrific critic, though I happen to think so. He makes his points in very dramatic style, which is one of the reasons so many look forward to his reviews. I imagine taking on a culinary giant like Thomas Keller and Per Se must be a huge challenge, and leaving his dining experiences so disappointed (with a substantially lighter wallet!) clearly upset him. We all have greater expectations for things we've categorized as iconic, and the letdown is much harder to take; though whether this is fair is a worthy follow-up conversation. But he expected great things out of Per Se, and the restaurant fell short, while the staff appeared to not care. This is perhaps the biggest sin in any restaurant and why, if I had to guess, Pete went to such great lengths to state his case.

"That said, I'd obviously be devastated if anyone left our restaurants feeling this way. Being held accountable publicly, deservedly so or not, is terrifying and humiliating. My inclination would be to reach out to my customer base and pledge to do whatever it takes to be better. I'm sure the staff is horrified and embarrassed as well, and there would have to be some deep soul searching for what honestly needs to improve. That takes strong character and great leadership, but it can be done; though it will take time, and restaurants don't usually have that luxury."

Alissa Hernandez, Sous Chef at BKLYN Larder

"Pete Wells's review of Per Se was shocking. I have never dined at Per Se. I have never been to French Laundry (though I would love to someday). I have only had the pleasure of reading Thomas Keller's cookbook and trying to apply his applications to my own food. He is a godfather chef indeed. That said, being a present chef is so important to the success of a kitchen and a restaurant as a whole. A kitchen needs a present leader, one who shows and teaches their brigade proper forum and etiquette and how to produce all things in the manner they foresee. If that leader is not present (or omnipresent), that vision will not come to fruition. Diners will see broken sauces, overcooked vegetables, etc. Leaders must be present. Also, staying true to your soul, teaching endearment of ingredients and methods will take you far."

Find Per Se on DINE or online here.

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