Dining

7 Secrets of a Restaurant Critic's Life

What we learned from an interview with the NYT's Pete Wells
Nishi's Ceci e Pepe
Nishi's Ceci e Pepe | Photo: Gabriele Stabile

A job often coveted by outsiders, being a restaurant critic is more than eating meal after glorious meal on someone else’s dime. Take for instance the pressure wrapped up in the ability to make or break a restaurant. In the words of Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

So what’s it really like to be the New York Times’ current critic-in-residence, Pete Wells? The New Yorker’s Ian Parker goes behind the scenes, not only offering a glimpse into the (well-fed) life of Wells but also revealing the news that the paper will, for the first time, file restaurant reviews from outside the New York area.

Here are seven things we learned about Wells.

The Art of the Takedown: In January, Wells penned a review of Per Se, demoting the restaurant from four to two stars, and it caused the food world to erupt with chefs and diners taking sides. Wells explains he didn’t make the decision lightly, debating the actual star count up to the last minute: “I have a loaded gun, and I’m going to have to fire it, and I don’t want to.”

New York’s Finest: While Wells calls Brooklyn home, he reveals that he thinks the best food in New York City is actually limited to just two of the five boroughs. “If you look at where the good food is in New York, it’s really in Manhattan and Queens . . . I’m sorry, other boroughs, I’m sorry.”

Lone Star State of Mind: Wells has been criticized for doling out two-star reviews too often but says, “No one likes one-star reviews. The restaurants don’t like them, and the readers don’t like them.” Adding: “I’m looking for places that I can be enthusiastic about. Like a golden retriever, I would like to drop a ball at the feet of the reader every week and say, ‘Here!’”

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 The Fame Game: While most guests coo at special treatment, Wells dreams of not being recognized by an establishment. His strategy? “To be the least interesting person in the room.”

⑤ Take Note: Remembering the details of a meal are crucial to a critic. For Wells, he started out writing notes in the bathroom, his wife, Susan Choi, explains; otherwise, you’re left being the “asshole on his phone.” These days, he relies mostly on memory, but if he has his guard down, he may jot down notes at his table.

Strictly Business: Despite the amount of time critics spend in restaurants (Wells says he eats out about five times a week), he’s careful to not get too personal with chefs. “The danger is getting friendly with people you should feel free to destroy. . . . That’s not really the word, but you get the idea. People you should feel free to savage, when you have to.”

⑦ Weight of the World: With the life of a critic and all that eating comes certain sacrifices . . . primarily on the scale. As Wells puts it: “My body is not my own.”

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