Billy Bush Is Ready to Talk About the Tape
Seven months after the infamous Access Hollywood recording got him fired by NBC (and nearly toppled Trump’s White House run), the former Today host goes public with what happened on that bus.
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 Señor 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.
In the fall of 2012, Guy’s American Kitchen & Bar opened, on West Forty-fourth Street. The restaurant’s muse, and part owner, was Guy Fieri. Brought up in California by parents who ate a macrobiotic diet, Fieri became a restaurateur, and found fame as the upbeat host of dude-oriented shows on the Food Network, including “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.” That show’s signature shot framed Fieri—his cheeks shining, his hair gelled into exclamation points—overlooking a cook’s shoulder in a roadside kitchen, yelling his appreciation of the brisket. Guy’s American Kitchen was his first New York restaurant. Wells ate there on four occasions. Three of those times, one of his guests told him on the way out that he or she had never eaten a worse meal.
In 1963, the Times introduced star ratings for restaurant reviews. One star has come to be defined as Good; two is Very Good, three is Excellent, and four is Extraordinary. A restaurant that doesn’t deserve a star is graded Poor, Fair, or Satisfactory, like a Victorian schoolboy. Wells’s review of Guy’s American Kitchen was his first—and, so far, only—column to be headed with a Poor rating. The review was couched entirely as questions. “Guy Fieri, have you eaten at your new restaurant in Times Square?” it began. “Have you pulled up one of the five hundred seats at Guy’s American Kitchen & Bar and ordered a meal? Did you eat the food? Did it live up to your expectations? Did panic grip your soul as you stared into the whirling hypno wheel of the menu, where adjectives and nouns spin in a crazy vortex?” Later: “Were you struck by how very far from awesome the Awesome Pretzel Chicken Tenders are?” Wells went on, “Why did the toasted marshmallow taste like fish?” Newspaper readers have learned to dread columns driven by a rhetorical conceit—Michiko Kakutani once reviewed a novel in Holden Caulfield’s voice—but Wells kept his afloat. His expressions of puzzlement, though amused, were sincere enough to give him a half-innocent path to gleeful, relentless disdain.
Wells is generally a well-mannered critic, if not an overly respectful one. In his first years on the job, he was sometimes faulted in the food press for being too generous in his appraisals; he had made a point of publishing fewer one-star reviews than his immediate predecessors. “No one likes one-star reviews,” Wells told me, in a conversation at his apartment, which is in a Clinton Hill brownstone. “The restaurants don’t like them, and the readers don’t like them. It’s very tricky to explain why this place is good enough to deserve a review but not quite good enough to get up to the next level.” He added, “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!’”
It was a Friday afternoon. His wife, the novelist Susan Choi, and their two sons were out. (He and Choi became a couple while working as fact-checkers at The New Yorker.) Wells was listening to mournful country-tinged indie music while a small dog clattered about on parquet flooring. A door led out to a deck and a grill. According to Kat Kinsman, an editor at the Web site Extra Crispy, who has known Wells since the late nineties, he is “never more relaxed than when he’s tending a grill and wearing a Hawaiian shirt and has some kind of rum-based drink.” Wells, the adopted son of a nurse and an electrical engineer, told me that when he was growing up, in the suburbs of Providence, Rhode Island, he was “the grill guy.” After the death of his father, last year, Wells began researching his biological family, starting with a few clues but no names: he knew that his birth mother “got mixed up with a folksinger from the local coffee-house circuit,” and that his great-grandfather had headed a university linguistics department. “How many can there be?” Wells asked. “I have ruled out Noam Chomsky.”
He had just e-mailed the draft of a two-star review to the paper. He files copy once a week. Mimi Sheraton, the Times’ restaurant critic in the late seventies and early eighties, recently recalled that she was expected to write at least three articles weekly. “I could not make the review my whole week’s literary effort!” she told me. “And I felt that a review was very temporary—it wasn’t going to live for posterity.” Sheraton, who likes Wells and values his discernment, cares little for his column. “A lot of reviews now tend to be food features,” she said. She recalled a reference to Martin Amis in a Wells review of a Spanish restaurant in Brooklyn; she said she would have mentioned Amis only “if he came in and sat down and ordered chopped liver.”
Craig Claiborne, in a review from 1966, observed, “The lobster tart was palatable but bland and the skewered lamb on the dry side. The mussels marinière were creditable.” Thanks, in part, to the informal and diverting columns of Gael Greene, at New York, and Ruth Reichl, the Times’ critic during the nineties, restaurant reviewing in American papers has since become as much a vehicle for cultural criticism and literary entertainment—or, as Sheraton put it, “gossip”—as a guide to eating out. A contemporary Times restaurant critic is expected to maintain a degree of mandarin authority about mussels marinière (and Asian-Italian noodles), but he must also appeal to readers in Miami and London who have no plans to visit New York, and who may come to a review through Twitter and have an opinion about a chef from his or her appearances on TV. As Wells put it, “I have to hit the marks that I have to hit”—food, service, vibe—“without making you die of boredom.” The task can feel like “crossing the desert,” he said.
According to Patrick Farrell, Wells’s usual editor at the Times, Wells sometimes e-mails around deadline to say that he’s forgotten how to write. In moments of distress, he turns to Oblique Strategies, the pack of cards, printed with gnomic guidance for blocked artists, co-written by Brian Eno. (“Change nothing and proceed with immaculate consistency.”) Wells has also learned to avoid taste-related adjectives: his quintessential description of a plate of food is a list of ingredients coupled to an emotion. Writing about Mr. Donahue’s, in Nolita: “The chard was cooked with a little garlic and lemon and bread crumbs. The crab tasted of mayonnaise and Tabasco and had been browned and warmed inside a heavy foil dish in the shape of a crab shell. I spread it on saltines from a crinkly cellophane wrapper and ate it with the sensation of having found something I’d lost such a long time ago that I’d forgotten about it.”
The two-star review is generally the easiest for Wells to write. “It’s good copy, automatically,” he said. Readers will hear a voice of slightly goofy Wodehousian giddiness; the column becomes a self-portrait of someone glad to discover that—in this restaurant and, perhaps, in life—things have turned out better than expected. (In the review he’d just turned in, of Little Pepper, in Queens: “How did crinkle-cut fries get into a Sichuan restaurant? How can I be so helplessly, irretrievably crazy about them?”) Writing about a disappointing restaurant is a challenge that can sometimes be ignored. There are twenty-four thousand restaurants in the city. Although Wells, following his paper’s tradition, won’t file a review before he’s eaten somewhere at least three times, he’ll sometimes make one or two visits and then put the place aside, for reasons that are, essentially, literary. Wells mentioned Luksus, a restaurant in Greenpoint with Nordic touches, which has a Michelin star but left him a little cold. “I can’t figure out what to say about it,” he said.
The risk of Wells’s approach is a two-star bubble. Amanda Cohen, the chef and owner of Dirt Candy, a vegetarian restaurant on the Lower East Side, wept with happiness on seeing her two-star review, in 2012—and she still feels its economic benefit. But, she told me recently, half seriously, “we’re all two stars! We all go to one another’s restaurants, and we’re, like, ‘I’m better than this, and we’ve both got two stars!’”
In such an ecosystem, a harsh review is precious: it helps mark critical boundaries. Wells said that reviewing a Times Square tourist attraction like Guy’s American Kitchen “wasn’t usual territory for us, but it was legitimate territory—and really great copy. How do you walk away from that?” As Wells has come to see it, a disastrous restaurant is newsworthy only if it has a pedigree or commercial might. The mom-and-pop catastrophe can be overlooked. “I shouldn’t be having to explain to people what the place is,” he said. This reasoning seems civil, though, as Wells acknowledged, it means that his pans focus disproportionately on restaurants that have corporate siblings. Indeed, hype is often his direct or indirect subject. Of the fifteen no-star evaluations in his first four years, only two went to restaurants that weren’t part of a group of restaurants.
A review of a bad restaurant seems to expand its writer’s reach more than an unhappy review of a book or a film. A restaurant can deceive, humiliate, and poison us in a way that “Zoolander 2” cannot. In the case of Guy’s American Kitchen, readers were shown two compelling, class-tinged power struggles: one involved an absent, wealthy celebrity and his exploited customers; the other set the institution of the Times against the institution of Guy. As Wells put it, “One would not think they exist in the same universe. It’s like Deadpool on ‘Downton Abbey.’” His rejection of Guy’s American Kitchen was, he assured me, not inevitable: even if he was not truly confounded by a lack of authenticity in a mega-restaurant spun off from reality-television self-caricature, his hope for something good could nevertheless be real. Shortly after the review appeared, he told Margaret Sullivan, then the Times’ public editor, “I would have liked to write the ‘man bites dog’ review.” He went on, “This is important American food that makes a lot of people very happy. And, since that’s the case, you ought to do it right.”
The column appeared online on a Tuesday. Wells was immediately overwhelmed by e-mail and Twitter reactions. “I remember having to walk away from my computer,” he said. “It was like a pinball machine—everything was lighting up.” Some Fieri fans wished harm on his family. Editors at other publications assigned think pieces about Fieri: journalism’s pilot fish, nibbling on flesh snagged between the predator’s teeth. That night, “Good Morning America” sent a reporter to the restaurant, to review Wells’s review, while shooting undercover video of French fries.
On Wednesday, after the column appeared in print, Wells turned down dozens of interview requests. That evening, while David Letterman was reading a Top Ten of Discontinued Guy Fieri Menu Items (teriyaki-glazed napkin, crust-crusted crust, suspiciously damp toast), Guy Fieri, who lives in California, was on an overnight flight to New York. The next morning, in a live interview with Savannah Guthrie on “Today,” he showed the public-relations limits of amiable bluster. Sitting in a restaurant stuffed with Fieri memorabilia and Fieri merchandise, he accused Wells of attention-seeking: “It’s a great way to make a name for yourself. Go after a celebrity chef that’s not a New Yorker.” When Guthrie noted that star chefs often have little involvement with restaurants bearing their name, Fieri said, with satisfaction, that this wasn’t the case here: members of his “team” had worked closely with the people running the restaurant. It was an acknowledgment of disengagement in the form of a denial.
Although the review was published near the year’s end, it became the paper’s fifth-most-e-mailed article of 2012. Wells’s sons, who were then five and eight, picked up on the controversy. Today, according to Wells, “if they see Guy Fieri’s face on a billboard, which only happens every ten minutes, they’re pointing: ‘Look, Daddy, look!’ They know that Guy and I have this special bond.” (Fieri declined to be interviewed for this article.)
After the success of the review, Wells said, “people said that the Times had lost its virginity.” In other words, that the paper, having discovered the secret of viral success, would scramble to replicate it. One could argue that this has happened, with reference, say, to such articles as “How to Train Like the Mountain from ‘Game of Thrones.’” But Wells doesn’t see it, in his own work or elsewhere. “Ruth Reichl’s Le Cirque review would have gone viral,” he said, referring to her first column as the Times’ critic, in 1993. In the piece, she describes visiting Le Cirque first as a civilian—she was belittled and bullied—and then as a recognized critic. Her assessment of the first meal describes a “parade of brown food” and ends with a line that she could have tweeted: “I find myself wishing that when the maître d’ asked if I had a reservation I had just said no and left.”
In October, Wells appeared at the Southern Foodways Alliance, an annual event held in Oxford, Mississippi. Wearing a highwayman’s mask, and billed only as the Masked Avenger, he walked onstage, read the Fieri review to a live piano accompaniment, then walked off. Although the article was relevant to the event’s theme—Southern food in popular culture—one member of the audience still found the performance a little unbecoming, “like a musician who had one hit and is singing it, a cappella, years later.” The observer added, “There may have been a cape.” Wells told me that he wore a Gandalf robe belonging to the son of the event’s organizer.
When Wells eats, he looks like someone who’s decoding a puzzle: there’s frowning concentration, a poke around the salad. One day earlier this year, he was in Jackson Heights, with Jeff Gordinier and Steve Wynn, a rock musician with courtly manners who lives in the neighborhood. Wynn was a new acquaintance; Wells’s job gives a friendship-cementing mechanism to a man who is fairly shy. That evening, while eating in the second of three Himalayan restaurants that the group visited in succession, Wells sometimes dropped out of the conversation. He’d register that a dark speck found on the surface of a gray, un-Instagrammable beef-tongue soup was a Szechuan pepper, and not the coriander seed that he was expecting; or he’d consider the difference between the restaurant’s momos, or dumplings, and those just eaten in the windowless place hidden behind the money-transfer agent. He said, “Just technically—if we can be technical about our momos—where it’s pinched, up at the top, it’s not cooked all the way through.”
Wells wasn’t sure if he’d ever write about the excursion. Ligaya Mishan, who writes the Times’ “Hungry City” column, about cheaper meals, was more likely to cover these restaurants, although Wells—who was the paper’s dining editor for five years—noted that he has “never been comfortable with the received hierarchy of the two columns.” He continued, “I do the ‘real’ restaurants, and these are something else—not worthy of stars?” Either way, he didn’t expect to be recognized, so he dropped his usual defenses. He didn’t wince if one of his guests used his real name, and he openly took notes at the table. (Susan Choi, who eats out with him about once a week, told me that when he started as the Times’ critic he’d write notes in the restaurant’s bathroom, or allow himself to “look like some asshole on his phone.” He now relies largely on his memory.) Wells even faced the room, instead of turning his back on it. Such evenings, he said happily, made him feel like Audrey Hepburn’s character in “Roman Holiday.” His good mood reached out to embrace the whole borough. “If you look at where the good food is in New York, it’s really in Manhattan and Queens,” he said. “I’m sorry, other boroughs, I’m sorry.”
The conversation turned to Romera, a restaurant in Chelsea that closed in 2012, soon after Wells described its many pretensions. (“A restaurant willing to send out a garnish meant to be interpreted rather than eaten is a restaurant that wants to be admired, not enjoyed.”) Wells drew a finger across his throat, in joking acceptance of responsibility. And this led to talk of other restaurants that, like Romera, presented diners with expensive, stage-managed tasting menus, involving many dainty courses and scant choice. In Wells’s phrase, “You just sit down and take it.” It was a curious trend at a time of increasing informality in New York restaurants: no-reservation policies; Led Zeppelin on the playlist. As Gordinier put it, restaurateurs now regard the tasting menu as the “delivery system of perfection.” Wells said of this consensus, “It’s as if you couldn’t win Best Picture if you didn’t have a costume drama set in the nineteenth century.” Amanda Cohen, of Dirt Candy, told me that this style of eating can remind her of the fact that powerful people have been known to enjoy recreational powerlessness in bondage clubs.
Wells used the word “fun” in the first sentence of his first review, in 2012, and it has appeared again every three or four weeks since then. He has at times enthused about good-natured restaurants with inexact kitchen standards, like Sammy’s Roumanian Steakhouse, on the Lower East Side. “Other steakhouses can drive themselves crazy over internal temperatures,” he wrote. “At Sammy’s, the meat will be cooked. If you have something more specific in mind, if you want it medium or black and blue, then write your request on a sheet of paper, tear it into small pieces and throw them into the air when the piano player sings ‘Happy Birthday.’” In one of the early surprises of his tenure, Wells gave three stars to Il Buco Alimentari, an Italian place in NoHo, which, though hardly a hole-in-the-wall, had few fine-dining airs. Jonathan Gold, the Pulitzer Prize-winning restaurant critic of the Los Angeles Times, is a champion of the vernacular, and wrote to praise him. At the Himalayan restaurant in Jackson Heights, Wells described himself as “a little too comfortable in expensive restaurants to be a real populist.” Earlier that day, he had been working on a three-star appreciation of Bouley, in Tribeca, where “creamy tongues of sea urchin under yuzu sorbet” were served alongside “an olive-green spoonful of golden osetra caviar.” But a critic who emphasizes fun—or happiness—is setting up a potential conflict with any restaurant whose approach seems rigid.
Tasting menus suit diners in a certain frame of mind, and they simplify life in the kitchen, especially one whose star chef lives in another time zone. But such a menu makes a long meal almost unavoidable, Wells said, “and it doesn’t leave room for the messiness and chaos that is a lot of the fun of going out to eat”—the business of bartering across the table, and “stealing Jeff’s chicken leg.” (Wells was noting a preference, but he was also indirectly defending territory. A tasting menu disempowers the critic, to the extent that he or she is no longer the only person in the room who has plowed through everything on the menu.) Wells offered another grievance: “If someone’s coming every ten minutes to describe a dish, you’re not going to have much of a conversation.” In 2012, he visited Eleven Madison Park, a restaurant with vast aspirations for international recognition. In a Critic’s Notebook article, not a full-scale review, Wells spoke of feeling worn out by servers doing magic tricks and making little speeches. “By the end of the four hours, I felt as if I’d gone to a Seder hosted by Presbyterians,” he wrote.
Although skeptical about much of what has lately counted as restaurant excellence, Wells hasn’t quite drawn his own boundary line—one defined, perhaps, by affability and chaos. In his columns, where even his expressions of delight are often a little wistful, it’s perhaps possible to detect a critic’s regret that he’ll never report on the dining equivalent of a perfect first album recorded in a garage over a weekend. That has something to do with the nature of restaurants, but it also has something to do with the Times. In the seventies, the paper prefaced every star rating with an explanation: the score represented a reviewer’s reaction “to food and price in relation to comparable establishments.” That language is no longer used, but the spirit—one steak house against another—seems to survive. Wells told me that the star system indicates how close restaurants “come to being the best possible version of themselves,” but he acknowledged that this idea doesn’t fully hold. “It’s hard to imagine a four-star genre restaurant...an egg-cream place,” he said. He has tried to wear the stars lightly (“Hotel stars actually mean something,” he said), but he hasn’t ignored them. Last year, his praise of Superiority Burger—six-dollar veggie burgers in the East Village—was unrestrained, but still pegged at two stars. He recalled a conversation with Alison Cook, the food critic of the Houston Chronicle, who once gave three stars to a burger joint. “She thought it was easier for her to do that in Houston,” Wells said. “The Houston stars didn’t have the same legacy.”
There are restaurants that exist to have four Times stars. With fewer, they become a kind of paradox, or at least a source of investor derangement. Some years ago, before Wells joined the paper, Eric Ripert, the chef and co-owner of Le Bernardin, told him that without four stars his restaurant would have to close. Even a four-star review with a little hesitation can register as an assault. Two and a half years after the Critic’s Notebook piece on Eleven Madison Park, Wells returned to the restaurant, and wrote a proper review. On the day it was posted online, Jeff Gordinier happened to be walking near the restaurant. He glanced at the review, and saw four stars, but he didn’t read the piece, which included teasing references to pompous elements that had survived a recent effort to contain pomposity. Wells had written, “Even now, when any ingredient is grown in New York State, someone is sure to point it out. Hang on, New York has farms?” (Wells told me, “I was trying to say that one measure of this restaurant’s excellence is that they can overcome all of their best efforts to sabotage themselves.”) Gordinier, who had reported on Eleven Madison Park for the Times, dropped in. The lunch service was just ending. Will Guidara, one of the co-owners, was standing by the bar. The four stars, though gratifying, hadn’t neutralized the sting of Wells’s words. “Congratulations!” Gordinier said. Guidara looked at him. “His face was ashen,” Gordinier recalls. “He looked like he’d just been hit by a bus.” Guidara asked Gordinier, “Did you read it?” Gordinier backed out of the restaurant, leaving Guidara to his grief.
By the time Wells ate a nine-course tasting menu at Per Se, on Columbus Circle, last fall, six restaurants operating in New York had four stars from the Times. He had demoted Daniel, on the Upper East Side, from four to three, in a review that had echoes of Reichl’s two-tier account of Le Cirque. But he had agreed with his predecessors about Le Bernardin, Jean-Georges, and, grudgingly, Eleven Madison Park; and he had given four stars to Sushi Nakazawa, which had just opened in the West Village. He had not yet revisited Del Posto, whose four stars were awarded by Sam Sifton, his immediate predecessor. Sifton was also the last critic to have reviewed Per Se, a restaurant opened in 2004, by Thomas Keller, who made his name with the French Laundry, in the Napa Valley. In 2011, Sifton described Per Se as “the ideal of an American high-culture luxury restaurant.” He reported eating one dish in silence, as if experiencing a massage. He also noted that Per Se was “not for those who do not understand that such pleasure comes at a cost”—a phrase that, in its worldliness and unsqueamishness, came close to suggesting that the only thing that could stand between a New Yorker and a five-hundred-dollar lunch was a failure of imagination.
On October 26th, Wells went to Per Se with three companions, and paid a check for about three thousand dollars. He had eaten there several times in the past, happily; he had enjoyed such dishes as Oysters and Pearls—oysters and caviar, on top of tapioca—which, he told me, “is amazing when it’s done right.” But this experience was different. On the cab ride home, he said to himself, “I have a loaded gun, and I’m going to have to fire it, and I don’t want to.” (When he recalled this to me, he laughed at his cowardice.) Wells had read some recent wary writing about Per Se, including an article in Eater, but he was nevertheless taken aback. He’d sampled a nice mai tai, but much else had gone wrong; as he later wrote, he found the place to be “grand, hermetic, self-regarding, ungenerous”—a “no-fun house.”
He delayed returning. During the next few weeks, the unwritten review “weighed on Pete a lot,” Kat Kinsman, the Extra Crispy editor, recalled. When, one evening, Wells texted her a photograph taken outside Señor Frog’s, in Times Square—part of a chain of restaurants designed to evoke the experience of spring break in Cancún—she asked him if it was a cry for help. (Wells, who studied history at the University of Pennsylvania, has written that “my most memorable spring break was whiled away in my room reading ‘The Sorrows of Young Werther’ in German.”) When Wells returned to Señor Frog’s, eleven days later, he invited Kinsman, and she brought along Jason Biggs, the star of “American Pie,” who cares enough about food to own a sous-vide oven. They were a party of eight. A balloon artist made them hats, and when a member of the staff asked if it was anyone’s birthday someone—possibly Wells—pointed a lying finger at Biggs. Then, as Wells later wrote, in a review that didn’t identify Biggs, “a server in a light-up Santa cap stood on our table and sang, along with his colleagues, ‘Froggy, froggy birthday. Na-na-na-na-na. This is how we do it. Na-na-na-na-na.’” In a video shot by Kinsman, Biggs looks like someone who’s learned to be leery about being recognized in a place where drinks are poured directly into the mouths of customers, but then he dances in his chair.
“I left there loving Pete,” Biggs told me recently. “Here I am with the New York Times food critic, who can make or break a restaurant, and here he is dancing a conga line, doing sugary shots, while a house band is singing the shittiest music in the world.” He recalled standing on the sidewalk afterward, “with our balloon hats still on, saying, ‘Oh, my God, what a trip, let’s do it again.’” Kinsman told me that she has never seen Wells happier.
By then, Wells had eaten a second meal at Per Se. (And, for a second time, the restaurant appeared to have failed the Van Halen test. “I think they would have been nicer to us if they’d spotted him,” the writer Craig Seligman, one of Wells’s guests, told me.) In the days after Wells and Kinsman ate at Señor Frog’s, they exchanged texts that, in Wells’s description, asked, “Is it possible to say with a straight face that Señor Frog’s is a better restaurant than Per Se? Can you get those words out without collapsing under your own idiocy?” His upbeat review of Señor Frog’s, published at the end of December, was an overture for the impending Per Se review. “A few chefs and restaurateurs still understand that people go out to have a good time,” he wrote. “But too many restaurants have become church without the singing and costumes.”
Wells had one more meal at Per Se, and then submitted a review to his editors. He described the lobster as “intransigently chewy”; a mushroom bouillon was “as murky and appealing as bong water.” (This seems to be the fate of overreaching mushroom soups: when Adam Platt, New York’s restaurant critic, reviewed Romera, in 2011, he quoted a guest saying that a porcini broth tasted like “old bong water.”) Per Se was “among the worst food deals in New York,” Wells wrote. He noted that the price of the restaurant’s supplements—a truffle risotto added a hundred and seventy-five dollars to the cost of a meal—could “induce rage.” His editors, taking note of the word “rage,” encouraged him not to appear angry, so he instead registered “indignation.”
In the days before publication, Wells said, he weighed “every possible” star rating but four. Recalling the process, he put his hands on his head, in mock woe. “It’s a complicated restaurant, and still does some things well,” he said. But “they’re charging so much money. It got to a level of math that I can’t do! It broke the computers in my head.” He decided on two stars: “That seemed as good as anything.” Any fewer, he thought at the time, “would be such a punk move.”
When the piece appeared, Mimi Sheraton, among others, thought that he’d actually written a no-star review. “People say that would be too big of a jump, it would look crazy,” she told me. “Well, look crazy!” The Times held a meeting at which it was decided to underplay the rating on social media, for fear of seeming to savor it.
Esquire’s response to the piece was headlined “Why That Per Se Review May Change Fine Dining Forever.” Within days, the review had attracted more reader comments, on the Times Web site, than Wells’s dismissal of Fieri. Keller (who declined to be interviewed for this article) e-mailed Wells, and grimly thanked him “for the opportunity to be reviewed” while assuring him that “we make every effort to provide our guests with the best possible experience.” The message was lightly edited before appearing online as a note to his customers; he appeared to be apologizing to them for someone else’s disappointment. He did not follow the example of Ahmass Fakahany, who, a few weeks earlier, had responded to Wells’s review of Vaucluse by posting online a long open letter that read like someone muttering insults, therapeutically, during a long shower. “You need to do some of the basic journalism and sharpen your food knowledge please,” Fakahany wrote. Speaking in his office recently, Fakahany accused Wells of a “subtle form of bullying.” He said that after he published his letter he was fêted in every restaurant he visited. “It may have been genuine or may not have been, but it was an industry moment,” he told me.
Wells was unimpressed by a common response to his Per Se review, which he summarized as: “It’s expensive and someone criticized it—right on!” He noted, “The fact that food is a necessity makes it obscene to some people that it could also be a luxury.” Wells was more interested in the dozens of e-mails he received from people who had not enjoyed Per Se anniversary dinners and birthday lunches. In Wells’s view, a restaurant that is part of a fleet of restaurants may eventually become exciting, but it probably won’t while it’s still focussed on honoring a founding chef, or a group’s house style. “To keep it alive, it needs to have somebody in there inventing,” he said. He has considered the similarities between the lauded founder of Per Se and the alleged creator of Awesome Pretzel Chicken Tenders. Thomas Keller and Guy Fieri are “both Californian chefs who stay in California, and they open a restaurant in New York that everyone goes to thinking they’ll get what we know the chef’s food to be,” Wells said. People then discover “a pretty big difference between the promise and the delivery.”
While Wells was at home in Brooklyn, late at night, writing up his notes about his first visit to Momofuku Nishi, employees at Momofuku Nishi were writing up their notes about him. A report, in two parts, was then e-mailed to David Chang and others. Gabrielle Nurnberger, the manager, wrote that she had recognized Wells, and noted the way he kept his eyes down. Wells and his guest “drank first round quickly,” she reported. We’d been heard talking “about tennis.” (Either we were misheard or this observation was written in code.) She went on, “We did our best to maintain surrounding tables impeccably.” Restaurants aim at creating a zone of good cheer around a critic; neighborhood friends will sometimes be summoned to play the part of joyful customers.
When Wells arrived, the kitchen was being overseen by Josh Pinsky, Nishi’s executive chef, and by Carey Hynes, the chef de cuisine. Hynes wrote the kitchen’s report. “Finally, my man Peter in the flesh,” he began. “We locked eyes intensely. He nodded and mouthed the words, ‘I am Peter Wells.’” Hynes added, “Just kidding.” He noted that, after Wells was identified, a “bat signal” text message was sent to Chang, who was thought to have left for the night, but who in fact was in a basement office. The report then described the preparation of each dish, including such details as a “double fire”—for a critic’s table, a kitchen will sometimes make two identical dishes, taste one, and, reassured, send out the other.
In the weeks after this meal, Momofuku Nishi was reviewed by critics who were pleased with its food and its no-tipping policy but unhappy with its brutal acoustics and other informalities. I joined Wells again on his third visit. Before we went in, he talked of restaurant empires, noting that someone with Chang’s reputation will “attract the most talented and ambitious people, but after six months or a year they want more—they want to move up.” The needs of deputies risk becoming a driver of excessive growth. Wells had just had a family vacation in Barcelona; on his phone, he had snapshots of sketches that he’d made of the city, along with photographs of what he approvingly called “ugly food,” including blackened artichokes resembling dead starlings.
On May 16th, Wells called Chang to fact-check. Chang, knowing that the review would appear online the next day, slept fitfully, and woke in a bed that “was wet with sweat,” he told me later. Mid-morning, he went uptown, to discuss an expansionary media venture. During the meeting, he broke a promise to himself, and read the review on his phone. He then apologized to his hosts and left. He took a taxi to Momofuku Nishi, where he told his colleagues that they were experiencing something akin to a diagnosis of terminal cancer.
Wells’s review began, “Searching for money, for love and for food, we strike bargains. We may be content with one for years until we begin to be shadowed by the suspicion that the terms aren’t working out in our favor anymore.” He protested, genially, about the restaurant’s noise and its uncomfortable seats, praised some dishes, and continued, “Too much of the cooking at Nishi is self-referential, inward looking, and so concerned with technique that you can’t help being conscious of it. In his early days, Mr. Chang used to serve the kind of food chefs like to eat: intense, animalistic, okay with messiness, indifferent to prettiness. Nishi serves the kind of food chefs cook to impress each other.” He gave the restaurant one star.
When I spoke to Chang that day, he talked almost without interruption for ninety minutes, in bursts of defiance, anger, and self-laceration. We met a few days later, and he was barely calmer, although self-awareness softened the effect. He apologized for whining; when he dreamed up conspiracy theories, he labelled them as conspiracy theories, and laughed dryly. (He came to accept, in time, that this article wasn’t planned with thoughts of discussing his restaurant.) When he said “Fuck him!” it was as often with resignation as with scorn.
It was easy to sympathize with Chang’s distress, even if he conveyed pique about not being allowed to open a flawed restaurant and fix it, slowly, while charging thirty dollars for pasta. He explained that, when he took on the small space in Chelsea, he’d first planned a bare-bones fried-chicken or noodle restaurant. Then someone had quit, and, after an office vote—“First and maybe last time,” Chang said—he’d decided on Nishi. But, even before the reviews, Chang knew that the restaurant would have to become either faster and cheaper (“I’ve been wanting to do buffet forever”) or grander. The latter was more likely. Chang defended the dining room in its original, punishing form, but said that, some time earlier, he’d had a meeting about cushioned seating. “And, if you look, there are fucking flowers now,” he said. “I hate flowers in restaurants.” This process was unhurried, in part because Chang was waiting for Wells and hoping that he, like other critics, would at least like the food.
“I can’t ever read that review again—I’ll get so fucking angry I’ll die,” Chang said. “I made a lot of that food! I tasted it! It was delicious. And...fuck! I believe in the fucking food we make in that restaurant, I believe it to be really delicious, I believe it to be innovative, in a non-masturbatory way.” He referred to a noodle dish involving dried squid and fermented chilies. I’d enjoyed this more than Wells, who had described it as confused and inconsistent. Chang protested that Wells hadn’t explained to readers that, on his second visit, he had asked for gluten-free noodles, which held the sauce differently. Later, Chang expanded on this point in a long, technical e-mail whose subject line was “Stubbornness about Nishi.” (In response, Wells told me that variations in the sauce’s “intensity and balance” had not derived from variations in the pasta. This seemed to set the stage for a research paper, or at least a televised blind challenge.)
Chang suggested to me that, fifteen years earlier, a review of this kind would have closed the restaurant. Instead, he said, “I think it’s going to be a fight for survival.” Business had immediately fallen. On Momofuku’s Web site, it was no longer hard to secure a Nishi reservation. (Within weeks, the restaurant had abandoned its no-tipping policy and added a brunch menu.) “What Pete Wells wants are more mom-and-pop, underdog restaurants,” Chang said. Distracted by Chang’s ownership, Wells had failed to recognize that this spirit existed at Nishi. It was maddening, Chang said, “to be lumped in with this fucking plague” of corporately owned restaurants. “He’s being a fucking bully,” he added.
We were sitting in a side dining room in Momofuku Ko, Chang’s most luxurious restaurant, in the East Village, where dinner for two, without wine, costs about five hundred dollars. The place was closed. One wall was covered with a spray-painted mural dominated by a scowling dog. Chang went on, “New York City is now not the city that we moved to when we moved here.” Wells thrives on discovery, Chang said, but he’s looking in the wrong places. “We live in a digital world, and Pete still lives in an analog world,” he said. “He wants the new, but he’s still in love with the fucking old. And I don’t think he has reconciled that with himself. I think Pete Wells reviews on nostalgia.”
In 2004, when Momofuku Noodle Bar, Chang’s first restaurant, opened on First Avenue, Wells ate there often. He interviewed Chang for Food & Wine, in an article that predicted a Momofuku empire. Speaking to me just before eating his third meal at Nishi, Wells recalled that era warmly—“when it was Chang and one other guy, doing whatever the hell they felt like.” Now, he said, “it’s more of a cruise ship and less of a cigarette boat. It’s like the New York Times—we’re not known for our nimbleness.”
Chang, who employs more than seven hundred people, acknowledged having nostalgia himself—for a time when he had to worry about cooking only for eight or ten people, in one restaurant. “It’s not about that anymore,” he said. “You know what it’s about now? Taking care of my guys.” He added, “I can’t be as reckless as I used to be.”
When Wells called Chang to fact-check, Chang told him, “This is awful, Pete. This never gets easier.” In Chang’s memory, Wells replied, “This is the life you chose.”
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