What’s Eat­ing CElEb ChEfs?

Hindustan Times ST (Mumbai) - Brunch - - INDULGE -

EAR­LIER THIS year, I went to the cel­e­brated Rock­pool restau­rant in Syd­ney. I got talk­ing to Phil Wood, Rock­pool’s Head Chef, about food in gen­eral. Two min­utes into our con­ver­sa­tion, we were dis­cussing The New York Times re­view of Thomas Keller’s Per Se restau­rant. Wood had spent two years work­ing at Keller’s The French Laun­dry in Cal­i­for­nia and was shocked by the Times’ hatchet job on Per Se. It was the Times that had once given Per Se four stars, its high­est ac­co­lade. But the new re­view knocked it down to just two and com­plained about the food, the ser­vice and the at­ti­tude.

“Pretty shock­ing,” I said.

“Yeah,” said Wood. “But it’s The New York Times. must know what they are talk­ing about.”

Re­views by food crit­ics may make or break a restau­rant in other parts of the world, but they don’t ex­ert the same in­flu­ence in In­dia

So they

The Times’ critic can make or break restau­rants and chefs. The great Alain Du­casse got three stars from Miche­lin for his first New York restau­rant but knew that the only thing that mat­tered was four stars from The New York Times. When he didn’t get them (he got three, though a later re­view up­graded his rat­ing), he was dev­as­tated and the restau­rant suf­fered.

In Lon­don, crit­ics now rou­tinely slam Gor­don Ram­say but it doesn’t make much dif­fer­ence to his busi­ness. But in New York, the Times ran him out of town when it gave two stars to his restau­rant and said his food was not ex­cit­ing. A whole book ( The Fourth Star) has been writ­ten about Daniel Boulud’s quest for The New York Times’ ap­proval. (He got his fourth star but lost it later – de­servedly, I think.)

The New York Times changes its critic fairly reg­u­larly. The guy who was bored by Gor­don Ram­say was Frank Bruni. One for­mer critic, Mimi Sher­a­ton, claimed to have been phys­i­cally as­saulted by an an­gry French chef. Ruth Re­ichl is still fa­mous for go­ing to Le Cirque in dis­guise and be­ing treated shab­bily and then go­ing as her­self and be­ing treated like a queen: she gave the restau­rant just two stars. The re­viewer who gave Per Se four stars was Sam Sifton. And the man who knocked it down to two is the cur­rent critic Pete Wells.

Be­cause The New York Times oc­cu­pies such a hal­lowed place in the restau­rant world, I am al­ways cu­ri­ous about how its crit­ics ac­tu­ally func­tion. Both Re­ichl and Sher­a­ton wrote books about their ex­pe­ri­ences, but only after they left. So I was fas­ci­nated to read a pro­file in The New Yorker of Pete Wells, the cur­rent critic.

The New Yorker’s writer clearly spent sev­eral days talk­ing to Wells and ac­com­pa­nied him on his re­view­ing vis­its to the new Mo­mo­fuku Nishi, run by David Chang, a chef/restau­ra­teur who is widely ad­mired. Even­tu­ally, Wells slammed Mo­mo­fuku Nishi (fairly, The New Yorker sug­gests) and Chang, who is as noted for his ar­ro­gance as his tal­ent, re­sponded an­grily (“he is a f....ing bully”) as busi­ness suf­fered and book­ings dropped.

The pro­file of­fered some in­ter­est­ing in­sights into how the world’s most pow­er­ful restau­rant critic does his job. It ac­knowl­edged his un­matched in­flu­ence and power. A bad re­view, even from the Times, can’t close a Broad­way play or kill a movie. But a bad re­view from Wells can shut down a restau­rant.

Times crit­ics are sup­posed to be anony­mous (they book un­der false names, don’t ap­pear in pub­lic, etc.) but in re­al­ity,

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