What’s Eating CElEb ChEfs?
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
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,