“Dinner or lunch at this grand, hermetic, self-regarding, ungenerous restaurant brings a protracted march of many dishes,” wrote New York Times food critic Pete Wells in his recent review of Per Se, the much-hyped Thomas Keller restaurant. Skewering culinary pretension is a favorite pastime of Wells, who has held the Times post since 2011. When he reviewed the French restaurant Daniel several years ago, for example, he spent a chunk of his piece noting that the service appeared to be worse when the clientele were unrecognizable or insufficiently well-known. He’s praised the “mindless fun” of Señor Frog’s and called out a drink at Guy Fieri’s American Kitchen & Bar for tasting “like radiator fluid and formaldehyde.” He may be the first viral restaurant critic; every review he writes seems to set the Internet on fire.
When I spoke with Wells over the phone last week, we discussed his favorite critics, his concerns about inequality in the food world, and why nothing beats an Oreo. This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.
How do you prepare before going to a restaurant?
It depends. I try to mix it up so that I’m not marching in the door at 8 o’clock every single time. I don’t like to be predicable.
But do you tend to eat something before you go or starve yourself for a certain number of hours?
I try to have a pretty light lunch, and sometimes, no lunch, in the summer especially. Like, when the weather’s warm, I can skip lunch or have almost nothing for lunch, so I try to go pretty hungry. It’s just hard if you’re not hungry. It’s just different.
Has writing about food changed your relationship to it? Is there always a voice in your head critiquing what you’re eating now?
I try to switch that off. I’m probably better at switching it off when it’s costing me less. I try not to be critical at all. If I go to somebody’s house for dinner, there’s not even a shred of criticism. I just enjoy it.
You pretend to enjoy it.
Right. Like any civilian, I sometimes give compliments that aren’t entirely 100-percent heartfelt. I don’t think it’s really affected the way I enjoy a normal place that I would go to with low expectations. I’m sure it’s affected the way I enjoy places where I have higher expectations.
It must be harder to enjoy those places.
It’s harder to enjoy them when they’re not done well. It’s the difference between going into something and letting it wash over you and going into it with an analytical mind.
You seem to take a certain pleasure in puncturing what you see as elitism or old-fashioned pretension in fine dining.
I don’t like pretension in any form, but I do like old-fashioned things when they’re done really well. I just think that restaurants that are trying to follow the very traditional and formal modes of service really have to know what they’re doing, and they have to do it with conviction, or it seems fake, and when it seems fake, it’s not pleasurable.
Do you think restaurants that are stuffy are generally stuffy because the people who run them are snobs, or do you think they are responding to demand from snobby customers?
I think sometimes you see a restaurant faking something that they don’t fully understand or believe in. I also think there is some sincere pretension, where restaurants are really committed to their own vision and that can lead to stuffiness and snootiness. Weirdly enough, I think you see snootiness more in the modern places than even in the old-fashioned places.
Inequality is obviously a big subject in this country and especially in New York City. Has the focus on that subject changed either fine dining itself or they way you think about it?
I’ve certainly seen the roof raised on the baseline price of the very fanciest restaurants. I’m only talking about New York, but, if you go back before Per Se and others, you could go to any of the four-star restaurants in New York City, and if you didn’t drink, two people could get out of there for not too much more than $200. Now that can be the menu price for one person alone, excluding tax or drink. For some people it’s not even an affordable splurge anymore. Some of the very fanciest restaurants in the past, if you saved up enough—and I’m talking about people who have disposable income to begin with, which is not everybody, but if you did have disposable income, you could choose to not spend money on something else ,and you could have a blowout, and it wouldn’t be completely out of reach.
Do you think you write too often about restaurants that are out of reach?
You know, I think about it. On the one hand, yes, a lot of these places we’re talking about are very small and not many people can get in, and some of them only do one seating a night or two seatings a night, or they’re open three or four days a week, and I do wonder about how many people they’re actually serving. On the other hand, the very places where the food is extremely creative and thought-out and a lot of care is taken, they do represent the higher end of refinement. There’s a little bit of tension there about wanting to write about places that regular people can actually go to and feel like I’m covering, for lack of a better word, advances in the field.
This is a difference between food reviewing and, say, movie reviewing, right? When a critic reviews a highbrow movie, his hope is that he’ll get his audience to go see it, rather than go see Mission: Impossible.
Yeah, it’s completely different. All movies cost the same, and all books are in the same range, and that’s not true for restaurants. Movie critics in particular generally review everything that’s in wide release. So, they review the schlock, even if the critics would rather not spend their time in that theater. If I do schlock, it’s because I think it’s interesting schlock. I don’t have to do that. There are too many restaurants here.
Movie critics can also say to themselves, ‘Well, it’s a person’s choice that he or she is not going to see this artsy independent movie even though I want them to,’ but it’s not really a person’s choice if he or she wants to eat at Per Se.
No, but I also get emails and letters from people who clearly don’t have a ton of money who want to experience the very peak of New York dining. They’ll ask me to help them choose among the four-star restaurants here. And sometimes, they’re kids—high school kids or college kids who just got really turned on by food, and they just want to see what it’s like at the top.
Doesn’t that seem generational to you, regarding food’s prominence in the general culture these days?
Yes, yes, totally! I’m 52, but I didn’t think that way when I was in college. I wanted to go to a nice restaurant, but I did not want to go to a $200–$300 dollar meal.
Do you have any lowbrow food passions? Like Pringles or something that you just like?
I find the Oreo and all of its imitators pretty hard to stay away from. I just think it’s an amazing cookie.
Just the quality of the chocolate.
Yeah, why is the chocolate so good in the Oreo?
I’ve never been able to figure this out. It’s fascinating to me. I’m a chocolate snob, but there’s something about that wafer. It’s just unbelievable.
I’m going to look this up right now so I don’t make something up. Hmmmm, so I don’t think the actual Oreo has this anymore, but there’s something called black cocoa powder. I guess it has more to do with the color than anything else, but I think it’s a different taste from lighter cocoa.
What do you make of the era of celebrity chefs? Do you think there’s any chance it’s going to come to an end?
I don’t see it coming to an end, but it’s hard to imagine that the current intensity will remain forever. Rock stars don’t have the cultural currency that they did in the ’60s and ’70s, but we still have rock stars, and we’ll still have chefs. It’s changed restaurant culture in different ways depending on how you want to define “celebrity chef.” Are you talking about somebody who’s on TV? It’s made it easier to open that kind of restaurant where the whole plate is … the earthly manifestation of this character you have seen on TV. Below that level, you have chefs who are famous but are not necessarily TV chefs or not at all TV chefs but because we write and talk about chefs so much, they’ve just sort of become household words.
Do you hear from chefs?
Sometimes I do, and sometimes I don’t. Some of them write me after reviews. A lot of them don’t.
Any stories you want to share?
I got a kind of a rah-rah email from Mario Batali after I reviewed Casa Mono and gave the place three stars. The staff had never spotted me when I was in there, which I think is interesting. I think to them, it sort of made it better, I guess: They freaked out when they realized I was doing a review, and then, when it was a positive review, maybe they felt even better.
You weren’t wearing a disguise, were you?
Well, no. No.
You sound like you’re hedging.
No, I don’t. I mean, the only disguise I really have is to keep out of sight as much as I can. That’s all I can do.
So no nightmare stories of restaurants going off on you?
Interesting food is turning up in places that you wouldn’t call restaurants. I had come across a couple of problems at Aldo Sohm Wine Bar, and I had some complaints about them: The food I was served and the service—it was like a quick little hit, but it was not complimentary. They emailed me shortly after and said thank you for coming and noticing, and we’re going to take your concerns into account. Which is, I think, how I would hope that any restaurateur would respond to any customer feedback.
Yeah, that’s what you want in a relationship. That’s what you want in anything.
Yeah. Right. I think when people have a bad experience, and they write a letter, and they call the next day—I’ve heard from a bunch of them, recently—what they want is for the person at the restaurant to say, “I hear you, and we’re going to take it seriously.” If they get invited back for a complimentary glass of wine or something, that’s nice, but I think really what they want—they just want to be heard. So if I get a letter like that from a restaurant, I’m happy, because I think they are probably in the habit of doing that with other customers.
Are you optimistic about criticism in the Yelp era?
It’s not about Yelp, it’s about cash flow of the publications that might pay restaurant critics. That’s the real threat. If your local newspaper just has to keep cutting back and cutting back and cutting back, restaurant criticism is going to go because it’s expensive.
Yeah, although if you look at things like the Wall Street Journal, or the Financial Times, or even the New York Times, especially the weekend coverage, they’re obviously catering to a very high-income audience, so you wonder, actually, if that would help food criticism survive.
Maybe a little, but the Journal doesn’t have a critic right now.
They had a critic, or they had a food editor columnist who, you know, semi-regularly did restaurant criticism, and then when he left, they didn’t replace him.
I don’t know about worst.
I think a lot of the best are or were at the Times. Mimi Sheraton was great.* Frank [Bruni], who I got to edit, was really good. Sam Sifton was really good. It sounds like I’m touring the company line of great critics. I think Gael Greene was really important in her time. We’ve got a lot of critics here right now, in New York at least, and it is kind of a great time.
Do you cook?
Yeah, I love to cook, and I don’t do it anymore.
It’s just because I’m out. I’m out every night. I just don’t. I’m not even home on the weekends, but I cook like on a Sunday night, if I am home.
But being a critic hasn’t particularly changed your cooking?
No, I don’t try to cook like chefs—
You’re not snobby about it?
I’m not interested in that at all. I’m happy to have that done for me in a restaurant.
You can fry Oreos. Just saying.
I know. I’ve had a fried Oreo. Thank you for letting me know.
*Correction, Jan. 21, 2016: This article originally identified Mimi Sheraton as Naomi Sheridan. (Return.)