Special Sauce: NYT’s Pete Wells on the Future of Restaurant Criticism [2/2]

On this week’s Special Sauce, New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells, who’s been used to eating out six nights a week, tells us about cooking lunch and dinner for his two teenaged sons now that he’s home every day. Pete explains that he’s really enjoyed returning to the kitchen every day; he notes that he originally got into food writing because he loved to cook. I asked him if his sons appreciate his culinary efforts? “At least they’re not complaining,” Pete says, which is about the best you can hope for with teenagers. But you’ll also want to tune into the episode to hear Pete’s thoughts about how the role of the restaurant critic will need to adapt to the restaurant landscape, which, as everyone knows, has been overturned by the coronavirus pandemic.


Ed Levine: On this week’s Special Sauce NYT restaurant critic Pete Wells tells us about cooking for his kids now that he’s home every evening. Remember, this is a person who’s used to eating out six nights a week. Now he gets to cook and eat lunch and dinner for his two teen-aged sons every day. Pete explains that as someone who got into food writing because he loved to cook, he has really enjoyed returning to the kitchen every day. Do his sons appreciate his culinary efforts? Well, they are teenagers, but according to Wells, “at least they’re not complaining.” Pete also wonders aloud about the ways his job and the job of other restaurant critics will change now that existing restaurants are beginning to reopen and new restaurants will be opening for the first time.

EL: As you look out… I mean, first of all, it must be, a lot of people don’t know that before you were the restaurant critic, you were a really terrific features writer and columnist for Food and Wine. Does this sort of kind of reinvigorate you in terms of your own work?

Pete Wells: I mean, yeah. I’m still trying to write every week because I’ve worked my metabolism up to that rate and I’m afraid to lose that pace now. But, yeah. You know what’s been great? Is to be able to pick up the phone and call. Normally when a restaurant critic calls a chef, the chef if sort of like, it’s like when the doctor’s office calls with your biopsy results, like yes. It’s a very strained and awkward conversation. Now at least I get to say, “Look, I come in peace. I just want you tell me what it’s like out there.” And it’s been good. It’s been good to get to hear some perspective from people who I normally keep at arm’s length.

EL: It’s true. And it sort of fosters a familiarity, almost an intimacy with people that you’ve had to, as you say, had to, by definition, keep at arm’s length.

PW: Yeah, it’s not exactly intimacy. And you still have to, at least at the newspaper journalism model, you’re still trying to keep some objectivity. And if you completely enter into the mindset of the restaurateur and have complete sympathy for their point of view, you can’t really report objectively on the employees, because the restaurateurs problems and the employees problems can diverge and what’s good for the owner is not always good for the dishwasher. So you know, it’s important to keep everything in perspective and you don’t want to become an advocate for one point of view because you can miss other sides of the story that are important.

EL: Right.

PW: Nevertheless. Yeah. It’s just been really interesting to hear what people are going through, to have the kind of you know… understand just the heaviness of what a lot of people are carrying around right now.

EL: It’s true. The heaviness is so… it’s like a total eclipse of the sun for a lot of people in the restaurant business. And these are people who, you know… a lot of people who open restaurants, all it takes is a few dollars and a dream. Yes, they have to write business plans and all that, but as we know, business plans are just short stories masquerading as nonfiction, right? I mean… and so whenever I see empty storefronts, all I see are dashed dreams and they’re not even restaurants, right? It could be a dry cleaner that closed in my neighborhood.

PW: No, the nature of business is somebody had a dream that may not even be a dream that involves making tons of money, in a lot of cases, it’s not a dream of making tons of money, but it is a dream of not failing.

EL: Right. Right.

PW: It’s a dream of just being able to keep doing the thing you want to do and making enough money to do that.

EL: Right. And I think more often than not, that probably is the point of view of almost every chef restaurateur I know, of small. Because first of all, why else would you open up a 20 seat restaurant or a 30 seat restaurant, right? Which by definition can’t scale or even a 75 seat restaurant for that matter.

PW: Yeah. And the dream of making great wealth in restaurants is pretty recent. And most people are smart enough not to chase after it.

EL: Do you think that there are all kinds of people trying all kinds of things? And I think they go way beyond just doing takeout and delivery. I talked to a chef in DC or restaurateur, a guy who owns Seven Reasons and he’s encouraging all his employees to start pop-ups within the confines of the restaurant. So, like the pastry chef has started a cake business.

PW: That’s so interesting.

EL: Yeah. And one of his sous chefs started a chicken burger business and they have to pay him for the supplies, but he puts them on the restaurant accounts and they use the kitchen.

PW: That’s super interesting.

EL: And I wonder if we’re going to see more of that kind of thing, more of that creative thinking and can that be a substitute for the traditional restaurant business model?

PW: I think a lot of people now are thinking in terms of having multiple sources of revenue for their business. So restaurants that in the very early days sold off their inventory and then started to sell off their bottles of their bar. They’re now looking at it like, ha, maybe there’s something I could do with retail in the future, maybe a little shop in the corner at the front of the restaurant, or when places reopen at 25, 50% capacity, they’re going to have lots of room for a shop or a grocery store or a liquor store or whatever they can get in there. And then yeah, I think the idea of running multiple businesses under one umbrella is quite interesting to people because the one original umbrella isn’t going to do it right now.

EL: Operating one business is hard enough you know, operating three businesses under the same roof is probably more than three times as hard, you know what I mean? It’s a weird thing that way. So one more question, as it relates to your job, which is, you’ve obviously made a decision not to, the way some critics have, of not reviewing takeout programs that restaurants have started as a result of the pandemic. Was that a conscious decision or is it just not something you’ve gotten to yet?

PW: I haven’t seen one that really tempted me to review. My point of view on them is, if you’re open, you’re doing delivery or take out, good for you. Good luck. And the last thing anybody needs is a… It’s funny, there are people who always say, “We don’t need critics.” And it’s something you get all the time and people write to me and say, “What do you think we need critics for? There’s Yelp, there’s Google, there’s…” And normally I just thank them for their input and say, “Well, some of my readers do enjoy the service that I attempt to provide.” But you know now I really do think who needs critics? What is the point of saying that one of the three restaurants in your neighborhood that will deliver to you isn’t that good?

EL: Right. Right on. I believe that’s the definition of cruel and inhuman punishment.

PW: It doesn’t help anybody. The whole part of my job is predicated on there being an abundance of choices. And so the critic is among other things, helping you to narrow down the choices.

EL: And to your point, when I think about the people who have done it, they’re sort of doing it, not as critics, but as routers. You know, and that’s fine.

PW: I think that is perfectly fine.

EL: Because you’re right, anybody who really starts seriously reviewing somebody who’s desperately trying to stay in business by offering takeout and delivery really deserves to be ex-communicated from the restaurant critic association.

PW: Right. So as a journalist, you could say this is available, you know which The Times has been doing. Florence Fabricant’s been rounding and finding some interesting stuff here, people doing lobster dinners here. So you can certainly do that. This is available. This is an option that you might choose to avail yourself of. But to sort of, I don’t know… to do a thumbs up or thumbs down, forget it. And then the other part of the job is in good times is to not just say, “This is good, this is garbage,” but it’s to take things and put them in context a little bit. And sometimes it means understanding what the chef is up to. Understanding how is northern Thai cuisine being presented in this restaurant that’s different from the restaurant across the street. And none of that really applies now, nobody needs you to you know help them understand the meaning of a restaurant right now.

EL: Right. There’s only one meaning. There’s only one context. There’s only one lens you can look at this stuff through right.

PW: Yeah yeah yeah. And who knows how long it will take, because I think another thing restaurant criticism is predicated on is a sort of healthy market environment where…

EL: For sure. And God knows how long it’s going to take to get back to that healthy market environment. So are you looking forward to the day when you can get back to reviewing or are you enjoying this, and I know you’re still filing weekly, but is it a welcome change for you?

PW: In a sense it has been. I mean Ilike cooking. I got into food writing in the beginning because I liked cooking. I didn’t have a restaurant budget until some publications started taking my receipts and reimbursing me. In the beginning I was just a cook and it’s been great to do that. And I really like doing it night after night because I like thinking about what tomorrow’s meal is going to be, I like to have some… I have a very small container of tomatoes right now that I didn’t use in last night’s dinner. Am I going to use them at tonight’s dinner? Maybe. Leftovers don’t throw me but they’re good to have. But what I do like is this challenge that a lot of us are facing now of like, how do I scrape another meal together, out of what’s in the refrigerator because it’ll save me from making that one extra trip to the store that we’re trying to avoid.

EL: And that’s something you never had to deal with, right?

PW: No. Because the old days, two months ago, I had a night off. I would have a night off and I would make a dinner and then that was it. But the economy of thinking about a week’s worth of breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and also I’ve got kids and they’re home from school. So we sit down and eat lunch now, which is totally new and totally great. It’s different but I found it super rewarding. I’m definitely looking forward… it’s easier for me to imagine going back to restaurants than it is to imagine writing restaurant criticism right now. I can imagine getting to a place where I feel safe going back to a restaurant, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you know that the scene of the economy is going to be robust enough that I can write the way I used to write.

EL: Yeah. That’s fascinating. So this might actually change at least for the foreseeable future when restaurants do re-open. I never even thought of that when I said, “Oh, I have to call Pete and talk to him about this,” but it’s true. I don’t see how you can look at restaurants the same way as a critic.

PW: Yeah yeah yeah. Well, it’ll be a while. And I think when that time comes, we’ll know it somehow or other, or you know what will probably happen is restaurants will be back for a while and somebody will open something that sounds really interesting and people will be curious about it. And then… it’s hard if your job is to tell people what things are like, it’s hard to sit there when there’s something they want to know. You start to feel like, “Oh, got to just shine up my shoes and get back up there.” I don’t know when that’ll happen. I do know… I’m sure there are lots of restaurants that are in the pipeline, just sitting there right now, but when we’ll see them, I don’t know.

EL: Yeah. So do your sons appreciate your cooking chops more and do they appreciate seeing you more?

PW: I don’t know about that, but I think they enjoy the food. I think it’s nice.

EL: Well, they are teenagers.

PW: We can’t ask for too much here. It’s enough that they acknowledge my presence. Yeah, I think they’re actually enjoying getting a meal every single night. I’m able to put a little more thought into what I cook and I’m there seven nights a week. I hope they’re appreciating it on some level, but at least they’re not complaining you know.

EL: That’s a start.

PW: “When are you going back to work?”

EL: The last question I guess is, your life has changed the way my life and everyone… The rhythm of your life is completely different, right? It’s like they’ve torn up the piece of paper that had, this is what you do in a course of a day and a week. And I found that personally really hard to get used to.

PW: Yeah, it’s strange. It’s very strange. For one thing, I have all this time at night now and I get to do what normal people do after dinner. A normal person after dinner doesn’t sit down and write a thousand words about what they just ate. I get to walk away from the table, do some dishes and I don’t know, watch a comedy on TV or something or open a book. In my normal life, after I have dinner, I come home and I write down every single thing I can remember about it. Everything that anybody said that’s relevant, every dish, “What was that like? What did I think was in it? What did they think of it?” That can be it. I can take more than an hour sometimes depending on the meal. It’s trying to reconstruct a whole dinner, if I had four people there and let’s say we had appetizer, a main course and the dessert, that’s 12 dishes right there that I’m trying to recreate before I go to bed, then it’s midnight.

EL: Oh man. All right. Well.

PW: It’s different. All these people who have dinner and then kind of unwind for the rest of the night, that’s a nice life.

EL: All right. Well thank you my friend. This was great. This was awesome.

PW: Thanks, Ed.

EL: It’s always good to catch up and I can’t wait until we can break bread in person again.

PW: I know. I look forward to it. It’ll be cool. I always appreciate, I think, New York City with this amazing wealth of places to go and interesting people to go there with. I always appreciate it, but I’m really going to appreciate it whenever it all comes back.

EL: Absolutely. All right, man. Thanks Pete. We’ll talk to you soon.

PW: Thank you, Ed. Take care.

EL: Bye.

PW: Bye.

EL: I thought Serious Eaters would find it interesting to hear how our previous interviewees are faring. DC Restaurateur Ezekiel Vazquez Ger has helped two more of his employees start pop-ups out of his Seven Reasons restaurant space. The Independent Restaurant Coalition has prevailed upon Congressperson Earl Blumenauer to bring a bill to the House floor in the coming weeks to establish an Independent Restaurant Stabilization Fund. Whether the bill becomes law in any form remains to be seen, but it’s at least a start. Finally, Ovenly’s Agatha Kulaga has reopened two of her stores offering a limited menu from 9 am to 4 pm. Ovenly has also resumed national shipping via Goldbelly and local delivery in New York via Caviar.

And I can’t sign off without imploring you to go to saverestaurants.com to find out what you can do to help save the jobs of the eleven million people that over 500,000 local restaurants employ. So long, Serious Eaters. Please stay safe and healthy. We’ll see you next time.