The Best Essay I Read This Month: “Pete Wells Has His Knives Out” by Ian Parker

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Reading profiles is always kind of a gamble in terms of worthwhile use of one’s time, even more so than memoirs; you have to find two sets of voices and personalities compelling, rather than just one. And you generally come into them with a pre-existing investment in the subject. Personally, I rarely read food journalism and know nothing about the restaurant industry in New York, despite the fact that I now live there. Ian Parker’s “Pete Wells Has His Knives Out,” a New Yorker profile of the New York Times’s charismatic, enigmatic food critic is still one of the best things I’ve read in weeks.

Parker takes the profile beyond the person being profiled, canvassing the phenomenon by which a single dismissive adjective from a single man can cut down an empire, at least for a while. He contrasts the style and editorial practices of Wells’s predecessors to give not just an idea of the current critic’s particular genius, but of how much of the restaurant industry has evolved into what it is today—a luxury, a past-time, a celebrity enterprise. The piece is vivid and playful and broadly appealing, enjoyable to both foodies and people who know nothing about food. Parker paints the kind of thorough picture of a critic who both relishes and agonizes over the at-times arbitrary and disproportional power of his job that makes you feel as though you’ve actually met the man.

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.

Parker’s themes in this profile mirror Wells’s own—fun, joy, the idea that food must not necessarily be stuffy and serious in order to be good. It makes the piece read with a pleasurable kind of cohesion. His descriptions of Wells’s unbridled joy off the clock, drinking sugary drinks to kitschy music in a Señor Frog’s, is the perfect complement to the passages following Wells as he ponders the role of the high-brow restaurant and what separate functions they must perform from the low-brow (“I do the ‘real’ restaurants, and these are something else—not worthy of stars?”).  Parker’s explanation of how Wells can find himself trapped into giving a cheaper, less-prestigious restaurant that he finds excellent the same two-star rating as a more exclusive one he finds has gone downhill makes for a wider commentary without being forced. “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.”

Parker’s invocation of the reviews and practices of other food critics has the potential to set Wells up as one-dimensional—simply emphasizing that he is different—but Wells ends up being something much better. Here, Parker describes a predecessor:

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.

Yet at no point does he allow Wells’s peers’ possible elitism or the man’s own love of Señor Frog’s to pigeonhole him into a populist image. He makes it clear that Wells enjoys and is comfortable in luxurious settings—he just wants to see them done well, in a way that shows innovation.

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.

Moving with a fragmented but traceable chronologically along the more famous (meaning, controversial) reviews, Parker somewhat mirrors the process by which Wells himself creates them—stopping and starting, turning to other restaurants and topics of conversation and then going back.

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.

It’s the best conceit for showing the deliberation with which Wells approaches his job—he never forgets the weight of what rides on it.