For the Love of Pete (Wells)
This essay is part of a feature, Food Writer Friday, which highlights a significant food writer and explores the ways they have shaped us as writers, thinkers and cooks. Tag us online with #foodwriterfriday to share your greatest influences.
In 2012, The New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells made headlines with his wickedly funny review of Guy Fieri’s American Kitchen & Bar in Times Square. It was a thing of beauty, written entirely in the form of questions aimed directly at the larger-than-life Food Network star:
“Were you struck by how very far from awesome the Awesome Pretzel Chicken Tenders are?” he inquires. “If you hadn’t come up with the recipe yourself, would you ever guess that the shiny tissue of breading that exudes grease onto the plate contains either pretzels or smoked almonds? Did you discern any buttermilk or brine in the white meat, or did you think it tasted like chewy air?”
Did he get his point across? Was it done with panache? Did I find it entertaining and insightful? Was I smitten with his sardonic wit and mastery of the written word? Yes, yes, yes and yes.
That review was a turning point for me. It showed me food criticism could be a form of good writing. Before I read Wells, I thought restaurant reviews were written fluff, or bastions for self-aggrandizing foodies anxious to lay claim to the rise of chef celebrity.
Wells, however, is neither buffoon nor snob. I see a pureness of intention in his criticism that reveals a deep love and respect for the food, restaurants and people who eat at them. Using simple language and sheer wit, Wells is brutally honest, sometimes devastatingly so, but he knows what he’s talking about.
I find it so refreshing. Wells cuts through the bullshit; he doesn’t cater to trends or kiss anyone’s ass. In a review of Thomas Keller’s restaurant Per Se, he mused, “I don’t know what could have saved limp, dispiriting yam dumplings, but it definitely wasn’t a lukewarm matsutake mushroom bouillon as murky and appealing as bong water.” Who else would have the balls to compare a dish at one of New York City’s most beloved eateries to a marijuana waste product?
It’s not all about tearing something down, though. Wells isn’t stingy with praise when it’s due. If he likes something, you know it. “Consider me a fanboy when it comes to the ideally crunchy fritto misto,” he gushes in a review of Union Square Cafe at its new location. I can picture him devouring that delectable dish of fried seafood with gleeful abandon. There’s a certain charm in the way he admits that, yes, even he goes gaga for certain dishes.
It’s hard to be so direct and honest when writing a restaurant review. I’ve tried to do it, and found myself being disingenuous, mitigating my dislike for certain dishes for fear of causing offense, or worse, putting someone out of business. But if you want to be a food critic, it’s your job to be truthful – consequences be damned.
For now, I’ll stick to writing features, profiles and recipes. But when it comes to Pete Wells’s restaurant criticism, consider me a fangirl.
Amanda Balagur is a freelance food writer based in Boston. She graduated from Boston University's MLA in Gastronomy program in 2015, where her studies focused on food history, culture and communications.