No matter how you slice it—or chop or mince or sous-vide it—getting your restaurant demoted by the New York Times blows. That's what famously happened to chef Thomas Keller earlier this year, when his formerly four-star Manhattan restaurant Per Se got knocked down to two stars by the Times' food critic, Pete Wells. And it doesn't just feel bad to get publicly shamed in that way (if you'll remember, the NYT review called Per Se's mushroom soup "as murky and appealing as bong water," and sprinkled words like "mediocrity" and "flat-footed" like so many white truffle shavings). Reviews like that are also bad for business. As Keller told Town and Country magazine in its profile of him in the current issue, that Times review was "devastating."
This reality isn't lost on the Times' supremely influential restaurant critics, neither Pete Wells himself nor his predecessors, who do sweat the impact that their reviews might have on a restaurant and its staff. Boo hoo? Fair enough, but a critic's job is to tell it like it is, and that can mean gut-wrenching anxiety about publishing the kind of takedown that could truly hurt people's livelihoods, not just a handsomely paid celebrity chef but an entire staff of employees at all levels.
As the New Yorker's profile of Wells in its September 12 issue reveals, Wells delayed the agony of writing the Per Se review by going to the now-defunct Times Square branch of Senor Frog's, a place widely ridiculed—and adored—for its shameless theme-parkiness and its noisy, balloon-ridden birthday celebrations. For one of the multiple meals that Times critics have to eat before publishing a review, Wells took "American Pie" star Jason Biggs with him along with seven others. Everyone had a blast.
"[Wells's] upbeat review of Senor Frog's, published at the end of December, was an overture for the impending Per Se review," the New Yorker's Ian Parker writes.
Eventually, Wells did have to sit down and write that Per Se review, and turn it in with its downgraded rating: two stars, a decision Wells made after weighing "every possible" star rating besides four, Parker writes.
It was the shot heard round the world. And what did Keller do in response? We'll refrain from speculating about what exactly he did, said or felt in the first few moments after reading the take-down. But, according to Town and Country, Keller told his staff immediately afterwards that he and his whole team will need to win back their customers "one guest at a time. Our goal is for every one of them to walk out the door and say, 'What the hell was [Wells] talking about?'"
Keller also published a letter to customers on Per Se's site, apologizing to them and vowing to make every effort to ensure their experience is everything they're hoping it will be. Keller claims to not blame Wells for the bad review, and to have learned from it: "Maybe we were complacent," he told Town and Country. "I learned that, maybe, as a team we were a little bit too arrogant, our egos too exposed."
As for other chefs' reactions to internationally publicized pans? Suffice to say, everyone has his or her own way of handling negative feedback.
David Chang, whose newest NYC restaurant Momofuku Nishi got slammed by Wells this past spring, several months after the Per Se demotion, is going with the F-bomb-drop.
When the New Yorker writer sat down with Chang to report the September 12 profile of Wells, the star chef fought back angrily against the review: Wells is "being a f------ bully," he told the magazine. "He wants the new, but he's still in love with the f------ old."
To be fair, it's only been a few months since the Momofuku Nishi review, so Chang is perhaps still working through an earlier stage of the grieving process.
Or maybe he's just had a few too many of the blood-red, and weirdly awesome, vegan burgers he recently started serving at Nishi.
Onwards and upwards?
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