“Context is Everything”
The Internet has facilitated a proliferation of restaurant criticism. Sites that crowd-source reviews, independent blogs, and social media platforms allow all-comers to publicly evaluate restaurants. They also raise questions about food criticism. Is reviewing a serious craft that requires real skill? What, if anything, separates professional food critics from the masses on Yelp? Why do we trust some reviewers and not others? My conversation with Pete Wells, restaurant critic for the New York Times since 2011, supports my hunch that high-quality food criticism requires a sociologist’s commitment to research, appreciation of social context, and struggle to understand and communicate with various audiences.
Josh Page: Do you have certain questions you pose to yourself when evaluating a restaurant?
Pete Wells: Oh, sure. There are a few. A big one would be, “Would I spend my own money here?” Another one would be, “What are they trying to do?” Let’s say with cuisine from other countries, that’s a big issue, because there are some restaurants that are trying to do something very traditional, and there are some that are trying to take tradition and make it more modern, or places that are trying to take tradition and put their own personal stamp on it. Ultimately, I’m not big on holding restaurants or chefs to a standard of authenticity. I don’t really think that’s important or interesting. It’s an interesting question to understand, but it’s not necessarily a standard I can judge them by.
JP: Why not?
PW: I think it’s, there’s a tendency sometimes to try to see the cuisine of other countries as this kind of folklore that has to be taken exactly as it is, when, in reality, the same dish can be made differently in every house. So, to walk into a place thinking that there’s one way this dish is made “authentically,” you just miss the point.
JP: So how do you take notes and get things down while you’re conducting your reviews?
PW: Well, I have kind of a two-step process. When I’m in a restaurant, I’ll take notes on anything I’m afraid I’ll forget, which would be like someone’s exact words, a waiter or bartender. I try to quote people accurately. And things around the room, just as an aid, I’ll take pictures when I can get away with it. I’ll take pictures of the food. I love to take pictures of the bathrooms, but I never use those! They’re always so terrible (the pictures, not the bathrooms). I don’t know, it’s like I close the door and I go in the bathroom and I’m like, “Ah! I can be a reporter in the open!” So that’s step one. And then step two is when I get home, I just sit down and I disgorge—poor word choice!
JP: Perfect word choice!
PW: I sit down and I write down absolutely everything I can remember about the whole experience. And that’s the beginning of the review—what I think is good about the place and what I think is not that good about the place, and then all the facts I can remember. Every ingredient of every dish and how it worked, how it came across. What I saw, what the place looks like, how the service was, all of that. And I do that three times. And so I end up with at least three accounts of three different evenings.
JP: Wow. And do you do interviews for every review too?
PW: Not every review. Sometimes I do. I go back and forth about interviews. I think they’re really useful, but I also think they’re a little tricky because you unavoidably start to see the restaurant through the intentions of the staff and people running it, and it’s actually dangerous. You’ve gotta have a handle on that, but you don’t want it to become your own frame.
JP: When you do interviews, what kind of material are you usually looking for?
PW: The most common thing of all is, “What the hell was that thing that I ate?” [both laugh] Sometimes I’ll have a general impression of the main ingredient in the sauce, maybe, but there’ll be eight other things on the plate that I usually want to hear all about. There’s no room [in the review] for the whole deal, you know? But I still want to know. Sometimes I’m wrong about what something is, and I don’t like to guess, so I try to get that. There have been reviews where I’ve focused more on the story; a lot of places I write about have come into the world with a lot of fanfare and publicity, and I don’t feel like I need to go into the story all that much, because people can find out about it. But sometimes there are places where it has not been written about that much and you want to tell the reader where this place came from. Who are these people? And some places are just so unusual that you want to call up and say, “What in the fuck is going on here?”
JP: Absolutely! So who do you view as your main audience?
PW: That’s become pretty hard to say. I mean, I think the Times used to have a pretty clear idea of who the reader was. Just before the Internet, we basically knew where the subscribers were, we knew who was buying the newspaper. And so we knew which neighborhoods in New York were heavy Times neighborhoods and which weren’t, and that would shape your choices on what to cover.
JP: That’s fascinating.
PW: Now it’s a completely changed game. There are readers all over the world. So that’s changed a few things. It changes the geography of the city, because we may not have a lot of subscribers in, say, Flushing, but we could have a lot of online readers in Flushing. And I think we have a lot of younger readers in Brooklyn and Queens who’ve never subscribed to any newspaper, yet they read tons of stuff about food online. So it’s opened the city up. At the same time, there are restaurants of interest in all kinds of neighborhoods, now, where there didn’t used to be. We also have readers all over the place who may not be reading specifically for a user’s guide to the restaurant. The reviews have become a little bit more about the writing and about all the things that go into the writing, which include interpretation and analysis and the fun stuff of criticism that is beyond simply, “Where do I eat tomorrow night?”
JP: Has that sense of a changing audience also shifted the types of restaurants that you review?
PW: Yeah, yeah, although I think the bigger factor in that is really the demographics of the eating audience… There’s a much younger, more adventurous audience that wants to know what’s going on out there, and there are a lot of somewhat less expensive and more accessible restaurants to make them happy. So I end up probably reviewing more “cheap joints” than in the past. Although, I think that all critics have always tried to have a balance of more expensive and less expensive; I’ve certainly read a lot of old reviews, and there’s this kind of myth that the Times restaurant reviews are always about the high-end places, and it’s not true.
JP: In past interviews you’ve answered questions about evaluating food by saying, “It depends on the context.” When you’re talking about placing evaluations within context, what kinds of things are you thinking about?
PW: Context is everything! We could talk about this for the rest of the afternoon! Context can be your personal context, like if you go out with somebody from the office, it’s going to be a different experience from going out with one of your oldest friends, and if you go out with your wife and everybody’s in a good mood, that’s a completely different experience from going out at the end of a stressful day and you have to talk about the mortgage! I mean, go into any restaurant. If you look around the room, you’ll see a couple having an awkward first date, a couple that obviously cannot wait to go home together, and another couple’s having a terrible fight, and you think this is probably the last meal they’re going to have together! And they’re all having completely different experiences, and their food is going to taste different. I can’t really address that [in a review], but I think it’s important to remember: the reader’s going to come in, and they’re going to bring their own world into the restaurant. So one of the things that makes restaurants interesting is how well they create an environment where the romantic couple can feel comfortable and the first date can feel comfortable and the tense couple can walk out a little less tense—
JP: With some dignity!
PW: So, that’s one context: personal. Another is, I guess, how does this restaurant want to be used? So that could be, “Is this a special occasion restaurant?” Which often you can just tell from the price. Price makes it a special occasion restaurant! But is this an event? Is this even about the meal? And then there are the more functional restaurants, where, “We live across the street and we realized there’s nothing in the refrigerator, and we’ll go in and get a table and we’ll have the soup.” It’s a lot better than it needs to be for a handy neighborhood restaurant.
But then there’s the context of restaurants, let’s just call them, broadly, like immigrant-owned or immigrant-run restaurants, where they may be cooking for their community. So, this restaurant exists and is supported by Tibetans, and they come in to taste the food they know. And if non-Tibetans go in there, it’s for a different reason: it’s to experience something new. But, you know, the fact is that most of these restaurants don’t exist for the tourists. They exist for a different community.
JP: Do you think service and atmosphere can make food taste better?
PW: Yeah, I think so. I know that atmosphere can make it taste worse! So, yeah, it must work the other way. Having said that, part of my job is to try to isolate all these different strands and really zero in on exactly how good does this taste, outside of everything else, to the extent that you can do that. You really can’t do it completely. The classic example is like the wine that you drank on vacation in Italy that’s the most delicious thing that you’ve ever had, and you get home and you buy a case and you think, “This is really a pretty ordinary pinot grigio… Why was I so in love with this bottle?” Well, you were in love with it because you were sitting on a terrace looking out at the sea and you didn’t have to go to work! All that.
JP: Another great statement on context!
PW: Right, right. A big part of the job is the mental discipline of really trying to not literally close your eyes, because I’m not melodramatic enough to do that, but almost close your eyes and just focus on the taste of the damn thing. Which, you know, I think you would do eventually if you came back to a restaurant. The first time you go to a restaurant, you might be so swept away by how great it looks and how great everybody around you looks and how well taken care of you are, and maybe it all tastes better. But if you went back two or three times, you would start to notice like, “Wow, that chicken really is over—that’s really, really dry.” And I might get some of that by going back a few times, but I also try really hard to just be able to kind of isolate stuff and keep it separate in my head, even though, in the end, it’s all going to come together.