The professional food critic
THE New Yorker’s profile of Pete Wells, The New York Times restaurant critic, is fascinating.
The front of the room was bare and bright, and filled with thirty-year-olds on backless stools at communal pale-wood tables—a picnic held in a cell-phone store. The noise level reminded me of Wells’s review of a Tex-Mex restaurant: “It always sounds as if somebody were telling a woman at the far end of the table that he had just found $1,000 under the menu, and the woman were shouting back that Ryan Gosling had just texted and he’s coming to the restaurant in, like, five minutes!” Wells is not peevish about discomfort. His columns make a subtle study of what counts as fun in middle age—loyalties divided between abandon and an early night. His expressions of enthusiasm often take the form of wariness swept away: Wells found joy in a conga line at Señor Frog’s, in Times Square. But after dining at Momofuku Nishi he returned to his home, in Brooklyn, and wrote in his notes about “a hurricane of noise.”
Being a restaurant critic is one of my dream jobs and is in the category of: “being a writer for The National Geographic” or “being a book critic for The New York Times” or “working in Shinya Yamakana’s stem cell laboratory.”
Ian Parkers’ profile of Wells gives us a few lessons:
- Criticism is powerful. Words make or break restaurant chains—and with it, some dreams.
- Food must be prepared well, but not too much, but it should always be enjoyed.
- It’s perfectly logical to get mad at critics when their criticism (if deemed unfair) is directed against us.
Why do critics exist anyway? Daniel Mendelsohn, in his essay, “A Critic’s Manifesto,” writes:
By dramatizing their own thinking on the page, by revealing the basis of their judgments and letting you glimpse the mechanisms by which they exercised their (individual, personal, quirky) taste, all these critics were, necessarily, implying that you could arrive at your own, quite different judgments—that a given work could operate on your own sensibility in a different way.
The role of the critic, I repeat, is to mediate intelligently and stylishly between a work and its audience; to educate and edify in an engaging and, preferably, entertaining way. (Critics, more than any other kind of writer, should have a sense of humor.) For this reason I can’t accept my friend Richard Brody’s dismissive characterization of critics as harmful parasites—a characterization that unhappily contributes to a widespread misconception (of the equally specious “those-who-can’t-do, teach” variety) that critics are motivated by “rage and envy” of those “greater” writers—poets, novelists—on whose work they prey because they themselves are incapable of producing real “creative” work.
My friend Carlo de Guzman, whom I always bully into going to dinners with me, just because, in my own words, “he has all the time in the world,” reminds me of Pete Wells. He knows which places to dine in and which dishes to order. All of us need friends like him.