Pete Wells Is Wrong About What a Critic’s Role Should Be

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He thinks you shouldn’t care about this delicious, delicious food. Photo: Courtesy of Noma Mexico

The Times’ restaurant critic Pete Wells, who periodically uses his pulpit to make news as well as chronicle it, has done it again. He’s written a non-review of a restaurant he hasn’t visited, an act that challenges both the food business and fellow critics like me to grapple with his principles. I admire Wells. His diamond-honed prose strikes fear into chefs and stirs envy in other writers (like me). He dishes out praise and fury with a musketeer’s panache. And the freedom to choose his targets is one of the privileges of his post. So he would rather not fly to Tulum and eat a $750 meal at a temporary temple of Mexican alta cocina, an experience available only to a total of 7,000 people? Okay, well, passing up that opportunity seems to me even more self-indulgent than taking it, but … fine. Writing a column on the decision not to cover something strikes me as trying to have it both ways —but, again, I’m willing to go along.

And yet.

Wells goes on to disparage the whole idea of writing critically about an event that has already vanished, especially one that few readers have access to while it’s still around:

Noma Mexico short-circuits my wiring as a critic. An actual review of a pop-up that sold out months ago strikes me as spectacularly useless. It would be as helpful as reviewing a wedding.

Never mind that the Times does sometimes cover weddings in a tone that, if not overtly reviewlike, is nevertheless wildly appreciative. More to the point, the paper is one of the last (though tottering) bastions of the straight review. Every evening, its critics fan out to dance performances, orchestral concerts, pop extravaganzas, limited-run plays, and comedy shows that few people can experience except by reading about them. I have never seen Hamilton and may not until I win the lottery or it gets made for TV, yet Ben Brantley’s review helped me to grasp its cultural importance. One of the Times’ great strengths is that it allows New Yorkers to inform themselves about fashion shows in Milan and lets people in Beijing keep up with what’s on view at MoMA. Many people enjoy reading about baseball games even after they know the final score.

We can’t take this richness for granted. In a recent essay, The New Yorker’s classical music critic Alex Ross noted the speed with which newsrooms all over the country are ejecting his colleagues (not just in music but in every field) and devaluing the review as a journalistic form. “Criticism of any kind is increasingly unwelcome at the digital-age paper,” he writes, before rushing elegantly to its defense: “Criticism can assume many forms: essays, profiles, reported pieces, opinionated rants. Ultimately, though, the review is the grounding of what critics do and is the source of whatever authority they possess.”

For Wells to undercut the foundations of his own profession gives his superiors a reason to fire him and his colleagues. If he can’t defend writing about a limited but extraordinary event in culinary history — the “meal of a lifetime,” according to the Toronto Star’s Jacob Richler — then he would presumably disdain a review of an early-music performance in a Manhattan church. Indeed, he made that connection on Twitter, remarking: “I can’t think of a single great review of an individual concert.” Even if he could, the implication is that a critic’s powers would be wasted on that sort of writing.

I have a stake in challenging that dismissal. As a critic of both architecture and classical music, I recognize that it’s tempting to focus on issues (the skyline!) that my friends and fellow citizens are perpetually exercised about rather than on something small, obscure, and already gone (a recital). But I also remember how, during the dozen years that I reviewed concerts for Newsday, I regularly got handwritten notes from a woman who wrote that although she was too old to attend concerts any more, she got enormous pleasure from reading what I had to say about them — even when she suspected she might not agree.

No critic can know what another diner brings to the table or an audience member to a concert hall, what vicarious joy—or scorn—a reader draws from a review. Which is why I object to one of Wells’s most ringing self-justifications for taking a pass on this particular restaurant: that the people who eat there are the wrong sort.

What I find hard to run through my critical algorithms, though, is the idea of a meal devoted to local traditions and ingredients that is being prepared and consumed mostly by people from somewhere else.

That’s an astonishing statement. For one thing, “meals devoted to local traditions” get prepared every day in the villages of the Yucatan and the hill towns of Oaxaca, with nary a tourist in sight. Don’t high-end restaurants exist specifically to elaborate, refine, and propagate those traditions? Is it a moral failing to go all over the world and taste everything it has to offer, as the world’s most famous eater, Anthony Bourdain, does in his CNN show Parts Unknown — as so many ordinary but enthusiastic travelers do? (The Times has an entire section for them.) Wells casts his refusal to review Noma Mexico as an expression of distaste for exclusivity and preposterous luxury in a desperately poor area. Fair enough, though I’m not clear which other restaurants might fall afoul of his principles. (He is self-aware enough to recognize that he’s wading into swampy ethical waters.) But what about those of us who will never know the pleasures of spending a fortune on a piñuela sprinkled with grasshopper paste and coriander flowers? Shouldn’t we at least be permitted to read about it?

Pete Wells Is Wrong About a Critic’s Role