Does Pete Wells really matter? That’s a question we thought we should explore given the recent scuttle between Altamarea’s CEO Ahmass Fakahany and the longtime New York Times critic, who skewered Fakahany’s new French restaurant Vaucluse in a one-star review, just weeks before he denuded Per Se.
Of Vaucluse, Wells wrote, “Much of the menu lassos the grayest of old gray mares and drags them out for one last trot around the paddock. Some of the mares are revived by the exercise. Others, like the chocolate mousse that has been repeatedly violated by bits of baked cocoa meringue and buried under chocolate ice cream, seem as if they would rather be left alone to live out their retirements in peace.”
While Thomas Keller has not responded to Wells’ flaying, Fakahany—a former financier at Merrill Lynch where he was chief financial officer, then co-president—posted a letter in response to the review on the Altamarea website. The letter was strongly worded, challenging not only Wells, but taking a shot at the Dining Section as well:
“I am writing you because over the course of time you need to know you are losing credibility and, in a sense, degrading the very institution that gave you the privilege and mandate to be a food critic. The New York Times Dining review section is at its lowest point, and the subject of much industry chatter in this regard. Congratulations. You have managed to do a fantastic job of getting it there.”
Fakahany was not all sour grapes; he constructively challenged the one-voice reviewer system and made some concrete suggestions for more fairness and inclusiveness:
“What we all do know is the system is broken in its approach. It is random and lacking any credible substance. The New York Times needs to rethink its stance and future trajectory here. Perhaps it is time for a composite system including other food writers and possibly including also a rotating chefs council. There are many options to consider, and like many aspects in life, there is a time for recalibration.”
What struck us about this exchange was not so much the particulars of the restaurant review, but the big-picture question: What is the future of restaurant criticism, and what influence, given social media and the proliferation of online consumer reviews, does the New York Times still have on the life and/or death of a restaurant? In other words, does Pete Wells really matter?
We sat down with Fakahany at the Altamarea loft in Soho for a chat about the relevance of the critic.