A Note From Ed: The new season of Special Sauce is kicking off next week with the inimitable Adam Driver, and while we're on break, we're again highlighting one of our favorite podcast interviewees from last season. This time, it's New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells. Pete and I break bread pretty regularly, and he makes for fine company, partly because he's the rare restaurant critic who takes his responsibilities seriously without taking himself too seriously. His self-deprecating wit was on full display this past week in his review of the superb Jersey City pizzeria Razza. I accompanied Pete on one of his visits there, and unwittingly provided the review's headline: "Is New York's best pizza in New Jersey?" For many more examples of Pete's humor, you're just going to have to listen—or re-listen, even, if you've already heard this one; it's that good.
When asked about his writing style, New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells responds: "There's no such thing as 'just the way you write'.... It's not like we open a bottle and pour it into a glass." Writing, he says, is "more like getting the last bit of ketchup out...and a lot of times, it doesn't want to come out, you know? For me, it's a really slow process, much slower than I ever want to tell anybody."
Wells is perhaps the nation's most influential and powerful restaurant critic, but, as you'll hear on this week's podcast, he's soft-spoken, funny, and thoughtful—and eminently fair-minded. He agonizes over the Times' star ratings: "A lot of people want them to do two things at the same time, and I can't make them do two things at the same time. I really can't even make them do one thing. But I definitely can't make them do two things. What people would like them to do is reflect both the quality of the restaurant and what kind of restaurant it is." He shares this example: "It's very confusing to people, I think, that right now Per Se and Superiority Burger [a takeout veggie burger spot] are both two-star restaurants."
He offers this advice to anyone hoping to become a food critic: "I would say, just learn how to write. And just don't write about food.... Study sports writers to see what tricks they have, and study crime writers to see how they tell stories." Wells himself reads poetry to learn how good poets paint pictures in so few words.
You'll also find out about Wells's pet peeves—among them: when a server says, "Our menu is small plates, they're meant for sharing"—and hear about the contents of his desert-island fridge. It's a must-hear episode of Special Sauce for any serious eater.