Pete Wells explains his review of Guy Fieri’s restaurant

After he visited Guy Fieri’s American Kitchen & Bar in Times Square, Pete Wells wanted to know why the Awesome Pretzel Chicken Tenders were so far from awesome, and why the bourbon butter crunch chips were missing from his Almond Joy cocktail.

The New York Times restaurant critic did, decidedly, have more questions than answers. So instead of taking a traditional approach to his much-talked-about review, he wrote the whole thing as a series of questions.

“I really did have a lot of questions; there was so much about the restaurant that I couldn’t figure out,” Wells said by phone. “When I sat down to think about how I was going to approach the review, I just started going over the things I couldn’t understand and the things that seemed so strange to me. They really started to add up to the point where I thought, boy, I really could just keep going with this.”

Writing the review as series of questions also made it easier for Wells to structure the piece.

“It freed me up a little bit from some of the mechanics of a normal piece. I didn’t need transitions, and I didn’t need some of the normal nuts and bolts of a standard piece of writing,” said Wells, who didn’t tell his editor about his approach until after he wrote the review.

“Once the reader understands that it’s going to be one question after another, they stop looking for those awkward transitions from talking about the food, to talking about the decor, to talking about the service.”

New York Times critics have traditionally visited restaurants at least three times before reviewing them. Wells visited Guy’s American Kitchen & Bar four times to get a better sense of the place and because there were some items on the lunch menu that weren’t offered at dinner.

During one of his visits, a colleague who was with him said the restaurant was “psychedelically bad” and that “it kind of opened your mind to new forms of badness.”

“Reviews can certainly affect the restaurant,” said Wells, who was named the Times’ restaurant critic in November 2011. “That’s one of the reasons we always go at least three times before we do any kind of star rating, especially a negative one. You want to make sure you give it a good shot because the consequences can be damaging.”

Wells wanted to write about the restaurant because it has a high media profile and because there’s already a built-in curiosity about Fieri. He was disappointed to find that Fieri — whose Food Network show celebrates good food at diners, drive-ins and dives — wasn’t taking American cuisine seriously in his own restaurant.

“I really like and care about American food, and I really like and care about what I call in the piece, ‘no-collar’ food — buffalo wings and nachos,” said Wells, who recently reviewed a restaurant’s tater tots and breakfast sausage and cheese sandwich.

“It should be held up on a pedestal; people love that food and they’re going to go to a restaurant to get it because they love it. The kitchen should love it too.”

Helen Rosner understood the point Wells was trying to make, and so did TIME magazine TV critic James Poniewozik, who wrote:

“… if Wells’ impressions of the food are right — I haven’t eaten at the restaurant — it’s not that Fieri is serving an unworthy, declassé kind of food. It’s that he’s taken the kind of authentic, lusty American foods that he’s showcased in his Food Network eating tours, used it to build a personal brand and used that brand to pass off a lousy imitation. Again, I have not eaten at Guy’s myself, but as an argument, Wells’ review isn’t an insult to diner-and-dive food but a defense of it.”

Some have called the review “merciless,” and wondered whether it was too harsh. But many of the responses I’ve seen have been positive; Boston Pheonix’s Chris Faraone tweeted that it’s “Probably one of the best things I’ve ever read. Ever…”

Fieri has fired back at other food critics who have given his restaurant bad reviews, and told The Daily Meal last month that he doesn’t take the criticism too seriously: “I know what I make, I know how I cook,” he said. “You can’t have eight restaurants and be doing it wrong. Or that wrong.”

Wells admits that as bad as Fieri’s restaurant was, there was one dish he liked. “One of my favorite things was the roasted pork Bahn Mi,” he said. But he still had a question for the restaurant: “Why is one of the few things on your menu that can be eaten without fear or regret … called a Roasted Pork Bahn Mi, when it resembles that item about as much as you resemble Emily Dickinson?”

Wells has yet to hear from anyone at the restaurant.

Related: New York Times hosts ad client dinner at Guy Fieri restaurant it panned earlier in the day (Poynter.org)

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  • http://blog.williams-sonoma.com/author/WBobrow/ Warren Bobrow

    New forms of badness. I thought that was only possible in NJ.

  • Anonymous

    Pete Wells… you finally got your chance to throw a celebrity under the bus to achieve your 15 minutes of “fame”. Now go away, nobody gives a rat’s ass of your “opinions”.

  • http://www.facebook.com/don.hanson.543 Don Hanson

    So Pete, why didn’t you ask the manager at the restaurant? Why do you ask your readers these questions? Most real journalist ask the questions and provide the answers, especially when they are writing a critique.

  • jonhalen

    I really like the way you start and conclude the fact. Thank you so
    much for this. Keep posting such good stuff.

    dailynewhealthy

  • Anonymous

    The review UNDERSTATES how bad the food is. It UNDERSTATES how badly it’s managed.

  • Cole Epley

    Anyone who holds any TV star, or any other celebrity, for that matter, in a ‘beloved’ regard is not worthy of a second thought. Lusting after a manufactured-for-television personality of whom you have not the slightest clue about what they truly stand for is pathetic.

  • http://twitter.com/houdini73 Amer

    I whole-heartedly agree with Luke; your criticism seems fundamentally
    misdirected. The rhetorical style of the review was hardly
    professional. If Mr. Wells was in the habit of criticizing upscale continental eateries with this
    type of snark, then your point would be a good one, but it seems to me
    he reserves his playground-style sarcasm for absurdly easy targets. He
    clearly feels comfortable “talking down” to Mr. Fieri, exposing his
    thorough disdain for the guy’s talent and/or credentials. It is not a
    huge news flash that a place which seats 500 and has an exceptionally
    broad menu might not provide the most consistent dining experience, so
    for NYT to dedicate a front page review is laughable. The story seemed
    to be geared to those city-dwellers who enjoy making fun of tourists,
    more cultural criticism than culinary. Perhaps a hard-hitting piece on
    the Times Square Sbarro’s will be Mr. Well’s next contribution to the public welfare….

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jerry-Randaccio/100001173309787 Jerry Randaccio

    Wow….right over your head huh? Did you read the piece above?

    This guy has the #1 rated show on Food Network. He is beloved by millions of people around this country (Just look at how many buy his books and show up to his signings, etc).

    Just because you think its a joke for anyone to take him seriously, millions upon millions of people do. As a matter of fact, he has brought some level of food awareness to many people who otherwise would not be involved in food/cooking culture. You’re the one dismissing these millions of Americans off hand as not worth defending (which is exactly what the review does). Who’s the effete among us now??

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jerry-Randaccio/100001173309787 Jerry Randaccio

    Wow….right over your head huh? Did you read the piece above?

    This guy has the #1 rated show on Food Network. He is beloved by millions of people around this country (Just look at how many buy his books and show up to his signings, etc).

    Just because you think its a joke for anyone to take him seriously, millions upon millions of people do. As a matter of fact, he has brought some level of food awareness to many people who otherwise would not be involved in food/cooking culture. You’re the one dismissing these millions of Americans off hand as not worth defending (which is exactly what the review does). Who’s the effete among us now??

  • http://www.facebook.com/jasonhwhited Jason Whited

    Very well put, David. Spot-on!

  • http://www.facebook.com/jasonhwhited Jason Whited

    Very well put, David. Spot-on!

  • http://www.facebook.com/jasonhwhited Jason Whited

    Is Guy Fieri serious? Of course, one can have multiple restaurants and, still, be “doing it wrong. Or that wrong.” Ever been to a Chili’s? How about an Applebee’s? Outback? They run a gazillion restaurants and consistently serve garbage on a plate. Guy still doesn’t get that quantity isn’t quality. Then again, those are three-syllable words …

  • http://www.facebook.com/mmanation Luke Thomas

    Regrettably, I’ve been to Fieri’s restaurant as part of a work function. It’s bad. There’s no argument around it. But Wells’ absurd column is little more than an excuse to lob insults for sport. Anything that opens in Times Square is almost by definition not trying on any meaningful culinary level. To treat it as something worth even a moderately lengthy review is deeply disproportionate. More to the point: it sure does feel good when the effete among us get to lather themselves up with righteous indignation for the purposes of lecturing the less polished or the pretenders. It also feels good to shoot fish in a barrel. The problem is it’s cruel, lazy and utterly unnecessary. Fieri’s place deserves no more than 250 words, if that. Fieri is a human mascot, yes, which is precisely why trying to take anything he does seriously (he opened this glorified Applebee’s in TIMES SQUARE, people) a joke in and of itself.

  • Julie Pfeffer

    Has Mr. Wells or his editor been introduced to their NYT colleague Stuart Elliott, who for years has been enlivening the advertising column with his “20 Questions” series, and who might have something to add on the topic of structuring an article as a series of questions?

    Just kidding, Pete. I really enjoyed the review, which pretty much encapsulated everything that irks me about Guy Fieri.

  • Anonymous

    Having traveled quite a bit, i’ve learned that great food in any cuisine is often outwardly rather simple, but poor ingredients or preparation can ruin it. Fieri’s restaurant sounds like it violated those simple principles and the review was much better than just a blow by blow set of declarative comments about lousy food.

  • http://www.poynter.org Poynter

    Hi David,

    I wrote about Pete’s review partly because I do honor creativity. My goal wasn’t to imitate his style of writing; it was to tell the story behind it.

    Thanks,
    ~Mallary

  • Anonymous

    Compare the banal Poynter piece above with the imaginative approach of critic Wells and ask yourself which is more informing, more reader-engaging. Loosen up, Poynter staff.

    I can imagine — now — what Poynter would have written about David Felton’s captivating and totally unprecedented (for the LATimes for sure) streamofconsciousness coverage on San Francisco’s Summer of Love in the Haight.

    Honor creativity. Encourage it. And try to match it when you report on it for other journalists
    .

  • ADM

    For those who enjoyed this review, may I recommend Frank Bruni’s review of Ninja from 2005. Still my favorite. http://www.nytimes.com/2005/10/26/dining/26rest.html?pagewanted=all