French Laundry chef and one of the fathers of the Bay Area's current fine dining boom, Thomas Keller, admits in a new profile in Town & Country that he was "devastated" by New York Times critic Pete Wells's two-star takedown of New York's Per Se back in January in which he famously referred to a dish as "murky and appealing as bong water."
Wells pulled no punches in the review, the worst Keller has probably gotten for a restaurant in many years (if you don't count this pan of Per Se by Eater in 2014), calling other dishes, like signature butter-poached lobster "intransigently chewy: gristle of the sea," and another as a "dismal green pulp," and said the whole place was a "no-fun house" with "sleepwalking" service, and "among the worst food deals in New York."
Nine months later, Keller, 61, says that he took the review seriously and immediately went to work doing triage at all of his restaurants, which include several locations of his brasserie concept Bouchon, as well as Bouchon Bakery, as well his east coast simulacrum of the French Laundry with a very similar menu, Per Se the name itself derived from him saying that the place would "not be the French Laundry, per se."
Keller doesn't reveal if anyone lost their job over the review, but he says, "Maybe we were complacent. I learned that, maybe, as a team we were a little bit too arrogant, our egos too exposed." Per Se chef de cuisine Eli Kaimeh has held on to his job, and tells Town & Country, "You may not realize it when it happens, but a kick in the teeth may be the best thing in the world for you."
But perhaps some of the front-of-house staff took the brunt? Keller does say he reprimanded for the sheer fact that they didn't notice Wells returning to dine three separate times for that review. "I told them, 'How can you miss a diner who comes in multiple times, even if they're not a critic?' Somebody should catch that, because it's our job to track what people like if they come in more than one time. You have to make a connection."
Indeed, David Chang appears to have helicoptered into the kitchen of his new restaurant Momofuku Nishi when Wells showed up for a review visit, as described in this new New Yorker profile and Wells's journalist friend and former Times colleague Jeff Gordinier tells the New Yorker of restaurants and their managers that such a gaffe is usually indicative of a deeper complacency, since Wells doesn't typically do anything besides use a false name to hide his identity, and his photo is readily available on the internet. "If they don’t recognize who he is, then they are missing a very important detail, and therefore they may not be paying attention to other important details."
Keller and his staff are making an effort to make sure that all current and future diners at Per Se don't have similarly bad experiences though the review was taken a possible sign, among others in the industry, that perhaps this style of fine dining was on the wane anyway. A 2013 piece in Vanity Fair by Corby Kummer about the larger "tyranny of fine dining" referred to a multi-hour meal at the French Laundry as "like a form of torture," which led to other writers chiming in to agree that casual was now the name of the game.
But the continuing success of excess, and the ongoing accolades for places like Saison, Benu, and even smaller newcomers like Lord Stanley, suggest that there is still an appetite for haute experiences by elite food lovers, and a draw to the temples in which they're served even though these spaces aren't as hushed and formal as they once were, and they play Steely Dan and Huey Lewis at Saison.
Meanwhile, Keller is at work on a kitchen revamp at the Laundry, set to complete next year, and he's hard at work in the planning stages of his next big project at Hudson Yards in NY, where it sounds like he wants to debut a supperclub type concept from the middle of the last century, invoking Sinatra and making comparisons to the Carlyle uptown.
He admits, though, that at this point in his career, he wishes he weren't a brand unto himself. "But today, you know what I yearn for?" he says, "To have one restaurant."