Superiority / Burger
Fuck, man. That Pete Wells piece. He puts that place ON BLAST, son! I’m talking SCORCHED EARTH. END OF DAYS. He pulls Locol apart brick by brick by brick, yo! He tears Roy Choi and Dan from Coi a new one, cuz!. He – *spends three minutes actually reading the review* – he… Oh, that doesn’t seem that bad at all, actually.
A couple of unforgivably heavy-handed clunkers aside – the paragraph that constellates around the line about bulletproof glass is a particular shocker, which he surely now regrets – it’s fairly hard to find fault with the actual content of the article. He is a critic; his job is to assess how well a restaurant of a given type in a given context delivers on its promise; in his eyes, it doesn’t deliver all that well. This is not an act of violence, a gleeful Yankee-snob pan of the food of people who can’t afford burgers made by a former 2-Michelin Star chef. You might even use the adjective “measured” – Wells points out positives as well as negatives; seems attuned to what Choi and Patterson are seeking to achieve with the burgeoning Locol empire; wrestles with the competing demands of running something that benefits the community and something that must perforce turn a profit. Once you read the fine print and see that zero stars (incomprehensibly to me, but whatever) actually means “poor, fair, or satisfactory”, it’s even hard to find fault with the rating he awards.
But Pete Wells is a “fucking jerk”! Dave Chang said so! And I must confess something about the piece sticks in my craw like an overly-dry chicken nugget; I Tweeted as much, saying it felt like a pretty shoddy thing to do. It comes down to the essential pointlessness of the piece: why write it in the first place? I don’t buy the argument that there’s a mismatch between Wells’ byline and his choice of restaurant, that Locol isn’t “configured for” critics – accept that axiom and you get into a pretty troubling world of hegemonies and hierarchies of what is and isn’t fair game. Everywhere is fair game to a critic – to a good one, at least, whom you can trust to review a place with sensitivity to things like context and mission. But that still doesn’t get Wells entirely off the hook.
To put the question another way – who is this for? I can’t believe many of the people in Locol’s catchments are New York Times subscribers – this sounds unduly snobby and snarky; it isn’t meant to be – so it’s not servicing them. Equally, I suspect precious few New York Times subscribers were on the fence about going to Locol – were waiting for their local critic’s sign-off before they did – so it’s not servicing them, either. The question Wells raises about alternatives in Oakland (“If you had other options, would you still eat at Locol?”) can just as fairly be reflected right back at him: given you have literally thousands of options of places you could review, why would you still review Locol?
Maybe seeing restaurant reviewing as pure service journalism is unfair. Maybe Wells was writing “for” something more nebulous – the idea of integrity, of being as good as you can be given the limitations confining your project. Certainly, the differing registers with which Wells has delivered similarly low-star verdicts on Per Se and (infamously) Guy Fieri’s Tijuana Donkey Show suggest that Wells is a fundamentally good, sensitive critic, capable of discerning the bar each place is aiming for and whether or not it clears it.
He wasn't a fucking jerk in those cases; as Matt Buchanan points out over at Eater, when he slayed one of New York's most garlanded restaurants he was hailed as a "populist hero". The dominant argument is that Wells has got into difficulties this time because he is not punching up (take that, Keller!), or punching across into a surreal alternate universe (take that, frost-tipped Donkey Sauce apologists!), but punching down, onto the little guy, too aloof and obsessed with objectivity to take into account the very real subjective pain his review will cause for a couple of guys just trying to better a community, and a staff that wanted no part of this discourse.
I'm not sure that's right; or, I'm not sure that's everything. Part of me wants to side with Chang and have done with it: Wells' review does feel muckily gratuitous, bound up in its writer's privilege, inessential; Wells' review implicitly detracts from what Choi and Patterson have achieved with Locol, and if you believe he did that unfeelingly, he is very much a fucking jerk. But part of me also believes that people should be able to ask difficult questions. Might some of the discomfort arise from the fact that he's not just punching down - he's also punching his readers right where it hurts, at the core of their beliefs around food as a force for social good? People – I count myself among them – love the idea of Locol, because it represents everything that chefs like Choi and Patterson and Dan Barber promise us: heritage veg, alternative proteins, agua fresca rather than soda. Wells' review foregrounds the gulf between that stance, that promise, and the reality of urban food deserts (or indeed dessert deserts – no sundae for you, Pete!); it makes evident the effort it takes to reconcile the two. It forces us to confront something painful about our relation to food and privilege, the tension between good intentions and actually doing good. It is perhaps easier to disavow and discredit – you’re a fucking jerk! – than it is to find some value in asking the questions that Wells does (however much we disagree with how they are phrased); it is perhaps easier to figure the piece as an uncomplicated act of violence (pure punching down), rather than something undeniably imperfect, but also nuanced.
I'm not sure that's correct; after wrestling with it for a few days, I’m even less convinced that the world needed Pete Wells’ review of Locol in the first place. But we might still be able to learn something from our reaction to it. Maybe Roy Choi had it right all along.