The Intellectual Indefensibility of the Times’ Four Seasons Review Just Came Into High Relief
Timing, as they say, is everything.
Two weeks ago, New York Times critic Pete Wells wrote about the odious behavior of The Four Seasons restaurant co-owner Julian Niccolini and about the wonderful food at the Four Seasons in its new home on East 49th Street. Somehow, both threads were featured in what purported to be a restaurant review. Though Wells wrote that chef Diego Garcia “has turned the Four Seasons into a seafood restaurant, and a very good one” and acknowledged that the restaurant was “better than it has been in years,” he explained that he couldn’t disentangle his feelings about Niccolini from his ability to enjoy the restaurant and, despite notes indicative of a two-, or perhaps three-star appraisal, conveyed just one star.
The review, generally speaking, split readers into two camps: Those who applauded Wells for taking on Niccolini, and those who thought the review set a dangerous precedent. I fell squarely in the latter camp, and commented accordingly on the Times website.
I have no sympathy for Niccolini, but nonetheless found the review to be a can of worms. If the behavior of owners and other principals is going to be factored into one review, how will it figure into others, and how can the paper justify not factoring it in moving forward?
Well, it’s been less than two weeks, and the can has been opened, sooner than anybody expected. Last night it was revealed that Niccolini has resigned from the restaurant. In the Times’ own coverage of his outster, it states, “Earlier this month, Pete Wells, the New York Times restaurant critic, reviewed the newly relocated Four Seasons, downgrading it to one star from the two it received in 2007 — not because of the food [italics/bold mine] (Mr. Wells wrote that the restaurant is “better than it has been in years”) but because ‘Mr. Niccolini’s actions have done serious damage’ to its ability to make a diner feel safe in an intimate space.'” A spokesperson for the restaurant, as spokespeople are wont to do at moments like these, said that the review had nothing to do with Niccolini’s departure.
Regardless of the paper’s role in his leaving, with Mr. Niccolini gone, the worms are on the loose and crawling all over the Dining section.
The Times now faces a clear choice: instate the stars indicated by the review–a “very good” (Wells’ words) seafood restaurant merits two stars according to the Times‘ own key, and yesterday’s Times piece about the Niccolini news flat-out stated the one-star rating was due to Niccolini-related sentiment. Failure to adjust in a post-Niccolini era amounts to tacit admission that the review was nothing more than a stunt, or a hit job, and that it did irreparable damage to an already flaw-filled rating system. This raises a related question: Why hasn’t the paper gone back and docked stars from restaurants whose owners have been outed, in some cases in the pages of the Times itself, for behavior similar to Niccolini’s? True, those cases haven’t made it to court, but the rock-solid reports alone would surely impact a diner like Wells, who was so tortured by his time at The Four Seasons.
[This is as good a place as any to get some full disclosure out of the way: Wells reviewed my most recent book this summer. I publicly decried what struck me as intellectual dishonesty and bad-faith criticism in a Salon piece, and I wasn’t the only one who had issues. But I’ve long had problems with this critic, and with the star system, which I wrote about in this space way back in 2012. By the same token, I’ve never met Mr. Niccolini or dined at The Four Seasons in any of its incarnations. I did recently interview Four Seasons’ pastry chef Bill Yosses, with whom I’m friendly, but it was before the review ran.]
Niccolini’s departure wasn’t required to lay bare the intellectual indefensibility of the review, though it sure forces the issue to the fore.
We’ll see what the Times does soon enough (not holding my breath for them to change the rating), but in the meantime, let’s consider for a moment why the review was so problematic even before last night’s news:
Simply put: Morality is relative. Sure, it’s a no-brainer to take a literary crowbar to Mr. Niccolini and his offenses, but doing so in a review and allowing it to drag down the star rating opens the door to no end of conundrums. Here are just three obvious dilemmas I would face were I a critic who had made the decision to cross this Rubicon (and been allowed to by my paper), divided into category:
My personal point of view is that the Trump administration transcends politics into a moral and existential realm. I’ve unfriended his most virulent defenders on social media and fended them off after speaking out on my podcast. Could I possibly enjoy a meal at the establishment of a Trump defender or business associate? Well, a good friend of mine was the opening chef at Chumley’s, where she received rave reviews (including from Pete Wells). I visited the restaurant frequently because I adore her and think she’s one of the most talented chefs in town. But the minute she left her post, I was done with it because the owner had announced plans to open a restaurant in the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C. Meantime, David Burke—a living legend with whom I’ve had a warm relationship for years—took Jose Andres’ space in the Trump International Hotel after Jose pulled out of the deal on moral grounds. I wouldn’t dine there but I would go to David’s other restaurants. Does that make me a hypocrite, or a good friend, or both? It’s not for me to say, but it’s murky enough that I damn sure wouldn’t drag my feelings about 45 into a review.
Ken Friedman-Adjacent Chefs
I’ve always had a soft spot for Gabrielle Hamilton, in part because she’s always been nice to me, and in part because I think she’s a pretty great writer. But I was horrified when she announced her intention, with partner Ashley Merriman, to join forces with Ken Friedman and save the Spotted Pig. Maybe I’ll get over it someday, but I haven’t been to Prune since then. Now here’s the thing: She and Merriman withdrew from the project. What’s a moralizing restaurant critic to do with that? Was the sin committed with the intent, or was it absolved by the retreat? I no longer support Batali-Bastianich restaurants, or any of the places with which Friedman is/was associated, but I’m not going to judge The Daily Meal for naming Del Posto the best Italian restaurant in America, or Babbo the seventh best, even though journalists are falling all over themselves to remind us that Batali is still profiting from them.
Imagine a chef so generous and big-hearted that he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Wait: You don’t have to! There is such a chef and his name is Jose Andres. I haven’t been to one of Jose’s restaurants in a few years. But let’s say I were a critic and that I’d written the following, from Wells’ Four Seasons review: “Restaurants … are intimate places; eating is an act that requires trust and a sense of safety. We want to get up from the table feeling restored on all fronts except the financial one. Mr. Niccolini’s actions have done serious damage to his power to provide that feeling, even as he and Mr. von Bidder have made the restaurant better than it has been in years.”
Had I allowed that sentiment to diminish my evaluation of one restaurant, I’d have no choice but also to allow it to lift up restaurants owned by anybody as virtuous as Jose Andres.
If I were suddenly declared a critic, and allowed these and other issues to cloud my mind, I constantly would be presented with a minefield, and the only fair, consistent, and logical response, it seems to me, would be to shut it all out and review what I experienced in the dining room, and on the plate, or not review a restaurant where I was incapable of that objectivity, making my decision and feelings known in a think-piece or on social media.
Wells and the Times made the shortsighted decision to use a review to take down a restaurateur. We can wonder about how they’ll deal with these and other questions in the coming months and years. In the meantime, the paper has a wonderful opportunity to follow through on its own standard and elevate the Four Seasons’ rating, or explain why it won’t.