In Conversation with Ahmass Fakahany: The Future of Restaurant Criticism

Does Pete Wells really matter? That’s a question we thought we should explore given the recent scuttle between Altamarea’s CEO Ahmass Fakahany and the longtime New York Times critic, who skewered Fakahany’s new French restaurant Vaucluse in a one-star review, just weeks before he denuded Per Se.

Of Vaucluse, Wells wrote, “Much of the menu lassos the grayest of old gray mares and drags them out for one last trot around the paddock. Some of the mares are revived by the exercise. Others, like the chocolate mousse that has been repeatedly violated by bits of baked cocoa meringue and buried under chocolate ice cream, seem as if they would rather be left alone to live out their retirements in peace.”

While Thomas Keller has not responded to Wells’ flaying, Fakahany—a former financier at Merrill Lynch where he was chief financial officer, then co-president—posted a letter in response to the review on the Altamarea website. The letter was strongly worded, challenging not only Wells, but taking a shot at the Dining Section as well:

“I am writing you because over the course of time you need to know you are losing credibility and, in a sense, degrading the very institution that gave you the privilege and mandate to be a food critic. The New York Times Dining review section is at its lowest point, and the subject of much industry chatter in this regard. Congratulations. You have managed to do a fantastic job of getting it there.”

Fakahany was not all sour grapes; he constructively challenged the one-voice reviewer system and made some concrete suggestions for more fairness and inclusiveness:

“What we all do know is the system is broken in its approach. It is random and lacking any credible substance. The New York Times needs to rethink its stance and future trajectory here. Perhaps it is time for a composite system including other food writers and possibly including also a rotating chefs council. There are many options to consider, and like many aspects in life, there is a time for recalibration.”

What struck us about this exchange was not so much the particulars of the restaurant review, but the big-picture question: What is the future of restaurant criticism, and what influence, given social media and the proliferation of online consumer reviews, does the New York Times still have on the life and/or death of a restaurant? In other words, does Pete Wells really matter?

We sat down with Fakahany at the Altamarea loft in Soho for a chat about the relevance of the critic.

First, let’s talk about the genesis of this letter. Obviously The Times has been good to you over the years with three stars for Marea and another three for Ai Fiori. Why rock the boat?

Let me start out by saying I apologize for this letter; it’s not what I am about. I try to always take the high road and move on. I spend hours with my people explaining we just have to focus on the client and do what we do best. So this is NOT Altamarea style or what I preach.

So, what made you hit send?

My people were hurting. Michael was hurting. I built Altamarea with my bare hands, and it’s a company but it’s made up of real people, all 1,000 of them. Outsiders don’t know how hard it is in the kitchen. It is back-breaking work; you are melting in there. I have been humbled times ten watching how hard these people work. And there was a feeling in the group that I had not seen before, especially because of Well’s first sentence: “A critic could run out of new ways to express disappointment in Altamarea Group restaurants if Altamarea didn’t keep coming up with new ways to disappoint.”

There was a sense of doubt. And there was also a confusion: How do I explain that Ristorante Morini is two stars and a restaurant we spent four and a half years working on, traveling to France, is one star? There was a huge inconsistency.

But the primary message was to say, you have hit our boundaries. Because if you don’t have any boundaries you are just a fire hydrant for everyone to relieve themselves on. Everyone has boundaries and you hit mine. So I decided to take the collateral damage after discussing it with Michael. I posted the letter and then I ducked and went for cover and waited to see what comes out of the woodwork.

What has the reaction been?

I can’t tell you how many supportive emails I have gotten from chefs, restaurateurs, and owners, saying, “This is the letter I have been writing in my dreams.” There was this kind of amazing response, and I don’t even know many of these people. While we may not have received reviewers’ or critics’ support, we received tremendous industry support that was deeper and broader than I could have imagined. An incredible dialogue emerged.

Certainly people thought it was extremely gutsy, and I am sure that some people who dislike us now dislike us even more. Our assessment was that it was not a complete disaster. It was an 80% win, and to me it was a 100% win because it was for my people. And now it’s back to our clients and back to work.

Have you seen any effect on Vaucluse, up or down in terms of reservations and people in the seats?

Most of our core clients are not following this dialogue. But I think a few people actually came to check us out because of the review. Fortunately, we are busy and in a good spot.

Has the review made you worry at all about the restaurant’s long-term survival?

I am always worried. We live near the cliff all the time. Once you get through this phase — which gives you a boost or an inquiry or a “ha ha ha and let’s go see what this is about” — you have a restaurant to run. I negotiate long-term leases, 20 years on average, so it’s a marathon, not a race. We are here with the client, the community, and we are not in the business of food and beverage. We are not in the business of entertainment. We are in the business of memories.

Some of the most important memories in your life are going to take place in a restaurant. Whether it’s with a spouse, an aunt, a grandma, your parents, your friends. We need to keep making memories and making things special. That’s hospitality.

So if there hasn’t been a negative effect on Vaucluse, does the review really matter?

There is no doubt of the strength of the New York Times and its reputation and history. It’s a big moment when you get that review, and it’s millions of readers. But the fabric of social media and how fast it moves, well, that influence can’t be understated. I am reviewed every second my doors are open. When you have five people having dinner, you don’t have five people. You have a hundred people by the time everyone shares all their food and Instagrams it.

Sounds like social media is the more powerful tool?

It is multi-dimensional, and it is instant. It’s not only 100 people at the table, but this [points to my iPhone] has changed the whole dining experience. That phone has changed it. People don’t order right away because they are so busy taking photos and informing their friends of their whereabouts and the play by play. Then there’s this other subset of service relating to the phone mid-meal—can you charge this for me? And we do. We give them a juice stick. Our response is to lean in. We don’t want people stressed out about their phones and to enjoy their dining experience in the modern age.

Between all social media and digitalization mechanisms we are CONSTANTLY being reviewed, and I will tell you that it is a more impactful feedback mechanism to our success than the one big review, which is an event in time but not a continuum, pushing excellence. So the future is alive in instant feedback that we have to listen to and respond to.

Do you respond to comments on review sites?

We respond to every single comment. That is the job of everyone in the front of the house. It’s a constant dialogue. You have to make things right. I welcome it. It puts us on our toes. You can’t hide, because mistakes are not over when a client leaves the restaurant, because that’s going to be out there on Twitter or Yelp.

Turning to the New York Times, do you think that the review system should be, well, reviewed?

It could be me alone, but I think that maybe they should re-introduce the $25 and Under column. Maybe make it $45 and Under to account for inflation?

It’s hard to have one reviewer writing about a hamburger place one week and a fine-dining restaurant the next with the same rating lens. I think that is confusing. We have some high-level stars in our group, but who knows what they mean anymore. If Vaucluse has one star and Morini has two? For me, I want truth and a better context.

Do you think the star system should be abandoned?

At the end of the day, the star rating means something still; we are being graded. I don’t know what it is about human nature, but we like measurement. And we need to work harder if we don’t get a good grade. There was no petulance with the Vaucluse review. After we got it, we sat down and we looked at it and found things to improve on.

Tell me more about your suggestion of changing from one critic to a panel?

It’s been the same writers and editors at the Times for years—Wells, Sifton, Florence, Melissa Clark, Maureen Edgerly—so I say to myself, what’s wrong with having them all coming together as a panel and reviewing the restaurants? That could be fun, and also it’s more fair and objective because it’s three or four voices.

And maybe you can add a rotating chef or two who can add a real culinary piece. It’s logical because I know they will all have different opinions. And I come from a background where including different opinions creates a better product and one that is more credible. I am a big inclusion guy. That system creates checks and balances. I don’t think they are serving the industry at this time to the fullest.

So what’s the bottom line on the future of restaurant criticism?

The future is back to social media and different opinions. Word of mouth is still the oldest, strongest impactful method of projecting a restaurant’s quality. Your friends and people you trust, that’s who you are going to rely on. I don’t think that will ever change.