As everybody who follows food writing already knows, New York Times food critic Pete Wells recently published a devastating review of Thomas Keller's Manhattan restaurant Per Se. Situated in a kind of jewel box on the third floor of the Time Warner Center near Columbus Circle, Per Se frequently appears in the top ten on lists of the world's greatest restaurants. It boasts three Michelin stars, and the New York Times gave Per Se four stars — the newspaper's highest rating — that is, until Wells knocked it all the way down to two. Given that dinner for four at Per Se can easily cost $3,000, and two stars puts it on par with the vegetarian Superiority Burger on 9th Street, where you can get a brown rice and tofu wrap for $9, it's quite a blow.
Wells's review was a masterpiece of critical viciousness, and it generated an earthquake of response on social media — overwhelmingly in agreement, and characterized by rage. People who have eaten at Per Se seized the opportunity to tell the world that it was waste of money or even a scam. People who have not eaten at Per Se — because, perhaps, their idea of splurging is more like $100 a head — weighed in with condescension for suckers who pay so much for dinner in the first place.
Underneath this boiling fury, in my view, is the fact that Per Se, and every other restaurant of its kind, has come to represent what the space colony did in the Matt Damon sci-fi movie Elysium. These obscenely expensive dining rooms have become representative of the hermetically sealed world of the elites floating above the filthy trashed planet on which the rest of us live. I have met and interviewed Keller, and I like and admire the man, and I know that he was not born into privilege. Keller was raised by a single working mother in Florida, and he worked brutally hard for everything that he has achieved: countless awards, multiple bestselling cookbooks, his status as the only American chef ever to have three Michelin stars at two different restaurants (Per Se and The French Laundry). But Keller also came into his own — as the owner and head chef at The French Laundry, in California's Napa Valley — during the Clinton boom years of the mid-1990s, when prosperity felt widespread and all of us could aspire to one day eating at the finest restaurants. That hallucination vaporized with the 2007 financial crisis.
The economy has bounced back, of course, and we are nearing full-employment, but the economic gains of this particular recovery have gone overwhelmingly to a minute fraction of Americans; the very very rich keep getting richer while everybody else treads water. Even as countless multi-millionaires have become billionaires, inter-generational upward mobility in the United States — the likelihood that a child will achieve a higher standard of living than his or her parents — has fallen behind virtually every other developed nation. The American dream, in other words, currently looks like a delusional fantasy.
No wonder, then, that a place like Per Se provokes the same impulse that motivated Matt Damon's character when he finally broke into that space colony — a populist craving to rip the whole damn place apart, like the French revolutionaries who stormed the king's palaces, back in the 19th century. The price of dinner at Per Se has also gone through the roof, keeping pace with the rising fortunes of the mega-rich, while leaving the rest of us behind. Every bite, as a result, like at every restaurant of its caliber, is a deliberate concentration of wildly expensive ingredients and fabulous amounts of human labor meant to justify the price and also to create an experience of conspicuous consumption. A meal of that kind, in other words, is not unlike a $100 million-dollar mega-yacht: the whole point of its existence is to give the super-rich something to spend money on, a way of experiencing and displaying wealth. If you know that you will never be able afford such an experience, there is an irresistible pleasure in having the nation's most powerful food critic tell you the food sucks anyway.
Keller will bounce back. He remains the most successful and accomplished restaurateur in the United States. If anyone can save a cratering restaurant, Keller can. But American fine dining, after Wells’s broadside volley against the entire concept, may never be the same.