The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

You can help by leaving comments on posts and by becoming a follower. I'd really like to know who you are and what your thoughts are on what I'm doing. To date, more than a quarter million people have viewed the blog and that's great. But every great leader needs followers and if I am ever to achieve my goal of becoming the next great leader of the Italian culinary world :-) I need followers!

Grazie mille!

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Yelpers, Urbanspooners, and Trip Advisors Beware!

A couple of news stories connected with one of my favorite soapbox platforms recently caught my eye.

As anybody who reads my scribblings knows, I am not a big fan of social media, particularly when it comes to the so-called “review” sites. These sites are little more than outlets created for people to vent their two cents' worth. Unfortunately, such opinions are frequently worth considerably less than the advertised price. Not that I have anything against expressing one's opinion. As I often and unambiguously state, everyone is entitled to my opinion. And if you have an opinion to offer that is intelligent, well-constructed, based in fact, and anchored in experience and/or expertise, have at it.

All too often, though, the pronouncements rendered on social “review” sites aren't reviews at all. They are petty gripes and complaints expressed as mere billingsgate by individuals secure in their closets of anonymity and cloaked in what they perceive to be their First Amendment right to “free speech.”

Without miring down in constitutional law and Supreme Court decisions involving Holmes-ian (Oliver Wendell, not Sherlock) quotations regarding the shouting of “fire” in crowded theaters, some of these alleged “reviewers” are discovering that sometimes “free speech” comes at a cost.

Take, for example, the recent brouhaha involving Chef Marc Orfaly of Boston's upscale eatery, Pigalle. In case you aren't up on the details, the chef very publicly lambasted a “review” of his establishment posted on Facebook by a woman named “Sandy.” Using the same medium, Orfaly lashed out at “Sandy,” calling her a bitch and telling her to vai cazzo herself. (He said it in English, but everything sounds so much nicer in Italian, you know.)

Sandy” was, shall we say, somewhat disappointed by her meal. And she expressed her disappointment by saying endearing things online. Things like, “"Really horrible pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving!! Wow. I don't have a clue as to why you would think that throwing pumpkin chunks into a cold pre baked pie shell and then covering it with a cream sauce that literally tasted like vomit { I am very serious!} and topping it off with whipped cream that was runny would in any way be something that can be called pumpkin pie?"

To which Orfaly responded, “you must enjoy vomit you bitch if you know how much it tastes like.” And it got worse. There was a lot more. She jumped back into the fray. He responded in kind.

Children, children! Please!

Orfaly has since apologized, as well he should. He was way out of line in the things that he said. But was he out of line for saying them? I don't think so.

The chef considered that he was defending his trade. “I feel like restaurateurs have to stick up for themselves in one way or another.” He says even though he knows he could have handled the situation better, he has still gotten support from fellow chefs.

I say again, he was one hundred percent wrong in launching a profanity-laced tirade against another human being. That is never defensible, no matter what you think you are defending. But he was one hundred percent right in his reasoning.

The restaurant business is incredibly tough. Oh, the diner who walks in the door, sits down at a table, has a meal, pays the check, and walks back out thinks that running a restaurant is just like cooking at home only on a bigger scale. And that's unimaginably incorrect. One out of every three new restaurants fails within its first year. Even successful chefs – the ones you see on TV – have failures. And it doesn't help to have idiots with inflated senses of self-importance sitting down at keyboards talking trash about things of which they know little.

But I know what I like!” Okay! Fine! But what you like and what I like may be two different things. If the only spaghetti you've ever had came out of a can with Chef Boyardee's picture on it and that's what you “like,” then you're probably going to hate the kind of stuff they serve at an authentic Italian restaurant. So does that give you the right to go online and tell the whole world that a place has “terrible” food simply because you didn't like it? Do you have the right to ruin a person's business and take away the livelihoods of that person's employees because you think you're God's arbiter of culinary excellence? And do you really think your sophisticated palate and your rapier wit are exemplified by enlightened comments such as “literally tasted like vomit?” Please.

Before you consign Chef Orfaly to the kitchens of hell, imagine, if you would, that you hosted a big dinner party. Everybody ate, drank, and made merry. And then some jerk went home and wrote for all the world to see that your food tasted like vomit. How would you feel? How would you respond?

These are not trained and experienced gourmands. These are the people next door; the ones who grew up eating canned, packaged, and frozen processed food products from a microwave. And don't be surprised to see more responses from guys like Orfaly who are defending their reputations and fighting for their businesses. In this vaunted “Information Age,” why should the discourse be one-sided?

A little advice, though, for would-be Orfalys: before you send your inner Anthony Bourdain out into the blogosphere, remember what your mama probably told you, “If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all.” Ignorant people are what they are, and rudely pointing out their shortcomings only reflects badly on you. Maybe this aphorism, attributed to a variety of sources, but nonetheless true, applies, “Never try to teach a pig to sing; it wastes your time and it annoys the pig.”

In another instance of an online “review” gone wrong, the response took the form not of a Facebook diatribe, but of a three-quarters of a million-dollar lawsuit.

A homeowner in Fairfax, Virginia was a little peeved with the service she received from a local contractor. True to the current social model of posting one's every move, emotion, thought, and experience online for all the world to share, she went to yelping on Yelp. Here she accused the contractor of shoddy workmanship and made veiled allegations of theft. She gave the guy one star and advised her readers not to put themselves through “this nightmare of a contractor.”

Imagine her surprise when her “nightmare” entered her waking world bearing a $750,000 defamation suit. According to a Washington Post report, lawyers are labeling such reactions as “a growing trend” in the “freewheeling and acerbic world of Web speech” where such speech is “colliding with the ever-growing importance of online reputations for businesses, doctors, restaurants, even teachers.”

The author of the “review” said she didn't want to see what happened to her happen to anyone else. Well, applause and shouts of “brava!” for her selfless altruism. Or was it, to use a phrase employed by the writer of the Post article, her attempt at “the go-to form of retail vengeance in the Internet age?”

Back in the good old days, if someplace pissed you off, you told your family and friends about it, right? And they probably told a few of their acquaintances and pretty soon you had a couple dozen folks all vowing to never patronize a certain business. At least until cooler heads prevailed and a little time passed and the whole incident blew over.

But in the brave new world of the Information Age, Mr. and Mrs. Average Citizen, through the anarchic instrument of the Internet, now possess the means to utterly destroy the lives of the people by whom they are offended. No more spoken complaints in the ears of a close few. Now, with a collection of keystrokes, an indelible record can be created and shared with the the population of an entire neighborhood, city, county, state, country or planet! You can get yours, alright! You can teach that sucker to piss YOU off! Never mind his wife and kids and the families of his employees. You got him and you got him good!

Pathetic. And frankly, I extol the business people who send their lawyers in to be their paladins in the face of wildly unexpurgated drivel. More power to 'em. Nothing like a good tort to deflate the overblown opinion some people have of themselves and of their importance.

But on a smaller, more personal scale, here's what I do; fight fire with fire and rebut. When I see a horrible and obviously biased “review” of a business I know to be good, I get online and write a detailed rebuttal. So should you. Do it right and stick to the facts. Nobody's going to sue you for saying something nice and only in this way will intelligent readers be able to make informed decisions. When a place gets a hundred positive comments and one negative, most people can read between the lines.

For better or worse, Facebook and Yelp and Urbanspoon and the rest are here to stay. As a consumer, just consider the source when you refer to these places for “reviews” and recommendations. And if you're an aspiring “reviewer,” choose your words carefully lest you be required to eat them.

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