Lenny Russo

Russo is currently the chef and proprietor of Heartland Restaurant & Farm Direct Market in St. Paul. Russo has more than 30 years experience in the food and beverage industry including executive chef, general manager, food and beverage director and corporate chef for several Twin Cities companies, among them being U.S. Restaurants, Aveda Corporation, W.A. Frost & Company, Faegreā€™s, the Loring Cafe and the New French Cafe. Read more about Lenny Russo.

The latest scam plus the great restaurant rating debate

Posted by: Lenny Russo Updated: November 17, 2010 - 6:50 PM

On November 4th, Plate, a restaurant industry magazine, reported that according to the Baltimore Sun restaurants in California, Illinois, Pennsylvania and Maryland had been targeted by a phone scam from a person purporting to be from the health department.  The idea is to get the restaurants to provide confidential information that can somehow be used to access their accounts.

I received such a call about three months ago right after we relaunched Heartland in our new location.  Of course, I knew it wasn't the health department since my caller id showed a California area code.  Besides, my inspector had just left two hours earlier, and she's not a man with a heavy foreign accent.

The scam goes something like this:  The caller states he is from the health department and that he needs to speak with a manager due to numerous complaints of food poisoning due to tainted food.  If the manager takes the bait, the caller tries to secure personal information that can be used to compromise the restaurants security.  Sometimes the manager is asked to call another number and enter a code before providing the information.

I am fortunate to have a very close working relationship with the City of St. Paul's Department of Environmental Protection.  Kim Carlton is our inspector, and she is great about providing constant information and helpful tools so that we can stay on top of the latest code changes and best ways to avoid any contamination problems.  Kim is a good egg.  If we ever had a problem, she would call me personally to investigate it.  It is my understanding that most municipal health departments would have similar policies in place whereby the inspector assigned to a specific location is the first point of contact when an alleged problem arises.

Consequently, when I received the call, I confronted the caller who immediately hung up.  It was pretty comical last week when moments after reading the report of similar calls in Plate, that the phone rang and, lo and behold, it was another scam artist pushing the same scam.  I told him I knew it was a scam, and he actually admitted that it was.  I had to ask him to repeat himself because I could barely believe my ears.  So he did.  He said, "Yes.  This a scam."  It was actually kind of refreshing.  I almost told him to have a nice day before I hung up on him.

*     *     *     *     *

Recently on his blog, Chef Stewart Woodman of currently mothballed Heidi's and formerly of Five and Levain, took extreme umbrage with the fact that our restaurant had been given a rating of 97 out of 100 on something called the Restaurant Rater atop a review by Beth Dooley in MSP magazine.  His point was not without merit since he said that a rating like that should naturally mean that the restaurant is nearly perfect.  He wanted to know if Beth was of the opinion that Heartland was among the finest restaurants in the world.  He went on the say that we must be, or we would never have received that rating.  On the other hand, he suggested, maybe the rating was inflated and not valid at all.

Andrew Zimmern then responded on his blog by essentially telling Stew that he was taking the whole rating thing much too seriously.  I know that since I was alerted to the whole exchange by a regular customer who suggested that I check out Andrew's blog.

So I followed the thread back to Stew's blog and read the thing.  I didn't really know what he was talking about since I hadn't read Beth's review, but I did go buy a copy of the magazine.  Sure enough, there it was: 97 out of 100.  The only problem with that is that further toward the front of the magazine we are listed in another review as one of the Best New Restaurants, and we were given a rating of 95 out of 100.  Furthermore, as Andrew pointed out in his blog, we are rated 91.5 on the MSP website.

On that website, there is a cursory summary of how the rater works.  It's some sort of extrapolation derived from combining restaurant reviews, user reviews, blogger reviews and other such things to come up with a rating based on the 100 point scale.  I finished calculus by the end of the 11th grade, and I can't for the life of me figure out what logarithmic formula they use to get to that final rating.

To further fuel the fire, one week later, Rick Nelson of the Star Tribune gave us a four star review.  While Stewart didn't make direct objections to that, he did post something that suggested that Twin Cities food critics were too easy and that we would never have garnered such a rating in New York or Los Angeles.  Once again, he took aim at the critics and not at the restaurant being reviewed.  He left direct criticisms of our restaurant to his blog minions who were fairly swift to say that Heartland wasn't worthy of such praise. Some of that was of the "I heard from a friend" variety.

So does a four star review intend to say that a restaurant is perfect?  I think not since perfection is an unattainable goal.  To be sure, the standard is perfection, and I go to the restaurant every day with the expectation that we will be perfect.  It is only way I know how to approach the work.  The truth of the matter is that the food is being prepared by human beings who are fallible creatures, and mistakes will be made.  Not only that, but we change our menu daily.  I know we will have some hits, and we will have some misses when we challenge ourselves in that fashion.  Still, that is the standard we are constantly pursuing.

Stewart contends that a four star review in the Twin Cities should be the same as a four star review in any other city including New York, Los Angeles or Chicago as if there is some objective scale that can be be employed no matter who is doing the reviewing, whom is getting reviewed and where the review is taking place.  The only problem with that is there is no objectivity when is comes to criticism.  Criticism is a subjective pursuit.  When Heartland opened eight years ago, Jeremy Iggers gave us three and a half stars while Kathie Jenkins gave us two stars.  He loved it; she didn't like it so much.  Three years later, Rick Nelson gave us four stars for the first time.  They are all critics who are paid to offer their very subjective impressions, and all three had different perceptions.  Furthermore, when Stewart was at Levain a few years ago, Rick Nelson gave that restaurant four stars.  At the time, Levain didn't even have wine list, and given the ambiance and the level of service provided does Stew really believe that that restaurant would have rated four stars in the New York Times?  I didn't hear him carping then, but here he is taking issue now.

It goes to reason, at least for me, that a city with a greater number of resources, such as better access to a wider range of fine ingredients and a larger talent pool, would produce more restaurants operating at a higher level of excellence.  There are 8 million people employed in New York City.  Of those 8 million, I saw a statistic that put the estimated percentage of those employed as cooks at 2%.  That statistic did not account for those who are employed illegally or are somehow not accounted for in the public record.  That means there are, at a minimum, 160,000 cooks working in the five boroughs.  That's a pretty big talent pool from which to choose when staffing a kitchen, and there are more and more talented cooks, many of whom are from Minnesota, swelling those ranks every year because they know it's where many of us go to earn our stripes.

Does this mean that Twin Cities restaurants should be graded on a bell curve?  I don't know that answer to that, and, quite frankly, I don't really care.  I will leave the criticism to the critics.  That's why I instruct my staff to wait at least a month before reading any reviews.  If a critic says something not so nice about us, they tend to take it too much to heart.  If the opposite is true, they tend to think they are much better than they are, and we still have a lot of work to do.  We might have received a four star review, but if we aren't better a year from now than we are today and better still a year from then, then I will be very disappointed.

I don't strap my boots on in the morning because I am trying to figure out how to get a four star review or how to earn 100 points on some rating scale.  I do it because I find the work interesting and challenging and because I have a vision of what I want our restaurant to be.  I will probably never fully realize that vision, but I'm fine with that.  Just striving for it is enough to keep me going.

My suggestion to my friend Stewart is to, as I do, leave the criticism to the critics.  Let's you and I continue to do our best to honor the profession to which we are so very fortunate to belong.  In that way, we can both look forward to the long overdue rebirth of your restaurant.  Having another bright star in our culinary world can only be good for us all, and may I wish you many four star reviews and 100 point ratings.

 

 

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