A few years ago, I was warned that an upcoming interviewee was “an asshole” by another chef I know. I went into the interview expecting a full-of-himself celebrity chef with an ego even bigger than his massive downtown restaurant. But the man who sat in front of me was humble, smart, talented, and hella hardworking. He’s shown me nothing less than utmost professionalism in our work together. Lesson learned.
Since then, I’ve made it a point to be as open-minded as humanly possible when preparing to interview someone new.
The Internet is not an all-knowing god that can be completely trusted. It’s more like the Wizard of Oz – there may be some truth to what it’s telling you, but there are a lot of smoke and mirrors, too. So I can only hope that my contributions to the internet are as honest as I can make them, taking into account my own humanity and inevitable room for error. As a writer, that means coming as prepared as possible to a story and then challenging myself to sit, listen, and learn.
My job requires analysis, but not critique; I set my niche in the writing world intentionally. I do my research ( a lot – I’m a nerd that way), formulate my questions, have a discussion in person or by phone, and then try to write profiles that best express what makes people’s tails wag; why they work so hard at what they do, why they love making food and feeding people in a very tough profession.
Yes, people are often on their best behavior because I set a recording device in front of them, and they know their words could be twisted in my hands. Yes, there’s a chance for dishonesty on their part. But, I like to give human beings the benefit of the doubt. Because if I don’t, what’s the point?
I was caught in an interesting cyclone recently when researching married couple chef Joe Dobias and manager Jill Dobias of Joe and Misses Doe for the Village Voice. Many years ago now, Joe had made some comments on Twitter that I, honestly, did find a bit crass. But I saw the angsty exchange snowball into him being called a “troll” with serious anger issues. Pieces by writers firmly established in the NYC food scene went so far as to practically write him as a Quasimodo, throwing disgruntled patrons from the top of a metaphorical belltower.
Who was I to meet on that quiet Wednesday afternoon?
Joe was all smiles. Jill, nothing but warmth. Side by side, they started chatting animatedly as soon as I sat down, flowing from one talking point to another with the comfort of a couple who’ve been in the game (and around each other) for a good deal of time. As the minutes ticked on, I looked for a veneer, something that would crack, and didn’t find one. 97% of our discussion was on their work: on the progression of their cuisine after eight years in the business, on their redesign, and on Jill’s really fascinating bar program. But I couldn’t not ask about the trolling history since so much of my Googling pointed to it. I asked direct questions about this period and expected a cloak and dagger response. Instead, they answered honestly, a bit abashedly, and with an air of “we’ve learned and put this past us”.
Here’s the thing: the Internet makes easy trolls of us all. I’ve definitely been guilty of reading a Tweet and, quickly and without enough thought, lobbing out a response that I later — honestly and humbly — apologize for. It’s easy to forget that we should all take a breath before reacting, and remember that our opinion doesn’t always matter! Most people I work with in hospitality and media are now in at least their mid-thirties, too: we didn’t grow up with social media dominating our personal lives, or being a requirement of our professional lives. We all fuck up. We’re still learning.
I believe that things on the Internet shouldn’t be our sole and primary source of education. See the movie before you bash it. Read the book before you dismiss. And, if your profession is like mine, speak with the person you’re writing about before you write about them. Right?
Below is that 3% part of my interview with Joe and Jill that was only briefly touched upon in the Voice piece that speaks to this. I’ve omitted the names of the writers specifically mentioned in the following, since they’re not the point; The Wizard of Oz names are purely for putting something in their place. This is not about bashing writers. It’s about pointing out a very specific circumstance that happened to two people I recently sat down to speak with. Are they good people? I like to assume so from my first-hand interaction with them. Is there restaurant the bees knees? I haven’t eaten there, yet. Don’t take my word on any of this – just read what I wrote about them and their words below, and if you’re still curious, head to Joe and Misses Doe on 1st Street to decide for yourself.
– Jacqueline, out.
Joe and Jill Dobias
On Media Versus Their Reality
(This discussion came from my asking them what they learned from the period where Joe was described as “the aggressive American chef” and was practically at internet-war with a group of writers and bloggers. I’m not providing links for you. This is not about that. It’s been edited for clarity.)
JOE: When we opened, we got ambushed with social media. I didn’t know the ramifications of Twitter and Yelp. We’ve really come to known these things much better, and what’s worth it and what’s not.
JILL: We’ve taken a lot of bumps along the way, but have a lot of true vision, identity, and a customer base because the fickleness of the business — the next “new” place where you see the same faces who are there until they’re onto the next one — goes quickly. Personally, I didn’t want to have a place where people are always looking for the next place. Every time I feel that’s happening here, we change something up – the menu, the décor, the paint color…
JOE: People know they’re getting their money’s worth here. I’m not trying to rip people off here. So calling me a troll is laughable. I think people are offended when they hear an opinion that they don’t like.
When we were open for a week, Dorothy came in and wrote a nasty, vitriolic blog post that we wouldn’t last a week, let alone a month. We didn’t even have our liquor license yet! We opened with $80,000 of credit card debt! I lost 40 or 50 pounds in the process from stress. And then to read that? She didn’t understand, and she didn’t fact check. She decided I was going to be the enemy, and then The Tin Man took that up. The Lion had been friends with us on social media, and when he was at [his previous site] we could have a discourse and it would never go into the toilet — it’s usually the kids who lack the knowledge of being able to find out what’s going on on their own [who do that]. And it’s evident by the way those things are organized. You can see who they write about over and over and over again.
Now, I don’t get invited to chefs conferences. I’ve cooked at the James Beard House and never gotten nominated for an award. We just continue to do what we do.
JILL: We’ve been burned before by people. We’re owner-operators just working our business every day. What do they have to gain?
JOE: We always have been who we are. But whether or not we’ve had to learn along the way… we’re not pigheaded and stubborn to the point where we’re not going to learn lessons. I got dumped on in 2009. Every single blogger was coming after me. The Scarecrow wrote a huge piece about how much he hated me – he had never met me in my life, and he had never been in the restaurant. Which is crazy, because I think he would have loved my cookery. I would have loved to have had him in here. So it’s crazy that people write about us who have never been in here. Because when you sit across from us, when you come in here and Jill treats you like it’s her home, when she serves you drinks, when you’re in here and see that I’m not lobbing things from the kitchen like Gordon Ramsey, telling you to get the fuck out of here… the reality versus the mysticism of those things on on the Internet are insane.
JILL: It’s a small part of our lives and so insignificant.
JOE: I’ve learned because Jill’s taught me to shut my mouth, and what’s important to share and what’s not.
JILL: When we started, Joe was aggressive on social media, and people would latch onto that because we were an easy target. Now, we have learned over the years that we do our own thing. There’s only a couple of people in our business who just do their own thing…
JOE: And that kind of pisses people off.
JILL: …But they’re successful in their own right, without doing what everyone else is doing. They have their own niche.
JOE: They do things that most people hate, anyway.
JILL: And so we’ve carved out a niche for ourselves, too. How many restaurants who do what they do are still open like we are? We’re our own bosses – we don’t have any partners. So we don’t have to make anyone’s grandma’s meatballs. We don’t need to be part of that “group” of those people that we mentioned before. We’ve grown up. Joe’s grown up on social media. He has an ivy league education, he opened his own restaurant with no business partners and has worked every fucking day for eight years straight in his own restaurant.
JOE: And I’m not expediting. I cook the food. I’m the one putting it on the plate. We’re workers. We’re in it.