Chef Joe Doe Speaks Out About the New York Dining Circus

By

Yesterday we were highly entertained, though not exactly surprised, to see JoeDoes namesake chef-owner Joe Dobias lash out at Marc Shepherd for penning a review on his blog, NY Journal, that deemed the restaurant hard to take seriously: Its quirky offerings often sound interesting, but when the plates arrive the payoff isnt there. In the comments, Dobias insisted the malicious post was revenge for the fact that Shepherd (whom Dobias went on to call an angry little man and a hapless shameless little person, even comparing him to George Costanza) hadnt been allowed to take photos, and went on to share more opinions about shithead bloggers being stuck up little kids with no training, no schooling, and probably as I always say no real life experience working in a restaurant. Before JoeDoe opened his doors, we were probably the first outlet to get in touch with him, and have happily covered his experiments with Madoff menus, tongue-sandwich delivery, and of course its brunch battle with Prune; so we knew a little bit about his frustrations with PR and media coverage. So when his new PR intern e-mailed to tell us about a Fourth of July all-day rib roast (featuring specials such as pork ribs with pickled slaw, barbecue chicken with macaroni salad and summer greens, and crispy watermelon with Greek yogurt), we asked him for an on-the-record sit-down.

I think folks were a little surprised to see you blowing up on Eater yesterday.
I wasnt surprised I think that Eater is true to their intent in general, which is to be slanderous and mischievous. Theyre always out for the bloodbath. Back in August, Amanda [Kludt, editor] had the audacity to fail to mention we were only open for two days when she wrote a really nasty post about my food and what I was doing.

So you banned Eater from the restaurant?
I told them basically that they were dead to us and that they were never welcome here, nor were their friends. Instead of helping the people they should be helping (like you guys do at New York Magazine), Eater just likes to take people down.

As a mom-and-pop (or rather husband-and-wife) operation, has it been frustrating trying to get the right attention for JoeDoe?
Yes and no. I think in general its who you know and who you blow, as they say its like a big high school. All the kids on top who are popular dont want anyone else to be popular. Even David Chang writes about how the first year no one had anything to do with him, but because he continued to say fuck you to everyone, he became cool and now no one wants to say anything bad about him. A lot of the bloggers dont even know what the hell theyre talking about they spend years in one career and one day they flip a light switch and decide theyre experts. I dont go onto medical websites and tell people how to do surgeries better. I can never understand how restaurants went from being about eating to now being this whole circus.

Why did you decide to get a publicist after three or four months? Do you think the fact that you didnt have one off the bat hurt you in terms of getting traditional reviews?
We were going through the recession like everybody else, and if youre a survivor and you want to do something, you gotta do something to survive and give it everything you got. I dont really understand the rhyme or reason as to how the Times or New York Magazine reviews people. They always bump the little guy in favor of the big guy who doesnt really need the review. I know when DBGB opened, I said itll only be a month till theyre reviewed and weve already been here a year. Im not saying Im on their level, but if someone else opened up serving burgers, fries, and sausages, it wouldnt be so much of a big deal. Plus, is Daniel Boulud really cooking for you over there? I worked for Ming Tsai and he didnt do much cooking till I told him you dont really do much cooking, huh? and he took offense; then he started cooking with us.

Why did you get rid of the PR firm?
I think that overall we got more press on our own than with PR. The PR person said you need to change all these things. I dont know how they come off telling you how to run things. Theyre not in operations. When, a month in, we told them no, were very happy with how it is, it became this rebuke, and they lost interest in us. The only thing they did was call Betsy Andrews and got her to come in, but they had nothing to do with why she came back and eventually gave us a Dining Brief.

So what did they tell you to change?
We were told that not having a wine list was ridiculous, but we cant afford a wine list. And to put a bottle of wine on the table, serve sangria, all sorts of tired, hokey-pokey things. It was a circus mentality watch this guy jump through flaming hoops but were not going to talk about what were actually doing here. We couldnt just be who we were. And when we questioned why we werent getting people in despite all the press, we were told it wasnt their fault.

How much was all this costing you, and affecting the bottom line?
Its thousands a month, even for the smallest places. Its almost $1,000 a week, which was maybe 25 to 30 percent of our gross.

Does cooking in such a small space every night, with such a close eye on your diners, spark a sort of Kenny Shopsin attitude, where youre more controlling or temperamental than a chef who cant see whos eating his food?
Absolutely, the place is called JoeDoe because thats my nickname even if people make fun of it. Thats why I find it hard to believe that someone would go and write that theyve had a bad meal. I was standing right there and I cooked every morsel of food if you have a problem, why not tell me you didnt like the food, or something was overcooked ... Instead you try to be snippy because you didnt get the pictures you wanted. Thats just juvenile youre not entitled to do whatever you want in someone elses place. At Cornell I was taught the customer is always right, but the customer is not always right.

Okay, so why are customers wrong for wanting to take photos?
I have a 26-seat restaurant the size of a studio apartment. Imagine if you dimmed the lights on your studio apartment and you had a flashbulb go off every twenty seconds. If I wanted my restaurant to be a discothque, I wouldve opened a discothque. If you want to take pictures Ill always let you come back during non-service hours, but no one takes me up on that because they just want to come in for their 45-minute meal and write something really snippy if youre not nice enough to them, or you do something they dont like. If you really have a problem with what I do, dont come here and tell me to be different just dont come here. But New York diners have a snobbish attitude someone said recently that were a bunch of big kids. If I hear one more time that my pork belly is too fatty, Im going to throw up.

You took offense to the reviews observation that no one else was in the restaurant. How is JoeDoe doing, anyway?
The thing that was ridiculous is that if the guy was here at 9:30 p.m. when most people in the East Village eat, he wouldve seen the place packed. Restaurants dont need to make their money all day long unfortunately theres not a lot of diners out there, and unless youve been around for ten years la Prune its very difficult during the week. Im not going to say were packed Monday through Wednesday, but we do kick-ass business Friday, Saturday, Sunday. I have a ten-year lease and Im not going anywhere.

You mentioned Prune, which you called out when you were first opening. Whats your relationship like now?
I dont think we have a relationship. I have a lot of respect for [chef-owner Gabrielle Hamilton] even though she doesnt have respect for me.

What makes you think that?
Shes never spoken one word to me parks her car outside my restaurant and never says hello.

Have you tried to reach out to her?
Yes and no. We are sort of intimidated by her, honestly its the big fish, small fish thing. Shes the big dog on the block. In my mind Id hope shed approach it more in a mentor type way.

What about your relationship with your wife, Jill has operating the restaurant almost literally hand in hand with her put a strain on things?
My dream of dreams is that wed be the next Waltuck couple our relationship has actually gotten stronger. I slowly sucked Jill away from her intense passion for dance but now shes here and gets to see what I do on a daily basis, and now she has entered the big realm of cocktails and put everyone on notice.

Joe Doe Coda: You Will Make Me Famous, and for That I Love You Little Bloggers