Considering her cover just got blown, L.A. Times critic Sherry Irene Virbila seems to be taking Red Medicine’s rejection and career-damaging PR campaign in stride. She tells the paper, "I always knew at some point a blogger or somebody would take a secret photo. But I never expected that a restaurateur would stick a camera in my face." But the owners, chefs, and critics that are on Virbila’s side are considerably more hotheaded when discussing the issue. "This is fucked up," tweets San Francisco chef Daniel Patterson, "No one deserves to be treated like that. Restaurants should affirm our humanity, not deny it." What else are players in the industry saying?
Chef Michael Mina, who formerly employed Noah Ellis, the Red Medicine partner who launched the attack, tells L.A. Times his first thought was, "Is he out of his mind? I think that’s crazy." The booting of Virbila might very well stretch back to her review last year of Mina’s Sunset Boulevard restaurant, XIV, where she called a dish by then pastry chef/current Red Medicine chef and partner Jordan Kahn "One of the worst desserts I’ve tasted."
In San Diego, chef Dan Moody agrees on Twitter: "At first I thought perhaps I was on their side. Then I read their post in their gallery w/ the pic they took. Babies." In Chicago, where reactions have been mixed, Big Jones chef Paul Fehribach sounded off, "I don’t think there’s anything any critic could do that warrants a restaurant destroying her career."
While some anger at the incident is to be expected from those in the food game, San Francisco Weekly’s John Birdsall took his own criticism of Ellis’s actions way too far, labeling the attack "rape," a word he later removed from his editorial rant and then apologized for after an outcry arose in the comments section.
Naturally, critics themselves are speaking out, with San Francisco’s Michael Bauer calling the move "Very stupid. I think it’s very short-sighted. If it was a good restaurant, they wouldn’t be afraid." L.A.’s Jonathan Gold stopped short of offering a strong opinion on Virbila’s ousting. After his S.F. Weekly counterpart Jon Kauffman wrote, "Wonder if kicking out critic, posting photo online, helps or harms a restaurant?" Gold simply offered, "It worked, alas, for Gordon Ramsay." Meanwhile, Sam Sifton conveniently appeared to be too occupied by a Ghostface Killah track to offer his take.
Of course, Red Medicine has some supporters in the biz, like Nguyen Tran of L.A.’s Starry Kitchen, who says via his Twitter page, "Dear @RedMedicineLA gang… you guys are FUCKIN’ BADASS!" Chicago’s Rob Levitt, of upcoming Butcher and Larder, agrees with the critic’s outing, if not her being bounced. He tells Soapbox, "I have no problem with a critic being outed. That’s part of the game. But refusing to serve her is a little ridiculous. She has every right to dine in any restaurant she chooses as long as she pays her bill and acts appropriately."
More surprising are the chefs who have remained mum on the issue, even though we wonder if they’re not somewhere smiling over the whole thing. Fabio Viviani had a lot to say about Virbila’s possible conflicts of interest when she gave him a review entirely devoid of stars, but for now, seems to be glued to Top Chef Masters. Ditto Ludovic Lefebvre, whose experimental cooking at Bastide went over the head of Virbila when she revoked three of the four stars she’d previously given the restaurant.
Wolfgang Puck, who recently slammed Sherry’s star system, just has his mind on his money right now, and remains silent on the issue. And there’s been no outcry yet from Ado’s Alberto Lazzarino, whom Virbila confused with another chef the entire time she slammed his restaurant. The usually vocal regulars of Chez Jay, who recently caused the critic to backpedal on her backtalk, are similarly quiet.
Meanwhile, the L.A. Times food section is just brushing its shoulders off. Food editor Russ Parsons states, "At this point, we’re not planning any changes in the way we do our restaurant reviews. Virbila is far from the first major critic to have her picture published and I’m sure she won’t be the last." And yes, the paper still plans to review Red Medicine. We can’t WAIT for that one, especially as Noah Ellis claims he only made Virbila’s party stand around for 40-plus minutes before kicking her out because "I was waiting for the right angle."
Correction: Apologies to Kris Morningstar, as we earlier attributed a quote to the chef that actually belonged to Rock My Palate blogger KrisDub, who tweeted: "The fact that they appear gleefully proud of the whole thing turns me off."