There was a time when a reporter got both sides of a story, assembled them into a piece, and then that was it. If you disagreed with it or felt wronged, you could leave a comment or write a complaining letter to the editor, but either one was roughly as effective at changing the narrative as stapling your message to a rusting viaduct. Now, though, the story can be just the prelude to the epic Twitter fight that breaks out over the story's veracity and worth, as Time Out Chicago's profile of restaurateur Brendan Sodikoff (Au Cheval, Bavette's, etc.) proved last night. The profile, by David Tamarkin, was previewed Tuesday on Twitter:
@TOCEatOut: We have a pretty controversial food story coming out this afternoon (tomorrow in print)....looking forward to hearing what everyone thinks.
Be careful what you wish for.
The story's thesis is in its first two sentences:
The most-loved, most-hated restaurateur in town has rivals who would like to see him go away. But he’s doing the opposite.
That Sodikoff is something of a loner and even, paradoxically, an introvert on a Chicago scene "which, to hear local chefs tell it, is tighter and more friendly than almost any other in the country," is widely known within the food-media nexus. His company doesn't play the publicity game the same way others do, and they don't typically participate in local events. To jump from that to the idea that Sodikoff was "most-loved, most-hated" restaurant owner in town, however, struck some people as magazine hyperbole— especially ironic since the same issue had a chirpily positive piece on another owner team who really do draw that kind of antipathy (as the comments section soon demonstrated). Writer and occasional Time Out contributor Carly Fisher was among those who reacted to the piece:
Is Brendan Sodikoff actually the most hated restaurateur in Chicago? I hope I never receive that title among my peers. (I'm sensitive!)
Restaurant PR/social media entrepreneur Ellen Malloy responded:
I am really bothered by their constant need to "be unbiased" to the point of, seemingly, purposely digging up dirt.
Blogger Kenny Zuckerberg:
An utterly uninteresting piece, unless you know the guy. Terrible research. Terrible writing. Terrible idea... whatever he researched, he uncovered nothing interesting.
Food enthusiast Wendy Aeschlimann:
I'd be really ticked if someone wrote an article about me filled with layers of hearsay... To me, going on record w/idle gossip far worse, not to mention the conclusions he drew from the off-the-record gossip.
What Aeschlimann refers to is that while Tamarkin, unsurprisingly, was unable to get almost anyone to comment negatively about Sodikoff on the record, the article claims that:
Of the dozen restaurateurs I reached out to for this story, almost all of them refused to speak for attribution. In general, the conversations went like this:
1. The restaurateur notes with admiration Sodikoff’s uncanny success. (“So consistent.” “Incredible service.” “He makes it look easy.”)
2. The restaurateur starts calling Sodikoff names. (“Awkward.” “Asshole.” “Conniving.”)
3. The restaurateur (or at least half of those I spoke to) suggests Sodikoff has stolen something from him or her—a dish, an employee, a concept.
It's not the use of unattributed quotes, even if the quote is just the term "asshole," that seems to have set these people's suspicion alarms off— journalism couldn't exist without unattributed quotes. But many people seemed to object to a piece advancing a thesis they didn't necessarily buy (that Sodikoff is hated, as opposed to merely not being everybody's pal), the proof of which was not only personally nasty but completely unsourced and unverified from the reader's point of view. You can argue the use of such information either way, but... that's exactly what did happen, it got argued on Twitter, and at some point Time Out Chicago editor Frank Sennett came out swinging hard for his home team:
That is the difference between PR and journalism. I agree we are one of few practicing latter here on restos.
most of the industry criticism is sour grapes. He comes off very well in the piece.
If it's not to your taste, fine, but David is a nationally respected feature writer for a very good reason. He knows his stuff.
And he got it back. Malloy:
I don't agree that, loosely, "a bunch of folks probably wanted to say something shitty" is "journalism."
Somehow, along the way another writer who had just had a major, widely acclaimed story comes in for attack from Sennett:
Aside from you and maybe some thin-skinned industry folk? If you want uncritical treacle, go see Pang.
He is the worst feature writer in Chicago, easily. And you love him because he is uncritical pap.
So now we know where the battle line between ambitious Chicago food organizations lies. (It was Barzini all along!) There are subarguments, about who won Beard awards and whether the piece should have been business rather than personality focused and about who cares if Tamarkin blocked Zuckerberg on Twitter. In the end, though, Malloy points out the most salient fact about the publicity-shy Sodikoff getting this kind of publicity:
i think we can all safely assume [this] is the last time he speaks to any media. seriously, sucker f-ing punch.
As for Sodikoff himself, he does have a Twitter account, surprisingly. So far, he hasn't had a word to say on the subject.