The StaphMeal Saga
IN THE FOOD NETWORK ERA, both the restaurant industry and the once-belittled profession of cooking have been transformed. The public now views restaurants as performance art, and chefs as auteurs. The Internet has allowed diners to become active participants in this spectacle: The old saw “Everyone’s a critic” is literally true, as blog after blog describes its author’s every mastication in numbing, photo-documented detail.
The food blogosphere was created by a culture of amateurs and developed without ethical codes of conduct. Today, an entire generation of bloggers is indifferent to the standards of journalism. Blogs have no accountability, not even the necessity of being fair or accurate. Restaurant forums like Yelp and Chowhound are easily manipulated, and many bloggers are compromised before their opening amuse-bouche. Old Media food critics like the Inquirer’s Craig LaBan avoid the appearance of impropriety by paying for their meals and getting reimbursed by their employers. Few local New Media critics disclose when they’ve been comped.
Albert jumped merrily into the show. Like a snapped high-tension wire, he flicked sparks in all directions. In his eyes, accusations based on opinion and hearsay were as valid as those based on hard evidence. “I wouldn’t call StaphMeal refreshing, but it wasn’t fatuous, like most of the city’s restaurant blogs,” says Bistrot La Minette owner Peter Woolsey. “Josh is a muckraker—a very amateur one, but a muckraker all the same.”
Still, it was coarse invective, not workplace crusading, that made word of StaphMeal spread like pinkeye. When Marc Vetri responded to a catty StaphMeal tweet about him by calling for civility, Albert mocked the chef’s stutter. “If you attack me, I’ll attack you and take it one notch higher,” Albert says of the exchange. “Whether or not that was a productive thing for the website is irrelevant. It was comical, and it got StaphMeal its first real publicity.”
The next real publicity came after Albert branded Perrier a racist and, with striking inartfulness, likened him to a pedophile. Clearly on a roll, Albert then served up his own racism, slagging Olunloyo as “a big, black dick.” His pièce de résistance was to say Stephen Starr had “raped” his employees by supposedly dipping into their tips.
Blogs are reckless and merciless, but at least on Philly’s food scene, seldom this queasily so. “StaphMeal was irate, and everyone loves to eavesdrop on irate,” observes Swarthmore blogger Georgia Getz, the boss behind the humor site IAmBossy. StaphMeal drew eavesdroppers partly because it fed a need to see others fall from a great, or even middling, height. “There’s a culture of paranoia in the restaurant world,” says one South Street bartender. “The staffs handle lots of cash and put up with lots of abuse. They have tax issues, legal issues, immigration issues. After-hours, a fair amount of them drink and drug and hook up. When you’re fighting for a piece of such a small pie, you’re willing to believe the worst of your superiors. The more salacious, the better.”
StaphMeal thrived mostly because anonymity lent Albert’s voice a shadowy, Wizard of Oz-like power. Some readers clicked on the site hoping to glean the identity of the man pumping out schadenfreude behind the curtain. Others entered the portal to register their disgust at a troll who posted provocatively just to cause an outcry. Albert insists only one comment offended him: “Somebody claimed I’m a methamphetamine addict,” he says gleefully. “That’s an outright lie. I’m not a meth head! I’m a pothead.”
Though Albert fancies himself an insider, detractors maintain that he’s really an outlier, an outcast on the fringe whose opinions are colored by alienation and discontent. “He blogged about some legitimate issues that concern restaurant workers,” concedes Cohen. “But if you want to be an effective advocate for reform, you can’t defame people while you’re doing it. Nor is there a need to. The blog was just a vehicle for packaging a need for attention.”
While most chefs and restaurateurs publicly ignored StaphMeal, Perrier and Olunloyo had Cohen file a writ of summons and ask the Internet service provider to release the name behind the blog. “Our intention wasn’t to infringe on the protected right of free speech,” Cohen says. “Our intention was to hold people accountable for defamation.”
Norman Valz, the lawyer who defended Albert pro bono, argues that Cohen had no case. “Calling someone a racist or a dick is an opinion, not grounds for a lawsuit. The purpose of the writ was to put fear into Josh, to make him back down. It was a big bluff.”
If it was a bluff, it worked. After some sleuthing, Cohen narrowed his suspects down; he e-mailed Albert’s name to Valz. Spooked, Albert outed himself and immediately lost his mojo and his job. “Josh was the best runner I’ve ever had,” says Woolsey. “But when he announced he was StaphMeal, we got bombarded with phone calls inquiring about his shifts. I very regretfully let Josh go. We’re a calm bistro. The last thing I need is a fistfight.”
Albert’s brief fling with fame was reminiscent of Hugs for Puppies, the dozen or so animal-rights activists who in 2007 visited their wrath upon Philly restaurants serving foie gras. They demonstrated outside the homes and businesses of chefs who offered fatted duck or goose livers on their menus; they leafleted the chefs’ neighborhoods. Some restaurateurs stopped serving the delicacy just to shut the picketers up. Others fought back, organizing to protest the foie-gras protesters.
Hugs for Puppies was able to be disruptive because—like Albert—its militants had no resources at risk. “Four years later, it’s all quiet on the western front,” says Rick Nichols, a retired Inquirer food columnist. “Clearly, the picketers rallied few to their cause, but frightened many. A lesson, again, in the momentary effectiveness of terroristic threats: They cow folks.” When the Hugs for Puppies bullies moved on, the issue evaporated.
Albert has been unemployed since leaving Bistrot La Minette. “It’s going to be impossible for me to find restaurant work in this town,” he says. “But I need to stop picking up and going. I do that a lot.” Lately, he’s been posting less frequently and channeling his animus through Occupy Philadelphia. Though Cohen withdrew the writ in October (“It became clear this guy was a nutball convict with no assets”), Albert hasn’t forgiven him. “That douchebag’s only motive was to ruin my name,” he says with a bravura lack of introspection. “He sure did a great job of it.”