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Reports from the underbelly of BlogHer Food ’09

This last Saturday, I participated in the inaugural BlogHer Food in San Francisco. Lucky for me, it was held at the St. Regis — just a hop, skip and a jump from my apartment. It was absolutely amazing meeting so many passionate food bloggers from all over the country (and beyond!), and seeing how differently people approach blogging.

From the first session: "How Blogging Best Practices Apply, No Matter Your Blogging Niche"

From the first session: "How Blogging Best Practices Apply, No Matter Your Blogging Niche"

All in all, I’d call the event a success. I came away with tons of great tips for this blog (some of which you’ll see rolled out in the coming months), networked with fun people, and got to sit in on several “values” discussions that gave me a lot to think about in terms of my approach to the site.

But there was one issue I had with the conference, and my sentiments on it have been echoed around the Internet. Imagine 300 food bloggers, some who’ve flown across the country to San Francisco, crowded into a large ballroom, seated, and awaiting what they think will be a scrumptious meal hosted by Rocco DiSpirito. San Francisco is one of the great food cities in this country, and being the first BlogHer Food, lunch was sure to be a treat right?

Wrong. So wrong — and on so many levels too.

First, the lunch was sponsored by Bertolli. No big deal, but they took “sponsorship” to a whole new level, and decided to serve all these hep food bloggers their frozen dinners. Yeah, I know — um, what? The three main “entrees” were a Lemon Herb Shrimp with Penne (made with tiny, mealy, fishy tasting shrimp; mushy pasta; and a gloppy lemon sauce with limp grey-green vegetables), Meat Lasagna Rustica (overly sweet tomato sauce, and an overall appearance and texture of the lasagna they used to serve us in elementary school), and a Four Cheese Tri-Color Ravioli with Alfredo Sauce (the least offensive of the three, the pasta was still dried and leathery around some of the edges, the sauce too thick and rich without being satisfying). Evidence:

The worst lasagna I think I've ever had.

The worst lasagna I think I've ever had.

To make matters worse, these oh-so-delightful dishes were sandwiches by two courses “created” by Rocco. The first was a Niçoise Salad reinterpreted, with big chunks of too-fishy tuna and an heavy dousing of sea salt. The finish was a chocolate panna cotta that needed a touch more gelatin to not feel like baby food in the mouth — and a chocolate sauce that didn’t taste like Hershey’s syrup would’ve been nice too.

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I guess I shouldn’t be so hard on Bertolli — the quality of the food is about what you’d expect from a packaged frozen product (as a side note, you should also check out this amazing post on how Bertolli should’ve re-thought the marketing behind this one). But what really, really rubbed me the wrong way at this lunch was Rocco himself.

You can read about the backstory on Rocco’s reputation in the food world from this New York Times article written a while back (or as Anthony Bourdain once said, “I think Rocco DiSpirito has really raised the bar for what I consider grotesque.”), but despite all that, I didn’t know too much about him and was hoping for the best — whatever “best” is for a fallen chef who now hawks frozen pasta and was on Dancing with the Stars.

You guys, it was bad. Really bad. He sauntered into the room, mic at the ready and dressed in a tight, black shirt (he’s apparently so buff because (as he announced) he’s training for a triathlon or something), and started working the room like a cruise director. He flirted with the ladies, which was all well and good, but then he started talking about the food.

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Of the salad, he encouraged all of us to use bagged lettuce because (AND I QUOTE), “who has time to wash lettuce?” Of that absolutely abominable lemon penne, he exclaimed, “You could have Bertolli’s version ready in TEN MINUTES, or, you could spend all day SLAVING away over your stove!” He asked the audience who felt they needed to cook everything from scratch, and of the people that raised their hands, actually went over to several and interrogated them on “what they would say to the other women in the room who couldn’t shop at farmers markets, or find the time to cook everyday.” So awkward, so alienating.

His “demo” consisted of him throwing a bunch of salad mise en place into a bowl, dousing it with pre-made vinaigrette, and calling it a day (comment that made me and a dining companion bust out laughing: while “preparing” the salad, he said, “Add some green beans — called hair-ee-co-ver if you want to be really fancy!”).

Look, I get that not everyone has time to cook everyday — I don’t always! Yes, I will buy bagged lettuce. And no, I don’t buy my produce fresh every single day either.

But do I still think it’s important to cook from scratch as much as possible? Do I plan ahead as much as I can to make that happen? Can I still find twenty or thirty minutes to put together a simple lemon, shrimp and vegetable pasta that’s A MILLION times better than Bertolli’s? And am I still perfectly capable of buying an effing head of butter lettuce and washing it with this crazy little invention called a salad spinner? YES, YES, YES, AND YES.

He made me mad. It made me mad that his selling out to some packaged food company meant he had to shit all over people who still DO take homemade food very seriously (it’s reverse food snobbery at its finest). It made me mad that he used it as an opportunity to hawk his new cookbook, which is supposedly all about healthy living (via the use of substitutes like Splenda in desserts and cornstarch in alfredo sauce). I just don’t get it. Does he actually think Bertolli frozen risotto is better than homemade? And is the (huge) difference in quality really worth the the saved time it takes you to prepare the icky packaged version?

At worst, he’s drunk on the celebrity “chef” Kool-Aid, and actually believes everything that he says. At worse-er, he just says all these things to help his own bank account, which means he has no integrity, and is the biggest sellout in the history of sellouts.

Somehow, he ended up sitting at my table to eat part of his meal.

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He asked our table, “So, which of the three pastas did you guys like the best?”

Crickets. No one had anything to say.

“I like the salad alright,” one person meekly replied.

It was a nightmare, both for Bertolli, who clearly missed the mark in what this audience would find appealing, and for the attendees who had to suffer through 1) the food and 2) Rocco, who breezed through his presentation and had no apparent passion for real cooking anymore.

As he worked the room, he recounted how one person had just told him that he “Looks like Jamie Oliver, sounds like Billy Mays.” I don’t think he got that that wasn’t really a compliment.

3 Responses

  1. Oh, I soooooo wanted to go to this! I was on the waiting list but never got a spot. Don’t you think it would have benefited the organizers to take the 300 more people on the waitlist and move to a bigger venue? Think of all the $$ they could have made!

    And thanks for revealing the underbelly. I’ve seen Rocco touting his frozen stuff on Top Chef and it’s kinda depressing.

  2. I know, I was on the waiting list too and got in at the last minute! It might be something worth suggesting to the folks at BlogHer for next year — they DID say there would be a next year! :) Even with the few hundred there, the areas around all the the sponsor tables got very congested. Even if they didn’t change the allowable attendee numbers, a slightly larger venue might be in order!

    Thanks for commenting.

  3. Wish I could have been there with you love.

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