Stewart Woodman and Lenny Russo trade blows in the blogosphere

Categories: Food Fight

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Woodman and Russo trade blows in the blogosphere.
Usually chefs criticize each other's work in private and leave restaurant critics to do the public skewering. But with the rise in chefs taking part in social media, it was only a matter of time before they started slinging serious mud at each other.

Two of our most highly lauded--and outspoken--chefs, Stewart Woodman of the soon-to-be Heidi's and Lenny Russo of the recently opened Heartland, started trading barbs in the blogosphere. Here's a recap of the situation thus far:

Earlier this month, Stewart Woodman questioned Minneapolis St. Paul Magazine's decision to award Lenny Russo's Heartland a score of 97 points out of 100 on its Restaurant Rater and Rick Nelson's bestowing it four stars on his Shefzilla blog. Woodman doesn't take umbridge with the machinations of Restaurant Rater [[Ed note: I'm actually one of the "raters" and it's interesting to look at the "scores" that have been attached to my reviews and how wildly they diverge from what number I might have put on them]] but the idea of local critics grading Minnesota restaurants on a curve.

"Say what, are you suggesting to me that critics are grading Minnesota restaurants differently than they would grade them if we were in larger market? That is so CYNICAL! Basically if that were true they would be saying that we-the restos-are a bunch of flunkies that they could not possibly compare us to New York or SF restos, that we are being held to a LOWER standard!"

I continued, utterly flabbergasted, "That is an outrageous suggestion Heidi, no other Minnesota industry is treated that way by the media. Not Target, not the Twins, or 3M, why would it be different in the resto business? Listen, we have the same ingredients. We have the same equipment. We have the same opportunity. Surely there are disadvantages to working here, but you can't deny that there are also real advantages, so why would we be graded any differently?"

Exasperated I continued, "A three star Michelin is three star no matter where it is. So is two star and so is 97 out of one hundred! There is no three star rating for Lyon, and a different one for Paris, the French have understood that the "bell curve" does most assuredly NOT apply to restos, and they haven't used it for rating restaurants for over a HUNDRED years!"

"No", I concluded, "We are making reservations to go to Heartland in the next couple of weeks, a 97 is a 97, my expectation is for a nearly flawless experience on a world class level. As far as your "curve" is concerned, we can only accept that restaurant criticism allows for a "bell curve" if we are prepared to start telling our kids that because they live in Minnesota the world has lower expectations from them-not something I am prepared to do, is that something you are going to do?"

Lenny Russo responded on his Star Tribune blog in a fairly calm manner, about the idea of critiquing on a curve, saying that reviews will never be uniform due to the subjectivity of critics, but does point out that Woodman himself has recieved four stars from Nelson for his cooking at Levain--and didn't complain about it then.

Stewart contends that a four star review in the Twin Cities should be the same as a four star review in any other city including New York, Los Angeles or Chicago as if there is some objective scale that can be be employed no matter who is doing the reviewing, whom is getting reviewed and where the review is taking place. The only problem with that is there is no objectivity when is comes to criticism. Criticism is a subjective pursuit. When Heartland opened eight years ago, Jeremy Iggers gave us three and a half stars while Kathie Jenkins gave us two stars. He loved it; she didn't like it so much. Three years later, Rick Nelson gave us four stars for the first time. They are all critics who are paid to offer their very subjective impressions, and all three had different perceptions. Furthermore, when Stewart was at Levain a few years ago, Rick Nelson gave that restaurant four stars. At the time, Levain didn't even have wine list, and given the ambiance and the level of service provided does Stew really believe that that restaurant would have rated four stars in the New York Times? I didn't hear him carping then, but here he is taking issue now.

Russo ends by suggesting Woodman leave the criticism to the critics:

My suggestion to my friend Stewart is to, as I do, leave the criticism to the critics. Let's you and I continue to do our best to honor the profession to which we are so very fortunate to belong. In that way, we can both look forward to the long overdue rebirth of your restaurant. Having another bright star in our culinary world can only be good for us all, and may I wish you many four star reviews and 100 point ratings.

...but today, Woodman responded with a scathing review of his recent meal at Heartland:


The first course was an oxtail soup, but no, not an ordinary oxtail soup. It was as if the contents from an emptied sink had been swirled in a bowl with some warm water, with only a simple crouton to garnish. As I ate it I was sure that it must have been similar to the soup served in Soviet forced work camps-salt would have surely ruined it, clearly knowing this he had added none. It was equal parts Fear Factor and Survivor, with it's fatty porridgy blandness starring back at me, but it was 100% Brilliant. [...]

That course was followed by sliced Bison atop a dark syrupy reduction of what could only have been local soy sauce mixed with the fruit of the ginkgo tree. The meat itself was a singular achievement, not even the Hubba Bubba chewing gum people could have conceived of the struggle to render it digestible. [...]

Sublime...truly there are not enough stars in all the sky to reward this extraordinary adventure, as I sit here now, for the life of me I can think of only fifty or sixty restaurants in the Twin Cities that are better.



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