Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Reviewing the Reviewer - Dubecki's Scathing Review of Vapiano

There's constant talk on the interwebs about how unprofessional bloggers are with their writing. I have to agree with that to an extent. Most bloggers are unprofessional in the sense we do it as a hobby and won't have the trained skills that a professional writer may possess in conveying the message in an eloquent and articulate manner. However, that does not mean that every professional writer is actually good at what they do. Like any field, there are the good, and the bad. On the side of good writing, locally I love Matt Preston's writing. He is able to transport me into his world without sound aloof and condescending. I love Jay Rayner's writing after Agnes introduced me to his work. His scathing reviews are written in a manner where the humour is so dominant that you don't finish reading it with a bitter taste in your mouth. In fact, sometimes I feel like visiting the restaurants just to compare whether his unusual description of something does fit with the item in question. Lastly, you can't go past the English in regards to English. My two favourite food writers are Rick Stein, the man of a thousand book references, and Nigella Lawson, the woman with a thousand descriptive terms. Both have such a wonderful grasp of the English language and are able to transport you into a wonderful landscape filled with enticing food. I know some people think Nigella is a bit over the top with her descriptions, but I find her wonderfully original and sometimesshe makes me think of the flavours and textures of food in a way that I didn't think of previously.

One local writer who I cannot tolerate at all is Larissa Dubecki. There have been countless reviews of hers that have made me want to throw something at the computer screen, such is the frustration I have with her use of words or my disagreement with her views. I just don't see eye to eye with her in regards to reviewing or food I suspect. I tend not to read her reviews by choice and only by chance should they be a place I want to go to or I didn't know she wrote the review. I think this blog post by Crikey called Critiquing a Food Critic perfectly sums up my opinions about her reviewing style.

I thought I'd have some fun as I happened to have dined at Vapiano last week and write a response to address Dubecki's latest review on Vapiano, which is scathing to say the least. It's more her choice of words that irked me rather than her opinions, as I actually agree with some of them.

Let me start the dissection.

Dubecki: It's known in the biz as a "famil" – a familiarisation exercise, aka a freebie jaunt in which a bunch of journalists are flown to, say, a Queensland resort, wined and dined and put up in some nice accommodation (please, don't worry about the minibar account), following which they will presumably write some nice things about what a nice place it is.

Despite declining repeated offers of a famil, I can tell you this: Melbourne's is the third Vapiano on home soil, the idea imported by an Australian businessman who planted his first flags in Queensland. Like McDonald's, which was once revolutionary in its own right, Vapiano offers the same menu whether in Berlin or Brisbane.

I Eat Blog: It's great that she's explained a famil to us and clearly shown her contempt for them, but I don't see how this is only relevant to this restaurant. Surely she has been invited by almost every restaurant in Melbourne on a famil to sample their wares. Why isn't she putting that in every review? Are restaurants not allowed to invite her to famils? She probably doesn't need a famil as the website comps, oh that's an industry term for complimentary ;-), the cost of her meals anyway.

I actually dined at Vapiano on a famil, so let me get that clear up front. I'm not defending them because of that. I'm not even defending them, as I actually agree with some of what Dubecki has said. It's just I don't find this fact relevant to her review so why has she added it is my question. Did something occur that she's mad about and is not revealing? Or is it all part of her story to show that any place who dares to invite her to a famil and she happens to dislike will feel the wrath of her pen? Many questions, no answers unfortunately.

On the point about a standardised menu, I'd hate to tell Dubecki but even good restaurants who have multiple shops have standardised menus. Is she not familiar with the restaurant game and people's expectations at a chain restaurant? Maybe a chain restaurant should just serve chains, that way we all know what to expect.

Dubecki: Naturally enough the practice has metastasised into the restaurant trade. Food writers and bloggers are routinely invited to pretend they need a new eatery's "concept" explained to them over a free dinner. It's difficult to imagine a restaurant so conceptual it needs a middleman to explain it – maybe if Ferran Adria decided to open a bacon bar on Mars – and sure enough it proves true with Vapiano, a 100-strong restaurant "concept" invented by a German McDonald's franchisee.

I Eat Blog: How did she know what they explained or didn't explain if she didn't attend the media famil? I don't see anything wrong with a restaurant explaining their "concept" and any other items they believe is worth mentioning. Not everyone is as knowledgeable as Dubecki obviously and knows everything already. Also, the contempt at which she holds the owners is rather staggering, given she doesn't know them. So someone owns a McDonald's, does that make them a bad restauranter automatically? I find her associations rather pitiful and unnecessary. It's a swipe for the sake of hurting and is not relevant at all. These are the types of things she writes that drives me bonkers (bonkers = insanely mad for the Dubecki fans out there).

Dubecki: Put it this way: whoever orders a caprese salad in winter deserves the insipid tomatoes that defy their vibrant-red looks to taste of precisely nothing. As ye sow, so shall ye reap.

I Eat Blog: Puh-lease, with a capital P. Almost every restaurant around Melbourne would be serving tomatoes in some way. Excuse all of us ignoramuses for ordering a dish we think we might enjoy. So sow your own tomatoes and reap your own rewards Dubecki. What if the tomatoes you sow happen to be dull and flavourless as well? What then? OMG, end of the world. Quick, call the tomato emergency line.

Dubecki: The fitout is 21st-century canteen. The broad first-floor space is decked out with oak share tables and chairs, a distressed olive tree providing a centrepiece, the tables kitted out with pots of fresh herbs for the plucking. It's designed to drive the fresh message home, an illusion that ends with the antipasti, an impressive wooden paddle littered with foodstuffs that taste of little more than fridge.

Go to Rosa's Kitchen to see how good real Italian antipasti can be, as opposed to this depressing collection of overdone/undercooked roasted/marinated vegetables, personality-free meats, very ordinary slices of what's simply billed as "parmesan" and sun-dried tomatoes. Remember them?

I Eat Blog: I actually totally agree with her about the Antipasti Platter, but it's the manner in which she linked how she disliked the antipasti to imply nothing in the restaurant is fresh. Most places do use canned/jar items for their antipasti and shame on all of them. Vapiano is no different and I disliked nearly every item on the antipasti platter. Only the cheese was tasty. If Vapiano are to pride themselves on being fresh, they should drop the antipasti dish or actually source some good ingredients, preferrably making it themselves.

Yep, I remember sun-dried tomatoes and love them. What's your point Dubecki? Are you above sun-dried tomatoes with your condescending manner or are you just a tomoto freak who only likes fresh tomoatoes? I'm sensing she may have a tomato habit she needs looked at.

By the way, I still need to get to Rosa's Kitchen one day. *makes mental note to order tomatoes at Rosa's Kitchen*

Dubecki: The carpaccio comprises tissue-thin slices of mushy beef stuck to a fridge-cold plate. These are topped with raw slices of button mushroom and parmesan, an undressed lump of rocket and some squiggles of mildly tangy mayo.

I Eat Blog: I agree with her about this dish. The beef was mushier than a teenage girl (or guy, equality for all) at a One Direction concert and lacked any real flavour. The rocket was totally indecent and not dressed at all and the mayo would fail any drink driving test from the police. I agree about the flavours but it's just her turn of phrase that always has this knife sticking out of it.

Dubecki: The pasta's fresh. You can see them making it on an impressive industrial machine behind glass, and the clever induction cooktops using wok-like contraptions means it's ready in a matter of minutes. Unfortunately, garlic and onion don't cook quite as fast. Crunch, crunch. The ravioli stuffed with bolognese paste are actually quite tasty, although the tomato cream sauce inexplicably contains carrot sticks and spring onion.

I Eat Blog: The pasta at Vapiano is really good and I loved the Carbonara, Ravioli and Salmon Spaghetti. The wok-like contraptions were....*drum roll*....woks, on topf of a concave induction cooktop. Side note, I totally want one of those concave induction cooktops. Can you imagine the heat you'd get from cooking in a wok from one of those babies. Awesome. Ok back on the main road now. Dubecki is totally nit picking about the garlic and onions as mine were cooked fine and had a great caramelised but not burnt flavour. Carrots in Bolognese is always a contention, but meh, it happens everywhere and the Carrot Association of Bologna (CAB) are really pushing to have carrots added as a core ingredient in Bolognese sauce. I've signed the petition and recommend you do the same.

Dubecki: The idea of topping a pizza with prosciutto, fig and honey – seasonality aside – quite appealed. The crust is chewy, the base cardboard-esque, the topping – including a thin smear of tomato sugo – desultory. It's $20.90. Pause to reflect that the same money would buy a pizza at Ladro.

I Eat Blog: The idea, mark that word, idea idea idea, appealed to Dubecki, but in the same sentence it was desultory. I had to that word, coz I'm not as au fait with the English language but it means lacking a plan. Doesn't that contradict the earlier idea? I have no idea, but I suspect it does. Someone with an English major please tell me.

I actually agree that the pizza idea is great and had a wonderful version of such a pizza at Ciao Bella in the Mornington Peninsula, but this one wasn't executed as well and was pretty good. I wouldn't say that the base tasted cardboard like though, having eaten cardboard at many restaurants before. Same goes for the other pizzas, pretty good but not worth the price. If the price was 20-25% cheaper, they would be competing in a different market and then it would be acceptable. As is, I don't think the pizzas are worth it.

Dubecki: A chip card replaces the need for waiters. You order from one of the red-bandana-wearing cooks, swipe your card, wait for the order and carry it back to your table. Expect to repeat the process at the bar, at the pizza counter (here you get a buzzer to summon you back when it's ready), antipasti counter, pasta counter etc.

The service is laughable. I don't just mean my own. Empty glasses pile up in between visits to the bar for water refills or another stab at the short, unremarkable wine list. Plates are cleared once – just before the pizza buzzer goes off, which is a nuisance. Off to find some replacements while my pal minds the bags. No chance of a good bitch session when we're so busy retrieving plates, waiting for food, tag-teaming across the joint.

I Eat Blog: I have to totally agree with how much I hate the swipe card payment system. It's really crazy to have to wait in multiple queues for different food items. I passed this feedback onto the restaurant manager and he said the system works well when you only want to order one item as you can be in a shorter queue. I agree with that. So maybe the way forward for Vapiano is to use that system at lunch when most likely people will be on a lunch break and only ordering one dish for themselves. However, for dinner service, they should switch to a centralised ordering system where you can then walk away and come back when your order is ready, or have table service. I can't see too many groups of people ordering just one type of food. I wonder how the system fares in the other restaurants in other states? Do people just get used to it or it still causes problems? Anyone know?

I also found the flow of the meal rather interrupted with the need to go grab different foods at different times. Vapiano really need to think about the purpose of people going to their restaurant, and one main driver for most people is to chat with their friends. By the time you get all your food and have settled down, 45-60 minutes may have passed, which means you've used up half your dinner time not talking to your friends.

Oh don't worry Dubecki, you've had your bitch session, it's written all over the review. Maybe that's what got her so upset, that she had to fetch her own food and didn't have time to bitch about things?

Dubecki: By our last sortie to the bar for a set cheesecake coated in a lurid yellow layer of medicinal-tasting lemon substance, it's perfectly clear Vapiano is just one big conversation interruption. In our Italian-hearted town, you can do so much better than eating here. But if eat here you must, make sure it's with people you don't like.

I Eat Blog: I actually rather liked the desserts here. The cheesecake was ok, but the chocolate cake and tiramisu were really good. If she had just written about the cheesecake, I wouldn't mind, but the "...if eat here you must, make sure it's with people you don't like" pfftttt. She's so clever with her funny backhands. Even her final summary of the worst bit, "everything else" is such a swipe. She wrote herself that the pasta is good. So how can that be everything? Maybe she also needs to consult more.

And that my friends, concludes my review of the reviewer. My hatred of Dubecki's writing only ever deepens and my respect for even her professionalism is well and truly down the drain. If she had actually focused on the restaurant as opposed to using this forum to vent whatever anger she had, I'd have respected that. Vapiano is not the best place ever, nor is it the worst. There are some major issues in my mind, being the payment and ordering system. Aside from that, the food is generally pretty good, with the pastas a real highlight for me. Would I go back, yes for a quick meal of just pasta but I wouldn't make it a place to dine with a large group as the ordering system doesn't function the way I want it too.


  1. Nice work, Thanh!

    I sometimes write in a bitchy way (guilty as charged, but I'm trying my best to tone down these days) but I thought Larissa took it a bit too far - and in a printed publication too. I'm not a fan of Larissa but this has got to be one of the most WTF reviews she's ever written.

    I haven't been to Vapiano's in Melbourne myself but the Gold Coast restaurant gets mixed reviews so it would be interesting to see how I go when I finally do decide to set food in there...

    Finally, I initially interpreted the use of 'desultory' in this context as the pizza being executed in a half-arsed manner. In other words, the idea sounded good on paper but it didn't taste as good as it sounded. Thing is, she could have used 10 billion other phrases to get her point across - I can't stand writers who use $10 words!

    1. Thanks Libby.

      I have to admit in the early days I was rather harsh but I don't write in that tone anymore. I think Larissa's tone was very harsh and unnecessary.

      I think there are good elements at Vapiano and some that are quite bad.

      You may be right. I don't even know what desultory means haha. She could have just used a simpler word that most people can understand rather than using a really big word to make us all feel inferior.

  2. I enjoy Larissa's reviews but agree there were a few points here like the dig at famils that were strange. Anyway I certainly enjoyed your dissection here! Incidentally I went to Vapiano not on a famil but with a large group and it was a nightmare service wise - the food was also pretty ordinary - they put cream in their carbonara - sacrilege!

    1. It was so strange to talk about famils as I didn't understand how that was relevant to just this place.

      I think the service side is pretty bad and that card system is something I really dislike.

      I must admit I don't mind cream in my carbonara, although I actually enjoy the creamless version more.

  3. This is seriously awesome, Thanh! Can't agree more about LD's writing. She comes across as smug and perhaps a wee bit desultory... ;)
    Your reviews, on the other hand, big thumbs up - I continue to enjoy your writing and beautiful photos. Thanks!

    1. Thanks so much Georgia. Yes the tone I get from her reviews is smug. If only I knew what desultory means. I still don't know what context to use it in haha. Can you explain it to me?

      Thanks. I hope to keep writing.

  4. ​Great post Thanh! Really entertaining. :)

    Like you, I accepted the famil to try out the restaurant, and I happily own that decision. I was genuinely curious to see if they could live up to the promise of fresh simple food delivered efficiently. (Of course I was personally interested to see if a German concept would work here - you know how I feel about Germany!) In my professional life I used to work in banking operations, and seeing the ways different businesses organise their processes is really interesting to me. (Nerd alert).

    Unfortunately Vapiano isn't the greatest, and indeed, I agree with many the points Larissa has made - e.g. the lack of seasonality and the convoluted ordering system are real pitfalls, and the price comparison between Vapiano and Ladro's pizza was a really good way of illustrating that Vapiano isn't good value for money.

    However, what irritates me about Larissa's review is the condescension with which she writes. The whole tone of the article is: "I know better, and how laughable that this restaurant even tried - what a joke". I think she seriously sounds like a bitchy schoolgirl who enjoys ripping into someone less privileged/intelligent than her. It's a shame, as the bitchy tone distracts from the good points she does make.

    Whilst I am all for informed, critical reviews (so full points to her for using her food knowledge to comment honestly on Vapiano's food and service), I think it's important to remember that restaurants, even chain restaurants who dare to serve sundried tomatoes to customers who might actually enjoy them, aren't anonymous corporations - they are people's livelihoods and dreams, and criticism can and should be constructive, not just mean for the sake of it. Those are the types of reviews I like to read, anyway. :)

    I also think it's weird that Larissa chose to write about Vapiano at all - I highly doubt her review will make or break the restaurant, if for no other reason than that the target market of Vapiano is totally different to that of Epicure. As she normally reviews fine dining places, or casual places with a strong emphasis on ingredient provenance/quality I really think this review was like shooting fish in a barrel - there was no way Vapiano was ever going to live up that standard, so why judge it on that criteria? I mean, if the aim is just to write a mean review, why not just pick somewhere like Groove Train or Cafe Greco or Sofia's and really let it rip?

    xox Sarah

    1. I've seen the German style of self service restaurants in Switzerland actually, and it worked so well coz the people there are really good in the way they line up and know what to do. I'd have to say it didn't work as smoothly at Vapiano.

      I too love processes, hence was watching the Vapiano one with great interest and gave my full feedback to the manager.

      Her tone is so bad and so "I'm better than you" that I can't stand it. I just don't see the point of their review as they could have reviewed far better places.

  5. I love your blog and this post came at the most amazing time. Last night, I went with a group of friends to Vapiano out of curiosity and the fact that we had fond memories of going with another large group in Brisbane last year (probably due more to the company and atmosphere than the food or service).

    Yesterday morning, another friend had shown me Larissa's review, which I just found pretty amusing, to be honest. I find it so hard to take anyone seriously who can be that unnecessarily condescending, disdainful and rude. Yes, as mentioned, it sounded like "how dare they even try".

    I enjoyed my pasta last night, however, I found I agreed with a few of her basic points, just as you did.

    And then, as I was playing with my tablet on the tram ride home, this post popped up in my RSS feed and you had my laughing again.

    1. Thank you for loving my blog.

      What a coincide with your dining and the review. I too find her far too condescending and it irritates me so much.

      Yep she made points that I agree with, but the language she used to describe those points was so unnecessarily scathing.

      Haha glad this post made you smile. I have succeeded in my efforts then even if I managed to make one person laugh.

  6. I've heard about the scathing review, but only just went to check it out. Wow - it's almost like she's trolling. Either that or someone upset her somehow, and she's doing the "hell hath no fury..." thing. Even the usual disappointing meal shouldn't have incited that kind of wrath!

    1. Yeah it does feel like she's trolling just for publicity. I'm surprised the editor let that review go as is.

    2. she is just too mean for my liking. And its waay too wordy. What does she expect from a chain restaurant? Really good food at fine dining prices?????

      Look we have our negative views too but they aren't as condescending as she is.
      Does she even know how to cook?

    3. I felt her review was mean spirited too. Yes, I'm unsure what he expectations were. She knew what she was getting before she went I'm sure.

      The condescension was so bad.

      I'm unsure if she can cook or not.

  7. Hi Thanh,
    As a person who writes both for love and money, I find the engine which drives good writing can never consist wholly of spite just for the sake of spite.
    A writer can be angry and write in an outraged 'voice' because they seek to inform others in order to save them from a bad experience.
    A writer can be disappointed, annoyed, skeptical etc. and express a whole gamut of other not-warm-n-fuzzy emotions. But, and this is a BIG but - if the aim of writing about a bad experience is just to stab a knife in, you ain't doing nobody any favours. The best criticism is the constructive kind and sometimes critics forget the 'constructive' part.
    My criteria for a good critic is "would I want to share a meal with that person?"
    In Dubecki's case I'd be a bit hesitant.

    1. Hi Rachel,

      The spite part is exactly why I took offense to this review. While some of her points are valid, it was the delivery method that I didn't like at all. It did feel like a massive knife to me and I'm not sure why.

      I would never ever want to share a meal with Dubecki.

  8. guys i think you will find the dig at famils is based on the fact that as a reviewer she shouldn't be excepting free meals - its called journalistic integrity. I have not had anything to do with her but in all my years dealing with the likes of Stephanie Wood, Stephan Downes, John Lethlean and co. They have all not asked for or as far as I know excepted a freebie.

    It seems the blogesphere is awash with freebies which is a worry as some of you guys have followings and can make a difference to where people eat.

    That being said I'm sure (hope) most of you give honest appraisals of what you think of establishments. Just maybe you wouldn't have gone there if you didn't get comped.

    Reading the review, it is a bitter and I have to agree I'm often not a fan of her musings, especially the obvious affair with celebrity chefs and their very own high end chains. That being said there are many honest, vibrant operators out there that work hard to make some thing special, something with soul and this starbucks, Mc donalds, meat and wine co chain direction of the food industry is an abomination and as "foodies" you should be calling it as such.

    Melbourne food scene is all about passion and personality and there should be no room for standardised drone offerings. Like super markets soon the chains will be squeezing the little guys out of the market. Interestingly I believe that Melbourne was the first starbucks to close in the world, alas they seemed to have survived in our market.

    I implore you and your readers to drink real coffee made by business that pay taxes in Australia, eat real food made by chefs in great Australian restaurants and forget these factory feeders and formula restaurants.

    1. Hi Anonymous,

      I have no issues that she doesn't like famils, but to be asked to a famil would happen to her from every restaurant. I know for a fact that a few other restaurants have asked her in but she didn't put that in their review. Well I can definitely say that one of the people you listed has gone to a freebie. I was at the same freebie. I'm sure they didn't ask for it, but they did go.

      I can understand the freebie aspect and how it can influence opinion. I know of some shady bloggers who also don't disclose them. For me personally, I'll make it known that it's a freebie and let the person reading make up their mind if they trust my opinion or not. I feel I give honest reviews, and I do admit that the cost being free has an effect in terms of the way I judge the food. Hence I now take the stance of finding out the costs and deciding whether I'd pay money for that meal.

      I don't mind if she dislikes the place and says so. I agreed with many of her thoughts. It was the manner in which she put the boot in that I don't like. Even generic chain restaurants are run by someone who's trying to make a living. A few friends run fast food chain restaurants and they work very hard to make it work to support their families. So I'd put them in the honest hard working category too, even though they serve food that I wouldn't go to eat. And hence I tell them I don't eat such foods but I support them in their ventures and would give feedback on what I don't like in as constructive a way as possible.

      In a perfect world there wouldn't be such standardised generic food, but it fills a gap and clearly some people like it. I don't think it's up to me to shame the people who like and will buy such food. That's their choice. My choice is to say I don't like it and if others agree with that opinion, that's good too.

      I'm actually getting into coffee, and I do drink "proper" coffee, whatever that means. I think we should respect other's decisions and maybe try to persuade them to change their views but never shame them.

      Thank you for your comment, whoever you are. This review definitely brought out discussions, which was my intent.


  9. I think she's a knowledgeable person and a witty professional. Your entitled to your opinion of course, but I for one are sick of wishy washy reviewers that lack the spine to say what they think. I think by giving the restaurant a 10 out of a possible 20, LD made her point without poleaxing the establishment. Bear in mind her central point viz: you can eat better at these prices - ciao Andy.

    1. Hi Andy,

      You too are allowed to think she's a good writer. I'm glad there are some bad reviews, but I don't agree with her language in this post. I agree with some of her points but it isn't that the place is without any redeeming qualities. If it's about eating better at a certain price point, by it's very nature 90% of restaurants would not be worth going to as there will only be a few that are worth eating at for that price point. Places do provide some differences, either in terms of purely location or space or whatever else. I personally think she could have written it differently but I can also understand that others may see it as a refreshing honest review.

      Thanks for your feedback. Discussions of this type are surely a good thing.