Lawsuits and threats for negative reviews

Update December 16

Following his (really very) negative review of Le Verre Volé sur Mer, writer Aaron Ayscough (Not Drinking Poison in Paris) received this comment from chef Laurent Julien:

your gonna review only soups restaurants after you cross my way motherfucker.You need a good reminder of what respect is.Tu va connaitre ton poid sans tes dents mon enfant de chienne.a bientot

How does Aaron know this anonymous comment was from the chef? Because Laurent said something very similar when he called Aaron’s personal phone on the day his review was published.

This isn’t the first time that a chef has threatened to knock out the teeth or beat the ass of Aaron Ayscough. One can argue that it’s because his reviews are more scathing than what you’ll find on Paris by Mouth, and that he’s more personal in his critique. Should I feel happy or overlooked because Laurent didn’t threaten to rearrange my face?

Whether or not you appreciate Aaron’s reviews, I hope we can all agree that a scene without any criticism benefits no one. Do we really want a Fooding-esque reality in which every new thing receives faint praise but readers can’t make a decision about where to eat?

To be clear: there is almost no reward for writers to share negative feedback about a restaurant.  They are generally only paid and reimbursed for their expenses when they publish praise. When they publish criticism, they can be threatened with law suits or bodily harm.  Does this make Aaron a hero? Of course not. But it certainly makes Laurent look like a thin-skinned idiot. Worse, it threatens to make the Paris food scene,  which is already insecure by comparison to other gastronomic capitols, into a self-congratulating circle jerk.

Original post December 10

As reported yesterday by France Bleu and discussed on the Pourcel brothers’ blog, there is now a legal opening in France for restaurants to take action against those leaving negative comments about them on the internet.

Hervé Montoyo, owner of the restaurant Le chat qui rit in Reynès (Pyrénées-Orientales), obtained a court decision requiring a website to reveal the identity of a person who had called the restaurant a “scam” in an anonymous comment.

The court ruling opens the way for Montoyo and other aggrieved restaurateurs to sue anonymous commenters for defamation. Montoyo has not yet committed to taking such action, saying in interviews that he just wants to talk with the client and better understand what happened.

However, a look at Montoyo’s page on L’Internaute, which I’m going to assume is the website in question (oddly, none of the reporting on this matter has included this detail) finds him fighting with any negative commenters along the lines of “why don’t you say that to my face, coward?”

screenshot-www.linternaute.com 2014-12-10 08-39-24

While I do have sympathy for the oft-repeated defense that customers should communicate their concerns in person and in real time so that restaurants have the opportunity to improve or at least better understand the situation, I can also tell you that this sort of communication very often falls upon deaf ears.

Restaurants are wary that customers who complain are either asking for something free, or are just nasty people who can never be made happy. Trust me, this is the look of suspicion I am faced with whenever I respond to the routine question “how was everything?” with anything other than “fine.”

Not so long ago, a friend of mine who also writes about restaurants for a living had tried to explain, while putting on coats at the end of a meal, why he was less satisfied than he had been in previous visits. The manager, who had posed the question in the first place, became defensive and patronizing in response, implying that my friend was simply wrong and, even worse, unknowing, in his assessment.

When that same manager later discovered who he had been berating, he began leaving messages on the writer’s personal phone to try and “better explain.” When that didn’t work, he enlisted the help of a major French food critic (who alarmingly went along with all this) to intervene on the restaurant’s behalf. My friend never had any intention of publishing a negative review. He had simply responded to the question “how was everything?” with sincere concern after paying his bill in full. It was only the fear of a publicized negative appraisal – as opposed to one communicated directly and in person – that generated concern.

When restaurants say that unhappy diners should speak directly to them – not to other potential customers by writing reviews or leaving comments on websites – some are genuinely seeking better communication. Most are simply hoping for containment. This recent court ruling will go a long way in helping them to achieve the latter.

10 thoughts on “Lawsuits and threats for negative reviews”

  1. john says:

    This in a country that soon went nuts about freedom of speech after the Charlie Hebdo massacre?!? Such hypocrites.

  2. All Graduates | French Translation Services says:

    Totally understand Adam. If a restaurant did something nice for you, it’s hard to be impartial and provide an honest critique. French chefs (and many other chefs, for that matter) take pride in their creations, and there are the scant few who can take criticism as it is and not go overboard. Of course, there are critics who are just after fame and will go to great lengths to do so, but that’s a different story.

  3. Vero says:

    Just out of curiosity, who in the world is Aaron Ayscough and why should anyone care what he thinks? Opinions are like orifices… everyone has one and they are only really important to whomever they belong to.

  4. Vielleanglais says:

    Hey Erix!

    Not Drinking Poison in Paris is an informative and entertaining food blog that dislpays knowledge, intelligence, and humour, things lacking from both of your posts, particularly this little morcel : “Aaron thinks he is very smart bashing honest people, but he is mainly an arrogant, stupid jerk.” which is probably the most un-wittiest remark that I’ve read this year, and 2014 is nearly over.

  5. Kleine Wienie says:

    Looks like the same discussion about what constitutes an appropriate ‘bad’ restaurant review is happening on the other side of the pond, too–see comment stream here: http://ny.eater.com/2014/12/15/7394629/Sietsema-worst-dishes

  6. Adam Wayda says:

    This makes me glad I don’t write scathing pastry reviews, these days. But, indeed, part of the reason I stopped was because I felt I could no longer be impartial. After too many of the shops and chefs were gracious enough to do whatever I asked and hook me up with constant freebies … there’s no way I was going to shit all over them. I ultimately became limited to giving “faint praise” when I hated something and saving the truly cruel critiques for chefs I felt were irredeemably terrible. That at least endeared me to the ones I loved and made me privy to their complaints about other who didn’t play the game of being nice; they seemed absolutely confused, if not enraged, that anyone would write or say something overtly critical. The stories of bitchy emails, calls and in-person confrontations were hilarious (both in the pastry and “real food” world of Paris).

  7. Shep says:

    I guess these kind of reviews are ok if they’re done honestly and with the correct spirit. The problems start when reviewers just want to make a name for themselves or, worse still, just be vindictive for the sake of it. Small businesses rely on word of mouth and, on the tripadvisor type of “star” review sites, it can be a real pain when some fool gives you zero stars and drags your rating down. Don’t get me wrong, if I had deserved the terrible review by my own actions then I’d take it on the chin. However I once got a zero star review from a French customer because I was “showing the Scotland versus Germany match”. Where to start? a) I own a Scottish pub, b) it was a huge World Cup qualifying game, c) I take care to advertise online and in my window exactly what sports matches I will be showing. This guy wanted to watch NFL and decided to simply blacken my wee pub’s reputation because he could. I have no recourse in these matters others than reply to the review and put my side forward. So, in closing, I stongly recommend conveying your comments or complaints to the staff at the time. Maybe they can do something to explain or help. Keep up the good work folks.

  8. erix says:

    That said, I agree with you, everyone has the right to criticize or say what they think, or say what they want even if they don’t think it. And provocation is fine too. It is just better when it’s done with humour and talent, which is usually not the case with Aaron.
    Regards, Erix.

  9. erix says:

    Hi there,
    I know le Verre Volé since a long time and I also sometimes read “Not Drinking Poison in Paris”. On one hand, this chef reaction is certainly not good, but on the other hand we can easily undersand it: Aaron thinks he is very smart bashing honest people, but he is mainly an arrogant, stupid jerk. The title of his blog represents well the way he thinks. He is just an hater, thinking things are always better elsewhere. He is just getting what he is looking for, visibility at any price, through trendy, hot, flamewar threads on the Web.
    Most of his posts are very offending. He should consider being more factual and moderate, and less insulting. But I don’t think this is what he is looking for.
    Regards, Erix.

  10. Alisa Morov says:

    wonderful article!

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