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Sitting down to lunch in the bar of Galileo, Joe Heflin asks the waiter if chef Roberto Donna would kindly whip us up a plate of his pistachio-Gorgonzola risotto. It’s a dish, Heflin tells me, lowering his voice, that he makes himself. He has even made it for Donna, at his town house in Reston. Of course, Heflin likes to tweak the recipe. He favors chunks of pistachio, as opposed to the finer crumble atop Donna’s creamy mound of rice. And he much prefers a dolce Gorgonzola to the mountain cheese he detects in Donna’s version.
As the long, multicourse midweek lunch comes to an end, Donna swings by to say hello, and Heflin tries for confirmation. “Still using that mountain Gorgonzola, Roberto?” he asks.
Donna nods. They strike up an easy, bantering rapport—a celebrated chef and his most ardent fan. The relationship has its roots in the “blowout dinners”—five-hour foodie extravaganzas—that Heflin has organized over the years at Donna’s restaurant-within-a-restaurant Laboratorio, and in Heflin’s unceasing support of the chef on various Internet food forums. To Heflin, Donna is a local treasure, his cooking on a par with that of the finest Michelin-starred restaurants that Heflin, 58, has eaten at in his travels throughout Europe on business as a roller-coaster salesman. It’s a point he’s made on countless occasions in his various Internet-discussion-board posts as “Joe H.” In fact, he has brought a stack of his old posts on Chowhound along with him. Donna, who has been known to post himself every now and again, sifts through the pile.
A post on the gorgonzola risotto pleads that prospective cooks prepare it “EXACTLY” as written. A post touting the pleasures of the In-N-Out burger in L.A. contends that the first bite is as good as anything Heflin has ever put in his mouth, including anything from the French Laundry or Alain Ducasse. One post laments his faded ’60s idealism; another describes his absolute worst eating-out experience. The tiny core of regular readers of the forums at chowhound.com, and later eGullet.org—two of the most prominent food boards in the area—came to learn a lot about “Joe H.”: His dislike of customers who do not dress properly. His certainty that D.C. belongs in the first rank of restaurant towns in America. His recommendations for which table to request at which restaurant. “Joe H.” was opinionated, passionate, bombastic, inflammatory, imperious. Sometimes within a single topic thread.
“For a certain time,” says Donna, laying down the stack of paper, “you were the king, eh? What happened?”
What happened is that, having skillfully used the new media to his advantage, “Joe H.” was undone by its nebulous rules and codes, tripped up by the insularity that can make an online community seem more like a private club.
Heflin’s troubles with Chowhound began in 2003, when he started stumping on behalf of Maestro, a hotel restaurant in the Ritz-Carlton in Tysons Corner that boasted a young, ambitious chef in Fabio Trabocchi. Heflin, posting about his second meal there, compared it favorably with Le Calandre, a three-star Michelin restaurant in Italy, and said it was worthy of two stars. A reporter at the Wall Street Journal, working on a piece about haute cuisine in suburbia, contacted Heflin about this promising tip. He sang its praises once more.
Then he contacted the restaurant, alerting it to a visit from the Journal—in effect playing both critic and publicist.
The meal, the reporter wrote, was the finest she and her husband, a chef, had eaten in their travels.
Heflin felt vindicated. “My credibility,” he says, “was intact with her.” But not with Chowhound.
The Journal piece was cited on the board, and chatter about Maestro surged. But it was around this time that Heflin says he received an e-mail from Jim Leff, the founder and moderator of Chowhound. Leff, tracking his posts, had noted that Heflin had singled out Maestro 100 or so times, with Laboratorio netting almost as many mentions. It raised suspicions that Heflin had a financial stake in the restaurants. At best, Leff thought, Heflin was guilty of “schmoozing” big-name chefs to gain favors. Leff threatened him with banishment if he did not refrain from posting about Maestro.
Leff declines to comment on his exchanges with Heflin, but he does say that Chowhound exists solely for the passing on of tips and the sharing of experiences.
Heflin did not refrain from posting about Maestro. In fact, he organized a blowout at the restaurant, the third such dinner he’d done. Pictures went up on the Web site, with each of the courses photographed, up close, in all its food-porn splendor. Joe H. wrote that Trabocchi, like Donna, was every bit the equal of the best chefs not merely in the country but in the world. He cited a long list of Michelin-starred restaurants he had eaten at in Europe, inviting all comers to dispute his contention.
None did. But a chowhound made a crack about the “poster of Fabio” on the wall of Joe H.’s bedroom. Others piled on, mocking him behind the cover of cyberspace anonymity—and not always just for laughs. When one “Reece” criticized D.C.’s dining scene as provincial, Heflin responded like the general whose city is under siege. Washington had become cosmopolitan and sophisticated, in a transformation that paralleled his own growth from Anacostia innocent to world traveler, and now it—and he—was being trashed.
He ranted. The rant was deleted. He threatened to leave the board if it wasn’t restored. Some posters declared themselves sick of his tantrums. A few begged him to reconsider. All these posts were deleted, as well as those asking, “What happened to Joe H.?” Meanwhile, the post from Reece remained. Heflin’s subsequent attempts to post on the board were usually deleted within minutes.
The same afternoon last November that he announced he was leaving Chowhound, Heflin says he was “recruited” to eGullet by one of its founders, Jason Perlow.
Unlike Chowhound, which is made up of generally older devotees of ethnic and cheap eats, eGullet tends to attract a younger crowd—posters in their 30s who enjoy tantalizing their fellows with blow-by-blow descriptions of the degustation menu they consumed the night before at the most recently anointed gastronomic temple. Posters on both sites refer to “the other board” and seldom, if ever, cross-pollinate. Still, Joe H.’s reputation preceded him to eGullet.
In September, Don Rockwell, at that time eGullet’s moderator for the D.C. and DelMarVa forum, wrote a sneak preview of the hotly anticipated CityZen. Rockwell mentioned, offhandedly, that he was a “cheap fuck” for not valet-parking his car.
Heflin was incensed. The word, he tells me, was in “outrageous bad taste.” Switching roles from food critic to social critic, Joe H. called for the post’s deletion.
He found little audience for his complaint. Forum members didn’t see what the big deal was, defending their forum host and deriding what they viewed as extreme overreaction.
Heflin’s response was to issue an ultimatum: “Let me be very clear on this: if fuck is a word that can be indiscriminately used by anyone on any of these boards this IS my last post. I have no interest in a forum that tolerates this type of self indulgent behavior. It is an enormous distraction from what this board should be focusing on which is…food.”
Rockwell refers to this post, jokingly, as Heflin’s “beer-hall putsch.”
Things got worse when Heflin jumped into a thread about Ray’s the Steaks in Arlington, universally beloved by the eGullet crowd. Heflin praised the food (“best steak in D.C. and possibly the best scallops, too”) but was less than enamored of the service and atmosphere. It galled him that he was hustled out of the restaurant in an hour and a half. “In all my years of eating out, all the places I’ve been, I’ve never, ever, seen a policy like that,” he said, adding that it represented a “dangerous trend.”
Owner Michael Landrum denies that such a policy exists. He will not address the Heflin matter on the record, except to say, “I respect and admire Joe’s passion and commitment to the fine-dining scene, but I think he’s missing what Ray’s is all about.”
The friction between Heflin and the forum is a more public dispute. Some suggested that Heflin was jealous because he had not discovered Ray’s himself. Others characterized him as out of touch, a dinosaur. Some of the e-mails he received, Heflin says, were “frightening.”
Rockwell says he tried to make peace between Heflin and the board, e-mailing him privately and advising him on how to function within the group. He considered giving Heflin a thread of his own, unmediated and uninterrupted, to post his musings on food at his leisure. But in July, Heflin issued his farewell to eGullet, citing his distaste for those who “don’t accept dissenting opinions.” Perlow tried winning him back, but Heflin was unmoved.
Nor was he interested in making a home for himself at DonRockwell.com, which spun off eGullet this past April and has siphoned away many of the forum’s original posters. Rockwell, via e-mail, says he let Heflin know that he’s welcome to join so long as he “abides by some very basic rules and respects the other members of the community”—and first meets with Rockwell in person.
“I can’t relate to those people,” Heflin says now.
Not that he isn’t following along in exile. He was outraged recently to come across a thread on the Rockwell board devoted to a group outing to Galileo. The restaurant extended members a half-price discount for a Sunday night. Many enjoyed their dinner; a few took to quibbling about a couple of dishes. “They’re getting a half-price meal, the chef probably came in on her day off, and they can just see fit to attack the cooking like that?” Heflin asks.
He’s been tempted to respond, but he won’t; he can’t. Maybe someday he’ll start his own food blog. Who knows? For the time being, he’s content to spread his message about D.C.’s restaurants in the one way that has not yet been denied him. With a blowout dinner in October. At Laboratorio.—Todd Kliman
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Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photograph by Charles Steck.