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Today was Roberto Donna‘s day to face some of the most discriminating food minds and dining cranks around: the reader-questioners on Tom Sietsema‘s weekly Washington Post dining chat. You already know about Donna’s past troubles with taxes and embezzlement. The esteemed Italian chef was Sietsema’s first-ever guest chat-host. The whole hour wasn’t just questions for Donna—Tom helped one reservation-seeker with “Oklahoma tickets for 8 o’clock Christmas Eve” at Arena Stage—but the chef’s responses to the questions he fielded are worth examination. Remember, there’s plenty of Donna-fueled ire out there in the restaurant community.
So let’s score Ask Roberto!
No. 1: The first question out of the gate for Donna (and the whole Ask Tom chat) is sort of a snoozer: “How are today’s restaurant customers different than say customers from the 1980’s or mid 1990’s?”
Donna responds with an appropriate answer:
Yes, guests nowdays are much more aware of good food and service. I think is a very good thing because it pushes us (chefs) to perform at our best every day, even if it is very difficult to do that, every day.
Guests also blog and tweet up a storm these days! Donna’s first question was a softball, but that was to be expected, no?
Praises customers, tells them they’ve grown smarter: +2
No. 6: The first controversial question came pretty quickly in the chat:
[Y]our conviction for [t]ax evasion troubles me on multiple levels. As a Arlingtion resident and a past diner at Bebo can you tell me what you are doing to make amends? Being a responsible partner in the community is just as critical to me as the quality of your cooking. A response will be appreciated. I wish you luck on your new venture.
Donna takes a few cues from Crisis Communications 101: Move forward!
Thank you for your concerns. That’s why I am here working hard and being responsible person and working on repaying and making amends. People learn from their mistakes, let’s not dwell on the past and looking forward to a brighter responsible future!!
How was his response?
No direct apology: -3
Uses the phrase “brighter responsible future”: +1
No. 8: Oh, a question about localish Italian cooking, “[p]referably close to Baltimore” that tastes like mom’s.
Donna’s response is a crowd-pleaser, but not particularly helpful:
First of all nobody will ever cook like your mother…Everybody’s mom is the best and we can’t compete with that!!
Next time you are in the DC area please come and see us!
Overall, he fell flat on this question.
Assumes your mother’s cooking is great: -2
Projects D.C. arrogance, pretends Baltimore doesn’t exist: 0
No. 11: A wine question about a “disappointing Dolcetto.” In Las Vegas! How can the chatter rectify the situation?
Donna has an answer! “Next time please try a Dolcetto di Dogliani from Chionnetti and then let me know….”
Helpful response: +1
Wants feedback from chatter: +1
No. 14: Here comes a question that references Donna’s tax troubles. “Do your financial problems have any bearing on your cooking? That is, do you use different, cheaper ingredients? Does the cloud stifle your creativity at all?”
His answer, more or less, is a rehashing of his response to No. 6:
My cooking and my passion for food is my forte and now I can just concentrate in what I do best cooking and scope for great ingredients. Getting back to the kitchen is my home and I feel great there!
How’d he do?
Recycled talking point: -1
No. 15: Someone sure has an ax to grind about “jaw-droppingly bad service” in the Donna restaurant empire! This question details how “three requests for silverware” were ignored at the now-shuttered Bebo Trattoria.
These types of dining chat questions are annoying, so we have sympathy for Donna for having to answer it. “We all train very hard every day our employees and ensure that service and food will be just like in Italy.”
Dealing with the ax-grinder: +1
Assuming all food and service in Italy is good: -1
No. 19: Somebody wants to know if the grilled lunchtime sandwiches are coming back. Me too, those were tasty!
Sadly, they will not be returning.
Delivers bad news with grace: +1
No. 20: This should be good: “From the restaurateur perspective, what makes a good customer?”
I think to be a good customer is not based on the amount of money that you spend but your willingness to embrace the experience of the restaurant that you are dining in.
Oh, doesn’t that sound nice?
Warm and fuzzy response: +1
No. 27: Donna answered a question about his favorite soup or stew. “My favorite soup for a weather like today, there is nothing like the chestnut soup.” Although the question was soup or stew, not soup and stew, Donna answered both when he didn’t have to. His favorite nasty-weather stew is caciucco alla Aretina.
A seasonal response: +1
Going above and beyond: +2
No. 29: Donna gets a question from a seemingly snooty person who travels to “Florence, Rome and Sorrento several times a year.” Apparently, there is no good Italian on the East Coast, not even Donna’s!
Personally, I really wised Donna would have ripped into this guy, just because. Instead, we got a “I really don’t agree on your statement” and “I would like personally to invite for you to come to have dinner and discuss the food that I will preparing for you.”
Lost opportunity to show up Mr. I Travel to Sorrento Several Times a Year: -1
Let’s Cut to the Chase:
At this point, Donna seems to be more comfortable. To quicken the scoring process, he gets high marks for how he answered No. 31 (+2) and No. 35. (+2)
He didn’t have any terrible response, but plenty of just OK ones: No. 32 (0), No. 33 (0), No. 38 (0), No. 40 (+1), No. 43 (0), No. 50 (0)
Doing the math with our (non) scientific assessment methods, Roberto Donna gets a score of 8, assuming his pre-Ask Roberto rating was at zero. So, he’s made some good progress in rehabilitating his image by doing the chat. How much further does he have to go? (No scoring ceiling was set for this exercise.)