Apr 26, 2011

I Don't Know

One of the funnier moments I’ve seen on television this year happened this past Sunday on NBC’s underperforming America’s Next Great Restaurant. We have watched every episode and actually enjoy it. The concept of the show is that there are twelve people who have a proposal for a national chain restaurant. The four “investors” (not judges, investors) hear the pitches and watch them execute various tasks. At the end of each episode, these investors discuss who they don’t want to keep and send that person packing. The winner gets to have three locations of their restaurant opened in Los Angeles, New York, and Minneapolis. (Yeah, that last one baffles me too.) These experts are Bobby Flay (Food Network stud and owner of Mesa, among other places), Lorena Garcia (some Hispanic chick with short skirts and I still don’t know what she ever did), Curtis Stone (celebrity chef and someone who has some sort of blackmail on NBC executives who keep trying to push him as a star), and Steve Ells Founder of Chipotle (Seriously, that is how he introduces himself EVERY TIME. I think it is his name.) The show is pretty entertaining. And as a person who likes food, restaurants, food competitions, and food television - and a person who has his own ideas for chain restaurants (a China/Mex place - it works) - I like the show a lot.

Anyway, they are down to the final four contestants. There is Soul Daddy - a Soul Food place. (I hope they win.) And then there is Spice Coast - an Indian place I would eat at. The third guy is a total Italian stereotype who has nearly cost himself the competition a half dozen times, despite having the easiest and most marketable concept. Brooklyn Meatball Company. See what I mean? I can see that everywhere, and I would eat there. The last place is Harvest Sol - a healthy Mediterranean place that tries to keep low calorie meals with a “green” mentality. The girl has changed her pitch so many times that it is hard to keep track of her latest iteration - something that threw off her own staff this last week. She is into sustainable foods, healthy stuff, all natural things. And the biggest strikes have come from her chef using canned chick peas and their food, well, generally sucking. But her concept isn’t bad - if you can figure out where she is trying to go with it. So she was still around.

Last week, this girl (Stephenie with all e’s, no a’s) managed to get herself kicked out, largely because of the funny thing that I referenced earlier. They were trying to put together a menu for the second to last competition in Las Vegas. She was going to make beef short ribs, a lamb wrap thingee, and some salad stuff. Well, the chef got the ingredients and she asked if the lamb were free range lambs. He said he didn’t know, so she decided that she wasn’t going to do the dish. She started talking about how it needs to be focused on sustainable food and healthy, no antibiotics meat and such. The chef, who has been reamed out several times for not listening to her, gave her the Spock/People’s Eyebrow and wanted to say something. You saw it falling out of his mouth. But he swallowed it and was like, “Okay. Um, I haven’t heard that… Okay, whatever.”

So when the judges (sorry, investors) came traipsing through the kitchen later, she was explaining her offerings. She went on a big rant about how she was going to do a lamb dish, but couldn’t be sure it was free range and sustainable and decided against it. These four restaurant gurus looked at her weird before Curtis Stone spoke up. (He must have won the pre-waltz coin toss for who busted her.) “So, how do you think they raise lambs for meat?” Stepheneee looked at them and started going on about how they were raised in cages without much freedom and all this. More quizzical looks. Steve Ells then started in about how lambs here are almost ALL free range and generally are way more sustainable than any other meat. Now, this dude owns Chipotle. The company as a whole has as its motto “Food with Integrity.” They devote a huge chunk of their website and menu to this promise. They have been featured on national news shows about this. They don’t use meat with antibiotics and are trying to get 100% of their meat from naturally raised animals. (They are at 85% on beef.) So, this guy is like the expert on this mentality. And there is this little girl rambling on with NO CLUE about what she was talking about.

But that wasn’t the best part. The show cut to her interview clip, where she said, “Looking back, I realize that I got veal and lamb mixed up.” Okay, I guess that is a fair mistake - maybe. Still not the best part. Bobby Flay, always the one to rein in the others, asked what else she was selling. So she started talking about the beef short ribs. All four of them tripped over themselves to ask the OBVIOUS question. “Is the beef naturally raised?” I wish I could have frozen her face at that point. “Uhh….” I think Curtis took over the inevitable beating duties. “You just made a big deal about the lambs being sustainable. But you are making BEEF ribs. That is a much bigger issue. Are they antibiotic free? Are they grass fed? Are they naturally raised?” Stephenney just stared and answered, “Honestly, I didn’t check that at all.”

Now, I am all for people taking a stand and eating healthier. I think it is a good thing to try to gravitate towards meat that is treated better and handled more correctly. We have made some of those changes in our own lives. We make sure we only buy hormone-free milk. My yogurt is all organic and natural - since most Greek yogurt companies are exclusively of that mindset. Beef in general has been mostly eliminated from our diet. We are trying - admittedly not as much as many people. But I am not out there on television pounding a drum about how natural and healthy and organic I am and then using canned chick peas, questionable beef, and mouthing off about lamb meat.

I am not trying to pick on Stefphennieye, per se. It is actually a sign of a bigger problem. We have become a society of supposed experts. There have always been blowhard wind bags that liked to act like they know everything. They would just ramble on about stuff that they didn’t actually know. (My dad was one of the biggest of them.) They would read something in Newsweek or Time and earn their mail-order Certificate of Expertnicity. But, it was pretty easy to recognize these people. Your BS detector would go off and then you would just kind of put up with them until they finished.

With the advent and proliferation of the Interwebs, this problem has become even more pronounced - and harder to eliminate. Think about it this way… When you ask someone where they got their information, how many times do they say, “I read it on Wikipedia.” When I was teaching, students would use wikipedia as a source for research papers, like it was a legitimate place to get info. And, honestly, most people believe it is. My argument was always, “YOU can update wikipedia. It isn’t a reliable source.” Anyone can go to Google or Wikipedia and look something up now and then turn around and rehash it - appearing to be quite intelligent. But they never even check to make sure that what they are saying is accurate.

This was Stiphini’s problem. She started talking like an expert, without ever making sure what she said was right. It was a noble position and it sounded good. But it was misguided. When she was questioned by an expert, she wilted because her knowledge was all props. This happens quite frequently now. Everyone with a blog is an expert on something. Facebook has made it possible to spread false information across the globe in a manner of seconds with just a few clicks of the “Share” button. It is easier to just retweet or resend or repost rather than go and check the validity of something.

This can be a very dangerous approach. People’s character and career can be ruined unjustly. Financial errors can be made. People can make incorrect decisions based on incorrect data. On the show, it wasn’t that big of a deal. The girl wasn’t going to win. She got put in her place. End of story. But what happens when someone posts something on a blog or on youtube and it gets out before that security can clamp down? Then we are caught trying to put the proverbial toothpaste back in the tube.

It is virtually impossible to erase something now when it is published. Which is why we need to be even MORE careful to be right about what we say. On one of my favorite sites, Uni Watch, they were talking about the Buffalo Bills’ new uniforms. Apparently, through a preview of the new Madden video game, a video of the new uniform set got out onto YouTube. It got taken down, since it was not up legitimately. Then someone else put it up. And it got taken down. And that cycle is probably continuing right now. But someone took screen shots of the video while it was up, so those pics were posted. And then Uni Watch linked to them. See the problem? Even if the Bills and the NFL were able to get the videos taken down and the original pics and the Uni Watch links removed, how many other little bloggers have now saved those pics and posted them? It becomes impossible to erase the error.

I think we have a responsibility to make sure what we are saying is accurate when we are reporting things as facts. Or we need to make sure that it is clear that we are stating opinions or satirizing something. That used to be the rules of journalism. But, in today’s blurred world of news, it is increasingly difficult to differentiate between news, opinion, entertainment, and plain old bull. I mean, some people quote The Onion, The Colbert Report, and The Daily Show like they are actual news sources.

When I worked at Apple, there were many things we did that surprised customers. But the one thing I got the most comments about was what we did when confronted with something we didn’t know. At other places I had worked (including churches), we were trained how important it was to always demonstrate that you were an expert. At Apple, we were trained from early on that if we didn’t know the answer, DO NOT MAKE IT UP. Instead, we would say, “I don’t know. Let’s find out.” And then we would walk with the customer to a computer and look up the answer. Or we would go to the Genius Bar or the inventory guy or the product label and find out. In fact, if you made up an answer, you would get in trouble for it. Customers for some reason couldn’t believe that we did this. They weren’t offended - in fact, it made them trust us more. They know we weren’t trying to pull something over on them.

I wish more people held to that belief. I would rather someone tell me that they didn’t know something and then verify facts than try to maintain a level of authority. When I was a teacher, I tried to do this with my students. I did the same thing as a minister. If I didn’t know, I said that and then went and found out. I think that is the responsible thing to do. We need to make sure that what we are hearing - and repeating - is true. (That is also a good message about sermons and Bible studies too.) It doesn’t take long. But it can stop a lot of damage. On the restaurant show, a little research would have saved Stephenie a lot of embarrassment and maybe even kept her in the running. Sometimes, as the old saying goes, it is better to keep our mouth shut and let people think we are stupid than speak and remove all doubt. At times, the best words to say are, “I don’t know.”

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