No Such Thing As A Free Lunch

I’M RASH. I don’t like the word but, sometimes, that’s what I am. I also tend to arrive ten minutes late for personal appointments and have a death-grip on what some regard as unrealistically high expectations. To top this toxic cake of bad traits, I’m guilty of cynicism too. For that, Conan, I’m sorry.

•   •   •   •   •   •

Knowing my own shortcomings, I decided to wait two weeks before writing about my January 21st restaurant outing with the Wandering Foodie, Hagan Blount.

Last December, I received an email from Hagan. I didn’t know him personally, but I’d been following his thoughts on Twitter so I had a general idea of who he was: A guy with a blog who seemed interested in food.

Hagan’s message was chatty, personal, dotted with smiley faces. He mentioned he’d seen my pizza bruschetta video so I warmed to him immediately. (I like just about anybody who watches my videos.) He was writing to extend an invitation to participate in his 93 Plates project. His goal? Over 31 days in January, he would consume three comped meals a day with over 60 New York City food bloggers as dining companions. On his website, Hagan called us “the city’s most influential food writers” – an unmerited overstatement (for me, at least), but a flattering one.

•   •   •   •   •   •

I love meeting people. But what I enjoy more than exchanging hand germs and business cards is to dine with someone new – one-on-one. This combination of luxuries – food, time, work-free conversation – is scarce in my world these days, so I was thrilled to get two opportunities to become acquainted with Hagan and his ambitious month-long endeavor over lunch and dinner. Naturally, I had questions, but nothing too controversial. I was only curious about one thing anyway – what was he aiming to achieve?

Of course, I am not completely naïve so I anticipated a side of schmooze, which often comes hand-in-hand when someone you don’t intimately know is footing the bill. Still, I didn’t expect lunch to feel the way it did – like being the 50th candidate to meet with one interviewer for the same job. We didn’t shoot the shit, we poked it with a stick while our spicy Xi’anese noodles and lamb burgers (both pictured left) set our mouths on fire. Maybe that’s why we didn’t talk much. The few words we exchanged involved the twelve pounds he’d gained in three weeks, how every blogger asked the same thing  – Have you dined with any weirdos? – and whether I would blog about our meals at Xi’an Famous Foods and 8st Kitchen. Knowing better than to commit to quid pro quo, I refused to promise I’d write about him. He was incredulous, but composed – sort of, if you don’t account for his hand on my shoulder while saying “You don’t have to put me on your blogroll…but you’re going to put me on your blogroll, right?” I reiterated my stance at dinner when he pushed the subject again: “Why wouldn’t you write about our lunch at Xi’an? I just took you out for two free meals!”

•   •   •   •   •   •

Hagan didn’t give me the chance to explain that I tend to reflect on context than on dishes themselves. And that my restaurant reviews are almost always written for OffManhattan. After nearly a year of nurturing this small web space, I think I’ve found a way to convey the gravity of food, writing, and the combination of both without describing the flavor and origin of each bite. I make Stupidly Simple Snacks and, without agenda, I comment on the interactions I have over meals – and the aftertaste.

After we cleaned off our dinner plates and two shots of soju, I asked Hagan what he hoped to achieve by meeting “the blogging elite”. He seemed convinced that associating with locally known web-based food enthusiasts would become a golden ticket to a book deal or, at least, favored treatment in restaurants. But there are far too many self-designated food experts – so many that some restaurant proprietors now regard bloggers as a nuisance you “deal with” rather than a customer base you want to nurture.

In what I thought was a fitting finale to Hagan’s 31 days, Grub Street saluted the man in a blurb titled “Blogger Stunts“. Stunts are fun but inherently short-lived, especially when you show little interest in the people and content on which your project is based. As dinner drew to a close, I asked him why he hadn’t pursued one food documentarian who’d been gaining attention from nearly all notable local media outlets. Hagan replied that the documentarian wouldn’t have blogged about her dining experience, which would not have benefited his project. After all, he had only so many meals to pass around. I countered, “She doesn’t only post videos, she incorporates blog posts too. Did you even look at her blog?”

“I don’t read anybody’s blog,” he replied. amy february 5, 2010

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February 5, 2010. Tags: , , , , , , , . Asian, Blogs, cash only, Flushing, Manhattan, Queens, West Village.

53 Comments

  1. catty replied:

    Geezus! is this guy for REAL? I mean really REAL?? I laughed out loud at the “You don’t have to put me on your blogroll…but you’re going to put me on your blogroll, right?” part but then I realised, dude he’s for real.

    What a waste of your time Amy, I hope you never have to deal with him again.

  2. Al replied:

    With a name like Hagan, I kinda expected you guys to go get ice cream.

  3. Kitchen Monki Dan replied:

    lol, enjoyed reading this story! thanks for sharing. hope you enjoyed the food 😉

  4. Sarah replied:

    Pretty sleazy stuff.

    If he’s uninterested in the food and the people involved in his project, I’m not sure how he expects to connect with an audience. Hence, no book deal (hopefully).

    You’re miles ahead of this nonsense, Amy.

  5. em replied:

    I adore that you wrote and published this. Couldn’t be more on point with his personality and the entire event. I was excited at the prospects of what 93 Plates could be, but not what it turned out to be.

  6. Jennifer Joan Nelson replied:

    I applaud you for writing and posting this, Amy. And for doing so not with cynicism, but with honesty and humor. Thanks for sharing.

    Keep up the good work.

  7. The Saucy Coq replied:

    Wow. It’s really too bad Hagan won’t be reading your blow to find out how he comes across.

    I’m going to guess he’s single.

  8. Foodie replied:

    I am, but I’m not into French guys, sorry 😉

    Hey Em, when you post, if you could at least include me in your tweet, that would be great.

  9. Amy replied:

    Catty – yup, for real for real.

    Al, Dan, Sarah, Emily, Jennifer, and Ryan – a million thanks for your feedback and support. I respect every one of your opinions so am heartened to know I didn’t screw up by posting this.

    Hagan, consider that blog traffic driven.

  10. Zora replied:

    I had lunch with Hagan too for his project (my post is here: http://bit.ly/9J266R). He’s perfectly nice, and certainly not as heavy-duty sleazy as he comes across here.

    I didn’t feel like Hagan was trying to buy my support with a free lunch. I figured whatever I’d write should be a review of the food, not of _him_. And as a guidebook writer, I’m fairly jaded about comps.

    The food-blogging world is pretty crowded now, and it seems like you do need a stunt to get noticed. I don’t resent Hagan for trying this, and I’m kind of impressed he pulled it off–it takes a lot of stamina (restaurant food for a month straight? kill me!) and organization.

    Then again, I might feel differently if I were a more noted blogger (I’m pretty low-rent–comes with living in Queens). It might seem like Hagan was trying to crash a party, or cut the line or something.

    But sometimes, it’s just lunch, you know?

    (And dang–I want some of those lamb buns!)

  11. Foodie replied:

    I’ll cherish every clickthrough!

    Thanks again for coming out – touching your shoulder was the highlight of my trip!

  12. Blair replied:

    This is exactly why I hate you bloggers. You all think you’re better than one another. Whether it’s at writing, tasting, or business practices. You make great food a fad and crap all over the life’s work of restaurant owners without thinking twice about it. Conan hates a cynic, but I’m sure he’d hate a hypocrite just as much.

  13. anonymous replied:

    Wow! thank you for having the balls to write a post on that. I felt the same way when I dined with him. He was such a covert jerk. Props to you!!

  14. Zora replied:

    Did my earlier comment get flagged as spam? Deleted as too pro-Hagan? Am I paranoid? Just curious…

  15. martin replied:

    your posts and especially your videos are stunningly honest. this one is no exception. i love reading this stuff! *high five*

    i know you had to write this, and i’m glad you did, but i hope he doesn’t benefit from your popularity, or the other bloggers for that matter.

  16. Girl replied:

    Man… sounds like you all just need to get a life.

    peace.

  17. James replied:

    You’ve read my mind in a few ways, Amy – I actually have my own story in the works about my own two meals with Hagan, whose project points to an interesting dichotomy in food blogging and offers a window into what I consider a risky trend in the restaurant business.

    In the big picture, I would personally come to the conclusion of “harmless,” but it’s never fun when a meal feels ruined for whatever reason, and your reasons are certainly valid.

  18. Michelle Joni replied:

    #Freemeals and #SEO! Keep up the great writing and shoulder-touching Hagan. You are the ultimate foodie.

  19. C-Woww replied:

    Oh he’s real all right. …All too real… And leave Conan out of this people.

  20. Chris replied:

    So, I’m conflicted. I don’t like being pressured, and I’m sure I wouldn’t have enjoyed the schmooze. But, and it’s a big one, he can’t actually publish anything on your blog. You control that. What did you think he wanted by doing a stunt? Stunts are about publicity. You clearly know that. I wonder what you thought you’d get out of being a willing participant in his stunt. I wonder if your revulsion is both directed at his tactics and your willingness to go along with it. I’m just not sure who’s “icky” here – the person running the stunt or the person who quite clearly sees the stunt for what it is, but against her better judgment, accepts the flattery for more than anything other than empty hope. This is about you, not him. Write a post on that.

  21. Zachary Adam Cohen replied:

    Amy

    Really unfortunate that you felt this way. Happy you wrote about it considering that its basically a complete 180 from the chat we had the night I saw you. I wish you had been honest then, but I suppose you didn’t want things getting messy.

    I’ve got a couple of points to make. First of all, I think you’ve really misread Hagan and based on the over 40 bloggers or so who came out the other night to the wrap party to celebrate the accomplishment and have a chance to meet one another.

    Second, I don’t think its necessary to have a point in a fun project like this. I think there is WAY too much ambition out there in the foodie/ blogging community and not much fun.

    I never got the impression that Hagan wanted either a book deal (who the hell reads books anyway, i mean is that even a measure of success? NOPE) or for someone of influence to take note. I think the point was to have fun, meet people, see if NYC was a place he could potentially move to etc..

    I think what you really don’t understand is that someone could not have an agenda. And sadly, today you’ve revealed what yours is. Pissing on really nice people.

    Good for you

    Z

  22. Jessica replied:

    @Chris, she explains pretty clearly that she was excited to just enjoy a meal with a fellow food blogger & learn about his project, meanwhile he was pushing her for publicity on her blog. He was a bad meal companion which allowed Amy to think more broadly about the “state” of food blogging/writing. I think this is a really interesting piece, in that regard.

    Hagan’s reaction to the piece on Twitter today seems a unpracticed and, worse, juvenile. Negative perception comes with any publicity, and you know what they say about that.

    Amy, thank you for sharing your thoughts in spite of the animosity you must have sensed would come from it! It doesn’t hurt that you’re a very gifted writer 🙂

  23. The Wandering Foodie replied:

    I told my followers to bash me! It was kind of a creative writing assignment … I loved the post, I didn’t refute anything. It’s all true.

  24. Melody Fury replied:

    Do I owe you lunch now?

  25. Chris replied:

    @Jessica, my comments are pointed at Amy’s lack of self-awareness. It’s not “just a meal,” it’s a meal with a guy doing a stunt. Admit it. She wanted to be part of something bigger. It was fun and exciting until it wasn’t. Then to write a post where outs him as a jerk (fine with that) but take no responsibility misses a real opportunity to grow.

    Yes, Hagan’s reaction was juvenile and obnoxious. And he posted about it three times, driving up controversy and increased traffic to this site. He is acting completely within character. He knows exactly what he is and what he is about.

    Hopefully, Amy learns something about not trusting her instincts, and how, by writing this post without claiming any responsibility for her actions, she still wants to be part of his stunt. Silence would have spoken much louder. You gave him exactly what he wanted — buzz. And you got it, too. Congrats, Amy. You’re playing the game very well.

  26. Amy replied:

    Hi, Everyone –

    Thanks for taking the time to reflect on the issue of food blogging with me. I said everything I wanted to say and couldn’t have asked for more than to have you think about what you read and draw your own conclusions.

    Chris – you’re a complete doofus. I completely trust my instincts. Did you miss my first paragraph completely? I took the time to think this through and knew a reaction like yours and Zach’s would inevitably follow. Silence does not speak louder. This post will be here always but I wouldn’t miss you if you never visited again.

  27. Chris replied:

    I’ll miss you, Amy. Good luck with the lack of self-awareness.

  28. Chris replied:

    Also glad you stooped to name calling. And didn’t address role you have in being complicit with the stunt. Classy blog you’ve got here.

  29. JO replied:

    I think it’s great that you wrote this.

    I went to the bash to see what the other bloggers were like. Some were douchebags and some were down to earth – about the same proportion as in real life. I’m glad someone assembled them like this. There was a couple I was aiming for and I was happy to meet them.

    His event actually got me to thinking a lot about this whole scene too. I am working on a State of the Site as we type. and Zachary Cohen riley, I am pretty sure you are delusioned or misinformed. He told me he was trying for a book deal and this is obviously a stunt to get attention. Which worked. For how long? He better keep at it. I thought hagan was ambitious and at the very least he is trying. I think the cream rises to the top, and the shit sinks to the bottom. He never asked me to put him on my blogroll, and if he did, I would laugh. It’s a blogroll… no one is going to get rich from total # of hits.

    amy, re: this post… good for you,
    J

  30. Zachary Adam Cohen replied:

    At least im not a doofus. Look, let’s be honest here, would Hagan turn down a book or TV deal? of course not, and yeah he talked about it with everyone in the project. Maybe a bit too much, I think that misses the point which is that Hagan didn’t really know what he wants or doesn’t want. I think he wanted the opportunity to meet the food bloggers in the media and food capital of the world and bring them into a project that he initiated. is that SO bad? Does their have to be some deep dark agenda?

    Does hagan sell ads on his site? NO, so what does the increased traffic really bring?

    You guys are looking at motives, wrong ones at that, and ascribing sinister actions to them

    btw amy, whats the big deal if Hagan asked for a link to his blog? I get asked 10 times a day for people to link to them, sometimes i do, sometimes i dont, but by publicly berating him for it just seems really low class.

    I dont think you are low class, and I wish you would retract or rethink your post above. I am purposefully being polite here because I love and believe in the food community online. I want it to grow and mature and become a bigger part of things.

    This post was really unnecessary and what’s more I think you know it. Anyway, im sure our paths will cross again soon and I for one will always welcome you with a smile and a handshake!

    ciao for now folks!

  31. anonymous replied:

    Guy takes a bunch of food bloggers out with meals comped by “his sponsors.”

    His sponsors turn out to be the RESTAURANTS themselves. They’re buying publicity and a writeup not only on his blog but presumably the invitees’ blogs, too.

    The only disclosure that the restaurant gave them both a free meal is buried into tiny type at the bottom of each post.

    Not up front, not on the home page, not on the About section.

    He says his efforts go to benefit charity…A charity that he founded and runs with no history of actually doing anything.

    Right, he’s not sketchy at all.

  32. Anonymous replied:

    Amy,

    I also went out with him as part of the project, and I am very very glad you wrote this piece. He is not the easiest character to take. Although I admire his ability to pull this “stunt” together and possibly get some press from it, it is after all is said and done a stunt. His lack of respect towards almost everything, his sense of entitlement, and his failure to write anything other than his stream of conscious thoughts probably wore on most people.

  33. Scootabaker replied:

    Holy Crackpot!
    Lame. So sorry Amy. I love that you don’t feel that obligation to give him what he wants just because he flipped the bill.

    You be my hero!

    Heather

  34. Partsie replied:

    Well done Amy. This is YOUR BLOG you write what you want! I’m sorry you had to waste your time with someone who doesn’t even read your blog…let alone seem to really take interest in you. I wouldn’t want to spend my time with someone that’s insincere. Thanks for sharing- this is well written!

  35. Marc @ NoRecipes replied:

    Wow, if only my writing drew such controversy. Bravo for being brash:-)

  36. Amy replied:

    lol my writing doesn’t always draw controversy, thank goodness. Usually I just microwave things.

  37. a blogger replied:

    This 93 plates fellow is likely in violation of the FTC guidelines for bloggers.

    http://www.ftc.gov/opa/2009/10/endortest.shtm

    To file a complaint in English or Spanish, visit the FTC’s online Complaint Assistant at https://www.ftccomplaintassistant.gov/ or call 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357).

  38. JO replied:

    What??? how could you usually microwave?? You are deforming yourself.

  39. Novice Eater replied:

    I think your assessment is spot on. Hagan put together an interesting idea, but ultimately it became too much for one person to handle. He would have been better off producing the stunt and letting someone else do the writing, or vise-versa.

    The comped meals are problematic as well — how can you write an honest review under those circumstances? And knowing the meals were comped by the restaurant, his assessment that he’d “provided” the free meal and expected something in return is disconcerting.

    Hagan’s a great producer, but not a great food writer. Inviting the “blogging elite” gave him more credibility. And by pushing you to write about it, he opened himself up to this criticism.

    I wish him the best of luck, but his attitude seems to have irritated the very people he was hoping to court.

  40. Foodie replied:

    I think it’s interesting how a post on me and my project has received more action than any other on this site.

  41. JO replied:

    well, being a good writer is not what you need to make money or be sustainable doing this. The people he is irritating don’t pay the bills, it’s these restaurants which more likely would pay for something.

    I am rethinking my reviews of the places I went, but the fact is that they were really good (bistro les minots and Fornino). I did say that is was part of this project though, so I can’t down myself too much.

  42. Foodie replied:

    My incredulity stemmed from the fact that she chose to come out and spend half the day with me yet in that instance did not deem the project worthy of writing anything. Simply anomalous.

  43. JO replied:

    Worthy is not the word. The word is relevant.

    And she can write whatever she wants.

  44. Jessica Lee Binder replied:

    There is validity to both sides. I already told Hagan when we met that “sponsored” meals make for pretty useless reviews. I agreed to put it on my blog as a rare occasion but also told him I would be negative wherever I needed to be, and I was. So, basically I told him this stunt looses credibility.

    I’m not as upset as Amy because I always recognized it as a stunt and expected what I got. Also I was happy to go to the wrap party, where I got to meet people I wanted to meet, people who’s blogs I read, and people who I’ve chatted with but never seen in person. I just appreciated that he did the work to put it together.

    However, what does really bother me Hagan, is that you are happy about all this negative publicity and proud that you pissed people off and offended them. Sure, it gets traffic, but this traffic will be short-lived. The potential friendships you have lost are way more valuable. Food is about sharing and is worth only half as much in isolation.

  45. nomnom replied:

    I thought this was pretty telling regarding his stunt-two notable food bloggers were cited as exceptions for not participating.

    http://www.seriouseats.com/talk/2009/02/best-ny-food-blog.html

    ciao!

  46. Foodie replied:

    AnNOMymous: They were “notable exceptions.” Since when does notability carry negativity?

    Jess: I cleared it with the restaurants beforehand and let them know that the writers may or may not write about the restaurant and they will write impartially. I also let all the writers know they should write impartially because the restaurants knew what the deal was.

    If Amy is going to hate, Amy is going to hate – Maybe I’ve already lost her friendship. I don’t know why she invited me back to hang out with her at her apartment for the afternoon after she’d already formed an opinion of me. Either way, who cares? I am not living my life to curry her favor. If any of the other writers’ opinions of me are changed by Amy’s post, I’d hope they would come to me for clarification before levying their judgement.

    Who knows – maybe Amy and I will be friends some day again. I don’t refute anything she wrote in this post and I consider her to be a pleasant and personable girl. Her motivations may be different than mine (not that it could be discerned by her incessant tweets and status updates when she was up for a Shorty award, but I digress), but she’s a better writer than I am and cuter on camera. I’ll admit, that’s not saying much 😉

    “Hagan,” you say, “you just said you’re not trying to curry favor with Amy. What’s this?” I don’t understand how I could ever let someone’s opinion of me change my opinion of them. It doesn’t make sense.

    I went out with another writer yesterday and here’s her quote:

    “Some 93 Plates participants have accused Hagan of being a media whore, only being in this for the website traffic and publicity, but since he openly admits that these are his motivations, I didn’t have much of a problem with it. Hypocrisy would have been a bigger problem, but he wasn’t pretending that food blogging was part of some nobler goal – he was very straightforward about what he wants from this.”

  47. Jessica Lee Binder replied:

    Hagan, I agree with that writer’s quote. It’s just more a well written version of what I said about expecting what I got. But I’m not sure you’ve addressed my issue yet. You’re more than happy about pissing several people off, not just Amy. The comfort you find in that is the part that bothers me.

  48. Amy replied:

    Hagan, I’ll only address one thing. I said: “If you need a place write, you’re welcome to work on your blog post at my apartment.” It was not an invitation to “hang”. And, from now on, you’re no longer welcome to comment here.

  49. Jessica Lee Binder replied:

    To Amy’s credit, I have to point out that I almost felt pressured into having you (Hagan) over at my place as well, and it was hinted at quite heavily. I didn’t invite you over because I had just met you and that’s just awkward. Amy is just a nicer person than me.

  50. Jason Lam replied:

    This guy’s blog crashes my work browser. Win95?

  51. justcooknyc replied:

    wow, that is quite a story!

  52. Shinkuri replied:

    Wow. I have never seen a guy more self absorbed. I got this opinion from his own blog by the way, not yours. Still the food looked good so you got something positive out of the experience I hope. Ciao. <— is not spelled Chiao.

  53. Leonard replied:

    What a jerk. I’m glad you wrote about him 🙂

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