Chasing Amy: Overcooked Reality and the Decline of Western Civility
A tall, thin man with long, gray hair and a pair of saggy but expensive jeans shakes the handles of two doors of a restaurant. Behind him is a handful of onlookers. His wife, in shorts with hands on hips, leans in and reads the restaurant's hours posted on the window aloud: 5 to 10 p.m. They smile at each other.
"They look like they're set up for business," the man says to her, almost too loudly, his hands still gripping the door. "But they're closed. Amy's Baking Company is closed!"
The man chuckles, and he and his wife, shaking their heads, turn to leave. Some bystanders take his place, cupping their hands over their faces to peer into the restaurant. Others linger on the outdoor patio and look over the menu. Some take pictures.
"Curiosity seekers," I think to myself, nearly rolling my eyes. Yet, here I am.
I went to Amy's Baking Company in Scottsdale last week, weaving my car through the Shea Scottsdale Shopping Center's parking lot until coming upon the suddenly infamous restaurant, the one with the scalloped red banner across from Harkins Theatres Shea 14. The standard reasons I visit restaurants as a critic — the food, the wine, the atmosphere, the pedigree — didn't register in this case. Amy's hadn't signaled the faintest of blips on the Valley's radar of must-try dining — ever. I had come because of the Internet. And I wasn't happy about it.
Sorry, dozens of more-deserving restaurants, you'd have to wait.
On the day I visited Amy's Baking Company, I wasn't a food critic. Like everyone else outside the restaurant that afternoon, I was nothing more than — depending on how you looked at it — a gawker at a freak show or a rubbernecker at the scene of a terrible accident. Probably a little of both.
Although Amy Bouzaglo and her husband, Samy, started their restaurant in 2008, it's difficult, given the events that have unfolded over the past two weeks, to imagine Amy's Baking Company as ever being just a restaurant. But of course, it was. The same year that Tuck Shop opened, Arizona Restaurant Week debuted, and brand-new Noca launched its fried chicken nights — all bringing dining-scene buzz — Amy's humdrummed along. People came in (many, most likely, for a pre- or post-movie meal), ate, and left. Employees earned paychecks. Food was served. Dishes were washed, dirtied, and washed again.
Of course, that was before the Bouzaglos and their restaurant appeared this May 10 on the jaw-dropping season finale of celebrity chef and professional malcontent Gordon Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares, a reality TV show on Fox in which the F-bomb-dropping Brit attempts to the save the mismanaged restaurants of America. It was before the Internet blew up in the wake of the broadcast, before the real got surreal, before the truth became lies and the lies looked like truths, before every hater and anonymous do-gooder, crazy, pontificator, and user became a performer in an online circus — before everyone, and everything, got so fucked up.
As in most doomsday plots, the catastrophe that would be Amy's Baking Company started innocently enough, much like in the opening scene of the movie 28 Days Later, in which good-intentioned animal rights activists free a monkey from a laboratory only to find out, rather gruesomely, that it has been infected with a rage virus that nearly brings a country to its knees.
In this case, the activist was Phoenix foodnik Joel LaTondress, who posted a bluntly critical one-star review of his experience at Amy's Baking Company on Yelp on August 1, 2010, two years after the restaurant had opened.
In a portion of the 700-word critique, LaTondress commented about the pizza he ordered:
"I took a bite and was immediately underwhelmed. The crust had very little character, was slightly sweet but had that store-bought quality to it. The pesto tasted okay, but the tomatoes were completely tasteless and overall, it just fell flat. It's margherita — the ingredients need to shine to make such a simple pizza. These ingredients were subpar. After two small pieces, I decided I was wasting my calories and just gave up on it."
And, then, about owner Samy Bouzaglo:
"He got very defensive about the pizza, but I hadn't really launched a harsh criticism on the pizza, just said I didn't really enjoy it. So I sat some more, with an empty drink, and realized they wanted me gone. The owner wouldn't make eye contact with me. The server never came back out asking if I wanted something else. And they still hadn't refilled my drink."
The next day, out of nowhere, came Amy Bouzaglo, firing back at LaTondress on Yelp in a 450-word retort calling him, among other things, a moron and accusing him of working for the competition, even suggesting that he lacked a palate sophisticated enough to tell the difference between homemade and store-bought pizza. When Chow Bella, New Times' food blog, reported on the fiasco, Amy continued her angry assault in the comments section of a blog post and argued with readers.
"You will see the Messiah before you see our doors closed," she wrote.
Shortly thereafter, someone gave Amy her own Twitter account and hash tag. And just like that, Crazy Amy was born.
On November 30, 2012, I am sitting at my computer going through my e-mails. It is a morning like any other, until I see this:
"We will be filming at Amy's Baking Company from December 8th to the 11th," says the note from a producer of Kitchen Nightmares. "It may be of interest to the members of the community to know how they can participate while we are filming and Chef Ramsay is in town."
It takes me a moment to recall the restaurant mentioned in the subject line. Amy's Baking Company had quickly fizzled out as a topic of conversation, the Valley's restaurant scene moving on to other news. I return to the restaurant's Yelp page and read the reviews following the one from LaTondress. It's mostly a mixed bag, but many of the negative ones contain similar, but less lengthy, acerbic responses from both Amy and Samy.
"Why would they agree to being on a show where criticism, embarrassment, and humiliation are part of the act?" I think to myself as I start to type the post. "Don't they know what Kitchen Nightmares is about?"
The next month, when most Valley restaurants were busy decking their halls with twinkling lights and pots of poinsettias, Amy's Baking Company was getting outfitted with video cameras, tungsten lights, and microphones. The first night's taping of Kitchen Nightmares at Amy's Baking Company delivered more surprises than any wrapped gift could — and with enough drama and tension to sufficiently rival any family holiday get-together.
For those in the Valley paying attention, shit-show Santa had come early, bearing a sneak preview of the chaos that was to come. The rest of America (and, eventually, other parts of the world) would have to wait until May.
"[Amy] was yelling and screaming, 'Get the fuck out' and [telling us that] if we weren't going to pay for our drinks, she was going to call the cops," a diner at the taping told me on the phone the next day. "She called me a 'tough guy' and said, 'You better correct your acting skills if you're trying to get on TV.' The producer said he would pay for our bill and that we should leave."
Like me, that diner (who was kept anonymous for a post I wrote because of a confidentiality agreement he'd signed for the show's producers) could hardly believe that the taping was real. After all, this was "reality" television. I was skeptical that he might be guilty of embellishment, whether he knew it or not. But the police part of his story checked out. And the rest of it — from being yelled at by Samy and Amy and told to leave after inquiring about a pizza for which he already had waited over an hour to his partner being physically pushed by Samy — would prove to be true when the show aired five months later.
As far as what happened that night, getting Amy and Samy's side of the story, as well as the Fox producer's, wasn't easy. One never returned my phone call. And the other, in a thick accent (it was Samy, of course), hurriedly told me he couldn't talk because "Ramsay was there." Attempts to contact the Bouzaglos for this story were unsuccessful.
A woman I once worked with used to say, "You can't fight crazy." Aside from an underlying feeling I had that she herself was of questionable mental stability, it was a phrase I liked and borrowed, employing it quite frequently when circumstances, or people, needed explanations that no rational answer could gratify.
Gordon Ramsay could not fight crazy.
When the Amy's Baking Company episode of Kitchen Nightmares, which Fox felt warranted (and rightly so) the season finale, finally aired on Friday, May 10, incredulous viewers watched the host of the show do something he hadn't done in the series' more than 80 episodes: He walked away.
Ramsay, known to be a bit of a shouter himself, had met his match in Samy and Amy, whose motivation for being on the show, as they told Ramsay, was exposing the public to his opinion — not those of the "online bullies" — when it came to the quality of their food.
Maddeningly controlling, unwilling to accept criticism (constructive or otherwise), and living in what seemed an impenetrable fortress of denial, the Bouzaglos were Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares nightmare, his disastrous failure.
And it was on this episode that the force a few in the Valley knew as "Crazy Amy" in 2010 was unleashed in full, not only for Gordon Ramsay to witness, but for all of America, as well. In front of a national TV audience, she berated customers and staff, argued with Ramsay, vehemently rejected criticism, and fired a young female food runner on the spot for asking a question.
"There's no point in talking to you," Amy told Ramsay at one point during show. And in a rare moment, he was speechless.
But the antics of Crazy Amy weren't the show's only highlights. Equally, if not more cringe-worthy was the revelation that Samy took tips earned by the servers, a disclosure that ultimately incited viewers more than the store-bought ravioli that Samy told Chef Ramsay was made fresh. Real One Percenter shit, for sure.
"I think you're too far gone," a defeated-looking Ramsay tells the couple before walking out the door at the episode's denouement.
And then the Internet exploded.
It's hard not to speculate where the Bouzaglos, Amy's Baking Company, and the rest of the universe would be now if the show had ended differently — if, as in the series' previous episodes, the storm clouds had parted and produced a triple rainbow of introspection, atonement, and new beginnings.
In our imaginary episode, the show ends much differently: There is a final dinner service where happy customers, their mouths full of food, shake their heads in disbelief at its deliciousness, exclaiming, "Thish is wonnerful!" Katy Cipriani, the food runner who Amy fired, is tearfully asked forgiveness and offered back her job. And Amy earnestly looks into the camera and says, "Thanks to Chef Ramsay, we're ready to make some serious changes — starting with us." She coyly smiles and adds, "Meow, meow!"
The music fades out, the credits roll, and our hearts, now successfully warmed, can go on to beat for another day.
But, once in a while, reality TV actually turns out to be real. Or does it?
In January 2012, the Valley food community cried foul when another reality show, Food Network's Mystery Diners, came to town, paying visits to restaurants such as Big Earl's Greasy Eats in Cave Creek, Haus Murphy's in Glendale, and Caffe Boa in Tempe. The show, which features "undercover operatives" conducting surveillance and investigating "problem" employees at the supposed request of restaurant owners, has come under attack by many people who claim the show is fake and uses tactics such as paid actors and enlisting the help of owners who, for whatever reason, seem to think it's a good idea to have their restaurants featured in such a light.
When Dwayne Allen, owner of The Breadfruit in Phoenix, was contacted by the Food Network to participate in Mystery Diners, he became suspicious almost immediately.
"Let's say you have a bartender who has a soft spot for pretty women," Allen says the Food Network representative explained to him in a phone call. "We'll bring in the pretty women, and we'll set up the cameras so you can bust him."
"But we don't have a bartender with a soft spot for women," Allen replied. He then declined to participate in the show.
And then there's ABC's much different portrayal on another, albeit much different reality show. In February of this year, two months after the disastrous first night of taping Kitchen Nightmares and three months before its airdate, Amy's Baking Company was featured on Check Please! Arizona, PBS' popular restaurant-review series on which Arizonans share their dining experiences with host Robert McGrath, a James Beard Award-winning chef.
At the start of the seven-minute segment, over a musical backdrop of tinkling piano, a calm Amy Bouzaglo talks about her restaurant's concept as "farm-fresh organic food made from scratch" and Samy chats with customers and shows them to their tables.
The Check Please! Arizona episode's three diners make no mention of lengthy wait times or impossibly irate owners, nor do they register a single complaint about the dishes. ("A little punch would have been nice," one diner says, referring to her mushroom crepe. That's about as negative as it gets.) They describe the restaurant as charming and comfortable and the pastries as incredible. Even the red pepper ravioli — the same dish Gordon Ramsay said smelled "weird" and declared it to be "one of the most confusing ravioli dishes I have ever seen and tasted in my entire life" — gets a winning review. One diner calls it "a wonderful combination; sweet and spicy at the same time — delicious."
Check Please! Arizona producers declined my requests for comment.
Was the Check Please! Arizona segment the Bizarro World appearance for Amy's? Or was Kitchen Nightmares the one that stretched the truth? In each case, reality had likely been altered — maybe a little, maybe a lot. But by this point, none of it mattered. The online war already had started, and the Bouzaglos' best strategy was to fire away.
"We stand strong together. We have to, because there's a lot of online bullies and haters and bloggers. We stand up to them, and I think we're the only ones who have, as restaurant owners. And they come and they try to attack us and say horrible things that are not true."
When Amy Bouzaglo rattled off those words to a gape-mouthed Gordon Ramsay, she obviously had no idea just how many of the supposed saboteurs there would be. The Bouzaglos' belief that somehow Ramsay would vindicate their food and show up the "online bullies" once and for all had backfired on national television. Thousands of viewers took to the restaurant's social media sites to register their complaints.
And when it came to the way Amy and Samy responded to them, well, old habits die hard.
On Monday, May 13, three days after the show aired, the Bouzaglos fought back on Facebook with several anger-fueled posts written in a style and tone consistent with the responses they had used to address the handful of Yelp reviewers who had dared criticize their restaurant in the past. Sadly, it was difficult to tell just who was hating on whom. They ranted, they insulted and mocked, they hurled profanities, and they used up their lifetime allotment of all-caps and exclamation points.
Most pathetic of all, they threatened their critics on Yelp and Reddit with legal action ("bring it on") and taunts ("you are just trash").
"You are all little punks," one of the posts read. "Nothing. You are all nothing. We are laughing at you. All of you, just fools. We have God on our side, you just have your sites."
Within a matter of hours, the Internet erupted (again). Thousands upon thousands of comments poured into the Amy's Baking Company's social media sites (the restaurant's Facebook page now has over 90,000 "likes"), creating a mob that lashed out with a fury far greater than that of the Bouzaglos and that, depending on which comments you read, seemed bent on shifting the evolution of civility into reverse.
In the worst of them, Amy's mental health sarcastically was called into question and her physical appearance was jeered. She became the subject of explicit descriptions involving degrading and violent sexual acts, called names like "bitch," "whore," and "cunt," and her criminal record (she pleaded guilty to bank fraud in 2003 and served 14 months in jail after attempting to open a line of credit using someone else's Social Security number) was brought up time and time again.
Riding the Crazy Amy train suddenly wasn't any fun anymore. It was depressing.
On Tuesday, May 14, the day after they'd gone up, the Bouzaglos' angry Facebook rants and the deluge of reader replies vanished, and the following post took their place:
"Obviously our Facebook, YELP, Twitter and Website have been hacked. We are working with the local authorities as well as the FBI computer crimes unit to ensure this does not happen again. We did not post those horrible things. Thank You Amy & Samy"
Obviously? Was it so obvious that a woman who called a Yelp reviewer "ugly" and a "moron" and who heatedly fired on the spot a young woman (whom she later called a "poisonous little viper") on Kitchen Nightmares for asking Amy, "Are you sure?" wasn't capable of penning those earlier Facebook posts? Was it so hard to believe that her husband, a man whose temper suddenly was legendary (thanks to his willingness to reveal it on national television) and who had no issues with taking the tips of those who work for him, couldn't do the same?
Innocence is what the Bouzaglos wanted us to "obviously" believe. But given their unchanging behavior, including a line on a remaining Amy's Baking Company Facebook post from the couple that read, "We do not feel the need to make any excuses for our behavior on tonight's show" (were we ever looking for excuses in the first place?), their lack of guilt was a pill that proved too tough for many to swallow.
The mob remained angry, appalled, and dissatisfied — and the number of online comments continued to grow.
"Well, here I am at Amy's BakAAAAAAARRRGGGH SHE'S MURDERING ME SHE'S EATING MY EYES JESUS FUCK MY CHRIST AAAAAa;nfqkhb"
On May 14, that Tweet, sent by comedian/actor Patton Oswalt, joined in on the national schadenfreude, an ever-increasing onslaught of jabs, jokes, commentaries, and postulations from what seemed to be everyone else on the planet who, by now, knew of the Bouzaglos, Amy's Baking Company, and what appeared to be the most epic online meltdown in history.
For media outlets everywhere, it was the biggest (non-)news story of the year and, for marketing gurus, a real-world example of how not to manage your brand via social media. From the Washington Post, CBS News, and Forbes to food-focused web pages like Eater, The Braiser, and Epicurious to fringe websites like Buzzfeed, The Consumerist, and Videogum, everyone was (and still is) talking about Amy's. Even spiky-haired celebrity chef Guy Fieri, no stranger to Internet blow-ups himself (thanks to New York Times food critic Pete Wells' brutal, zero-star review of Fieri's Times Square restaurant) quipped on the Today show, "I'm actually in awe."
But the media aftermath following the Kitchen Nightmares episode and the Bouzaglos' public crash and burn on social media wasn't to be the last act of the show. On Wednesday, May 15, perhaps surprised by the national reaction — and realizing the futility of their attempted defense — or simply wanting to wage yet another battle in their unwinnable war — Amy and Samy enlisted a public relations firm to help them to try and clean up their self-imposed mess: Scottsdale-based Rose+Moser+Allyn Public & Online Relations. In fact, the moment the supposedly obvious "we've been hacked" post on the restaurant's Facebook page showed up, many smelled the work of a character as colorful and controversial as the Bouzaglos themselves.
More or less the Johnnie Cochran of public relations, RMA president Jason Rose specializes in high-profile clients in need of a good scrubbing and doesn't seem to mind getting a little dirt on himself in the process. He nudged an equally publicity-obsessed Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio into shilling for a restaurant called Pink Taco and twisted the campaign laws for some controversial and politically fueled Stingray Sushi ads. And when former Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon found himself in a compromising position with a campaign staffer, Rose was all too happy to help. Maseratis don't pay for themselves, you know.
"If they [Amy and Samy] came to us right now and said take us from six feet under to try and get us above ground again," Rose said on a radio interview with KDKB 93.3 FM hours, oddly enough, before his firm announced it had been hired by the Bouzaglos to represent their restaurant, "typically what you do is apology and contrition."
The day Rose took on Amy and Samy as his clients he announced the restaurant would be closed until a "Grand Re-Opening" of Amy's Baking Company on Tuesday, May 21. In a press release, the "sold-out event" — a kind of set-the-record-straight affair doubling as a press conference — promised that "customers will be able to decide who is correct: a celebrity chef or the marketplace that has supported the small, locally owned business for six years." The press release went on to say a portion of the grand re-opening's proceeds would be donated to an organization dedicated to combat the effects of cyber-bullying, a group who, thanks to the events of the past few weeks, had their work cut out for them.
"We are very upset by what has taken place," Samy was quoted as saying in the press release, "and apologize about the acrimony that has ensued, but now must fight back to save our business."
It was the first time we heard the word "apologize" from the Bouzaglos. Jason Rose may be a loudmouth who once was fired by Special Olympics for comparing "knucklehead" to someone with special needs, but the man knows what the people want to hear.
He also knows a juicy publicity stunt for his publicity company when he sees it. Just days after he took on Amy's Baking Company and the Bouzaglos as his clients, Rose unceremoniously dumped them at the bottom of a press release dated Monday, May 20. Amy and Samy had been "hated on" again. This time, by a slick-talking salesman who appears to have used them.
And Rose's last press release for Amy's Baking Company contained another nugget of interest: The press conference had been cancelled by the Bouzaglos due to legal threats from the producers of Kitchen Nightmares (the Bouzaglos signed contracts agreeing to not speak about the show publicly) and threats of a non-legal nature by — who else? — the "online bullies."
However, the press release went on to say, the restaurant's "Grand Re-Opening" (now referred to as a "Grand Re-Opening Week" but with the same objective) was still a go for May 21, and that more than 1,000 reservations had been made since the event was announced. (Check in at www.phxfood.com to see how that went.)
Not that most of us would bet on Rose's "grand re-opening" caper actually working. For one, it is too soon. A better idea might have kept the Bouzaglos laying low for a while, at least until memories started to fade or someone else took their place on the Internet's sensationalized throne of what-the-fuck?
More important, it may be too late. Honesty, sincerity, perhaps a little shame, and an apology or two are what we've always wanted from Amy and Samy. But from the start, they can't or won't or haven't felt the need to provide them. And we have made them pay dearly for it.
We want the truth. Maybe so that we can feel vindicated or get closure or find it in our hearts to forgive. But now, the idea of the truth feels as unreachable as the Bouzaglos themselves. What we want from people and what they are willing to give us are two different things. All we can control is ourselves. And let's face it — in the case of Amy's Baking Company and the Bouzaglos, many of us haven't done a very good job.
The other day, a fellow Michigan transplant and friend of mine sent me an e-mail when she heard I was writing about Amy's Baking Company. She told me she had eaten there a few times, so I asked her about her experiences.
"Food at ABC was unremarkable," she wrote. "They were never busy."
I posed the question to her because I had never eaten at Amy's Baking Company. I never had any reason to. In the five years since it opened, the food, not one single dish, ever got the slightest bit of must-try buzz, Chow Bella never profiled Amy Bouzaglo as a noteworthy chef, and as far as making a difference in the Valley's food scene, well, Amy's Baking Company simply didn't.
My friend's recollection about Amy's Baking Company might have been brief, but in the end, it may be the one truth we can take away in all of this. That Amy's Baking Company is, and always has been, just another in a sea of forgettable Valley restaurants.
Everything else hardly matters.
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