Monday Morning Agitator

Steven Shaw’s Unusual Code of Ethics

When I woke up on Friday morning and logged onto my Facebook homepage, I noticed that the food writer/pastry chef, David Lebovitz, had posted a link to a food blog that is written by someone who goes by the name of the Accidental Hedonist. The reason for the link was an article called, “Do Food Bloggers Need a Code of Ethics?" Being a food blogger, I was more than a bit interested in the subject so I clicked through. It turned out that the article was discussing a new “Code of Ethics" which was being proposed by Steven Shaw at eGullet. I have to say, seeing the source of the code made me laugh because based on my own experiences, Steven Shaw might be one of the least ethical people that I have met in the world of food.

Like my relationship with some of the other Grand Poobah’s on the Internet that I write about, and who I don’t get along with, it is only fair to disclose that there is bad blood between Shaw and myself. And while I no longer harbor the same degree of ill feelings towards him that I once did, two recent incidents caused me to believe that Shaw still harbors significant ill feelings towards me. The first had to do with the OA Dining Survey. After years of not speaking to Shaw (we used to be friendly) I emailed him and told him that I was looking for survey participants, and if he could help me find them I would be happy to make a “tidy donation" to eG. Not surprisingly he turned me down, though in true Shaw style, he tried to make it seem like it was someone else’s decision. I guess they must be rolling in dough over there.

But the second incident was sort of an eye-opener. Over the past year I made friends with someone who works at a Michelin 3-star restaurant. Unbeknownst to me, this person had arranged for the restaurant’s website to link to my blog. Shortly after the link went up, someone at eGullet called the restaurant and asked them “why do you want to get involved with Plotnicki?" Now I haven’t had anything to do with eG for a long time, and at this point in time I hardly know anyone there except Shaw. But can you imagine the level of malice that needs to exist in order to make a call for the sole purpose of interfering with someone else’s business relationship when it has zero effect on you? It would be one thing if, in the context of a conversation about me, you say that you think I’m a creep, but quite another to make a special effort to pick up the phone. As my dear, departed mother would say about the person who made that call," they should get hit by lightning."

Anyway, getting back to Shaw being the person to propose a code of ethics for bloggers; let me recount the story of how Opinionated About came into existence. It’s a rather amusing story so sit back, get a pillow and a cold beer (or maybe a glass of mature white Burgundy if you read OA on a regular basis) and enjoy yourself. It was the middle of January in 2003 I believe. I was in France attending a wine fair in Cote Rotie, and I was in my hotel room in Lyon. I logged onto eGullet to see what people were talking about, and a brouhaha about the restaurant Otto had erupted. The restaurant had opened the week before, and Shaw (he used to describe himself as “Fat Guy" at the time) had raved about the place. In fact to say that his Fatness was gushing was an understatement. I don’t have the piece in front of me but from what I remember he was so ebullient about the pizza that he drew comparisons to pizza in Italy and in particular to Sardinian flat bread.

Because of Shaw’s review, legions of OA members began making the trek down to Otto in order to try the pizza, and to a person, they trashed it, calling it things like “cardboard" and “stale pita bread." Now disagreements about food, even strong ones, are not unusual on the Internet. But there was something about this fracas that was different. How could it be that Shaw was comparing Otto’s pizza with the best that Italy had to offer, while everyone else thought that it could be the worst pizza they had ever tasted? Well it didn’t take long to find out. If I recall it correctly, it was Suvir Saran, who now owns Devi, and who was a moderator at eGullet at the time, who disclosed that on the afternoon of the day Otto opened, Shaw had obtained three hours of exclusive access to Mario Batali in the restaurant’s kitchen.

Now you are free to reach your own conclusion about those facts. I don’t know whether Shaw gave Otto a good review as a quid pro quo for the access to Batali, or whether he just has bad taste in food and he couldn’t tell that the pizza was crap. But because he didn’t disclose all of the facts it smacked of impropriety, especially in light of how his opinion was contradicted by everyone else who went to the restaurant. But what made the discussion reel out of control was Shaw’s response when he was confronted with the facts: He claimed that he had done nothing wrong and that he didn’t need to disclose any of it. It was a strange position to take, especially because he was always lecturing everyone on journalistic ethics. Had he simply said that he made a mistake and disclosing it would have been the right thing to do, the issue would have gone away. But his answer made it seem like he was trying to cover something up, and to all of us who are old enough to have lived through Watergate will tell you, the cover-up is often worse than the crime.

Within a few months after this happened, and continuing for some times afterwards, a steady procession of the people who had been involved in the Otto discussion, and who participated in a manner that could be considered detrimental to Shaw, were thrown off of eGullet. Can I tell you with absolute certainty that the cause of their banishment was their questioning of Shaw’s integrity? No I can’t. Nor can I tell you that there weren’t other reasons, either business or personal, that Shaw might have wanted to have gotten rid of us. There were disputes with Shaw about a number of things, including an incident where one of the moderators acted in a dastardly manner, and where Shaw appeared to engineer a cover-up of the person’s identity (it’s a fantastic story that I will save for another day.) But that’s how it looked. And it didn’t help Shaw that after things died down, he was accused of “cleansing the thread" by editing out the parts of various posts that would be detrimental to his reputation. Within three months after this incident occurred, so many people had been terminated, or just fed up with what was going on at eGullet, that OA was born.

The thing about people who lack integrity is that they are like lightning: They strike multiple times. And from time to time, various OA members would come onto the site and tell some doozie of a story about Shaw that smacked of a lack of integrity. But the one story that had all of us fascinated was Shaw’s review of the restaurant Mix. You remember Mix, that abomination of a restaurant which was a partnership between Alain Ducasse and Jeffrey Chodorow (it was located where Kobe Club is located today.) If you read Shaw’s review of the restaurant, and how he raved about certain dishes, you would think that the restaurant’s chef, Doug Psaltis, was the next coming of Pierre Gagnaire. But like with Otto, everyone else thought the food at Mix was total crap. And guess what? It turned out that Shaw’s literary agent was Doug Psaltis’s brother. Gee what a coincidence. And was it also a coincidence that one afternoon, not long after, Shaw received special access to Alain Ducasse at his restaurant in the Essex House? You can make up your own mind about what it all means, but needless to say, when the truth came out, Shaw, to the astonishment of everyone who was reading along, claimed that he wasn’t required to disclose any of those details when he published his review.

If you are still sitting on the fence in regards to the issue of Shaw’s integrity, maybe the next piece of information will make you feel differently. OA is a closed discussion forum, and before you can read or post on the site, I have to approve your membership. Well one day I woke up and found that that Robert Buxbaum, better known as Bux, had registered to become a member. Bux had been one of the founders and original moderators of eGullet, and to describe him as one of Shaw’s henchmen is more than fair (he has since passed away.) So what was Bux doing joining OA? Well, before I approved his registration I emailed him to inquire as to what motivated him to register for the forum. His entire response is too long to post here, but it didn’t take him very long to bring up Shaw;

Steven of course (meaning Shaw), is using, or, more properly, misusing eG for his own career and profit. Naively, I gave him more credit. You and others better understood his nature. It may be that I am less like either you or Steven than you two are like each other. So you may understand each other better."

Later in the email, Bux brought up Michael Psaltis, Shaw’s literary agent, and claimed that he had wrongly posted under an alias on eGullet. I couldn’t tell from his email whether he was accusing Psaltis of posting in an inappropriate manner in order to get information for the controversial expose that his brother wrote about the restaurant industry after he was fired from his job at Mix, and/or whether Shaw knew what was going on at the time it was happening. But as you will see from Bux’s email, there was something in those posts that had the potential to be embarrassing for Psaltis, and possibly Shaw, which eventually made Steven take action:

I don't want to get too long winded here, but let me ask if you are at all familiar with Michael Psaltis' history of posting (under an assumed name) on eGullet years before that pack of lies he wrote with his brother was published. I have the complete thread and would be willing to share it with you. It was Steven who deleted it from the site to protect everyone's image. Sadly, only a few people can corroborate that M. Psaltis was the poster and there's no hard evidence, although I haven't searched all my old mail on an old computer. There's much I can share that I believe is outside any nondisclosure or other privacy agreement, but I also find that negativity is a dangerous force that backfires more often than it has any success."

You never know whether to believe people or not in these types of situations, but my gut told me that Bux was telling the truth. First of all, I knew the guy a little bit and the pain he was feeling seemed to be genuine. He had been hurt by the way he had been treated by Shaw, and he was honestly disgusted with the way that Shaw was misusing his position at eGullet. But more importantly, his story was entirely consistent with my own dealings with Shaw, as well as the dealings that others had reported on.

To be honest with you, I don’t really understand any of it. Shaw had to know that the truth would come out eventually, and he would he look bad when it did. And while speculating about motivations isn’t the point of this article, various theories, ranging from conceit, hubris, low self esteem which manifests itself in the creation of a situation where he is eventually exposed, along with the more benign theory that Shaw is merely a foodie groupie who loses the ability to be objective when he gets unique access to a chef, have been offered as explanations for what comes off as deceitful behavior. But regardless of which theory you subscribe to, now you understand my astonishment at seeing that Shaw feels he’s the appropriate person to implement a blogger code of ethics. It’s sort of like Bernie Madoff proposing that he should be the one to write the new disclosure guidelines for the SEC and expecting people to take him seriously.

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05/11/2009 | Comments (9)