Food Fight, Part 2

Careful, New Yorkers, with your attitude -- you might get busted

Attention New Yorkers: Never underestimate Miami. Don't put down its people. Try not to sneer at what you don't comprehend. Use the idea of superiority to describe our weather and our beaches; don't apply it to your attitude. The only patronizing we want you to do is in our shops and restaurants.

Otherwise you just might find yourself arrested.

The credo that many New Yorkers seem to carry off the plane with them like miniature bags of pretzels -- good to pull out only when you're really desperate -- is that while they might deign to visit this southern, subtropical 'burb to escape Nor'easters and the like, nothing in this town measures up to the wintry comforts of home. The gastronomically minded are particularly vocal in this aspect. Our chefs are uniformly second-rate; never mind that many of them came from New York City and operate sibling restaurants there. The sophistication in our upper-echelon eateries matches only to the midlevel joints of Manhattan, and can you believe that guy just answered his cell phone at the table? How gauche. And bluntly, service lacks any sort of customer-relations know-how. Oh, okay: Agreed.

Yet I get distressed when New Yorkers come down here with chips on their shoulders the size of pads on a linebacker. Whenever I'm a guest on Linda Gassenheimer's WLRN-FM (91.3) radio show, someone invariably calls in with, "I just moved here from New York and I can't find anywhere good to eat." Visitors from out of town, even my closest friends, have had the poor manners to be surprised that places like Norman's actually serve edible, let alone award-winning, modern cuisine.

My culinary colleagues are the worst, as I recently discovered at the Restaurant Critics Versus Restaurateurs seminar at the South Beach Wine & Food Festival. Although two of the restaurateurs own a good deal of property down here, all three ran places in New York. In addition the two other critics were both from New York-based publications. So while the panel was designed to be a confrontation between reviewers and proprietors about the purpose of restaurant critics, I found myself defending the position that New York is not the only place of international gastronomic merit, where critics count and restaurateurs quake; I heard myself continually countering the unspoken opinion that every restaurant that operates in another part of the country is merely indulging in a dress rehearsal so it can go to New York. In fact nearly every comment made was prefaced with, "Well, in New York ..." and qualified with "It's different in New York than it is down here [Miami]." Some gems:Restaurateur Tony Goldman, on how long a restaurant should be open before it's reviewed: "Ideally if you could have the two to four weeks, that is really what a restaurateur hopes for, so that you are really honed and experienced at what you do. Not unlike Broadway shows that work out in Boston and Hartford before they come to New York so that they can work through their systems. We don't have that exact luxury."

Me: "Those shows that open in Boston ... get reviewed by the local critics -- on opening night."

Goldman: "But they don't get reviewed by the New York Times and the main game."

Esquire magazine restaurant critic John Mariani, on the influence of a negative restaurant review: "I know of restaurants that a critic gave a very poor review and people who have been going there for years for every single week suddenly turn to each other and say, “I guess it's not very good anymore,' because the New York Times or Esquire or New York magazine said it's not very good ... that's stupid on the public's part."

Mariani on the star system: "Every paper or magazine I know that uses a star system -- Esquire does not, New York magazine does not -- one star means ..."

Me (inserting): "and we [New Times] don't, thanks."

Mariani (without missing a beat): "... one star means good."

New York magazine restaurant critic Hal Rubenstein, on the usefulness of the Zagat Survey: "The New York guide is a great reference. The Miami one sucks ... It's very strong in New York, and it's not very strong down here."

Not really the opinion of the editor for the Miami Zagat Survey, Victoria Pesce Elliott, who was sitting in the audience. Elliott later discovered that the edition Rubenstein was criticizing -- mainly because it didn't contain his favorite restaurant Icebox Café -- was three years old, about as old as the café.

So as a critic for a weekly non-New York newspaper or two where "local" is a four-letter word, I'm not in the club, I guess. As a matter of fact were it not for my big mouth, I would've been damn near invisible. And I'll still be the first one to say it: We can't compete with New York, gastronomically speaking or otherwise. But we shouldn't have to. New York and Miami are not cities separated at birth; New Yorkers and Miamians, regardless of how many relatives and connections there are between us, do not share the same designer-label brain. We were founded by different peoples with a separate variety of concerns, and these roots reflect in how our cities are both populated and managed today.

Actually I find Rubenstein in particular to be candid, quick-witted, and well-read (despite the fact that he reviews restaurants non-anonymously, a big problem). But it is precisely his comprehension of himself as an erudite New Yorker -- notwithstanding his snowbird status via a condo on West Avenue and his past stints as critic for Ocean Drive -- that may have led him to try and highhandedly push his way past a cop into the Dom Perignon-sponsored Grand Tasting Tent following the seminar. Which in turn contributed to Sgt. Carlos Devarona throwing him over an all-terrain vehicle and yanking him away in handcuffs.

The charge? Well, that depends on whom you ask. Originally, sources tell me it was going to be a felony along the lines of assaulting a police officer, and that the 51-year-old Rubenstein was headed for at least a 24-hour stay in the downtown jail after a brief stop at the Miami Beach police station. But timely intervention by festival director Lee Brian Schrager and a couple of well-placed phone calls to the chief of police Don De Lucca and the city manager resulted in a misdemeanor charge of disorderly conduct; a two-hour holding session while Schrager and South Beach Wine & Food Festival publicity director Terry Zarikian negotiated for his release; and eventually a breakfast meeting the following morning during which Rubenstein apologized and the charges were formally dropped.

No one seems to know for sure exactly what happened. According to the police report, Rubenstein contends that people behind him were pushing, that folks in front were motioning for him to come forward, and that Devarona was caught in the middle. Devarona writes that the “'Defendant refused to remove himself from the entrance ... The defendant stated he was `VIP' and pushed this officer to the side in an attempt to enter.''

Rubenstein also adds that he thought the off-duty cop who'd been hired by festival directors was a security guard, and that he'd never take on an officer of the law. I doubt, however, Rubenstein would manhandle a mere security guard in New York, where they grow “em bigger and better along with everything else -- this is indeed where the obstinate belief that Miami is a bush-league outpost can get you into trouble.

Eyewitnesses are not entirely convinced Rubenstein got physical with Devarona. Rubenstein's partner, following the arrest, ran after the officers dragging Rubenstein away crying, "He didn't do anything! I'm the one who pushed the cop!" Restaurateur Drew Nieporent was standing behind Rubenstein when the incident occurred. "There were two lines," he recollects. "People were going in on the left, but on the right, people were getting stopped. Hal was on the right, and his friend was on the left. His friend went through. The police officer on the right stopped Hal, at which point Hal told him he was VIP. The officer said, “I don't care who you are,' and put his hands on Hal to stop him from entering. Hal said, “Get your hands off me,' and pushed through, clearly unnerving the cop."

The result was that Rubenstein was dragged out of the line and rather violently slammed onto the ATV so that other cops who materialized seemingly out of the sand could cuff him. This is the part I actually witnessed, which was shocking and completely unexpected -- I'd been bantering with this man only a few minutes before, and certainly, while I couldn't agree with some of his views, I never felt threatened by him.

Apparently, though, Devarona did. And you can't exactly fault him for his actions. Devarona is five feet nine. Rubenstein is six feet four, and his partner looks even bigger, with a musculature that obviously comes from years in a gym. When the officer opened the gate, the crowd, who'd paid $80 apiece for tickets and who'd been waiting for 40 minutes under the South Beach sun, surged forward. Crowd control was obviously a priority, but when the cops tried to close the gate, no one seemed willing to obey. Had Rubenstein successfully bowled over Devarona, there was every chance of a stampede or riot of some sort.

Fault for that can partly be laid at the sandy door of partygoers, who were fraudulently turning purple wristbands inside-out to display their white sides -- white wristbands were reserved for VIP guests, who were permitted to enjoy the Grand Tasting an hour before the general public was to be allowed.

And of course festival directors can assume some responsibility. Says freelance photojournalist Susan Pierres, "The one major snafu I found was the organization's failure to issue badges or passes to invited participants, guests, and the press. [On Sunday at the Tasting Tent], no one seemed in charge of checking through honored guests, sending many scurrying back and forth in the sand under the hot sun trying to get admitted."

"It was hot and confusing," Nieporent agrees.

But Schrager readily admits that this inaugural festival was a learning experience. "Are there things I will do differently next year? Hundreds," he states, citing parking as one of his biggest obstacles. Forthcoming solutions, he says, may include shuttles from the Omni and similar venues.

Schrager also acknowledges that Rubenstein isn't the only one whose smug assumptions tend to dismiss this city. It took Schrager six visits -- "flying up on my own dollar" -- to convince national sponsors like Food & Wine magazine to participate. "They just didn't believe we could do it," Schrager shrugs. Among the positive responses he received, one was from Food & Wine editor Dana Cowin, whose magazine sponsors the Aspen Food & Wine Classic. "She was wowed," he says.

Even "Miami underestimated Miami," he adds. He finally convinced city officials to close Ocean Drive only a week before the festival, which attracted nearly 7000 guests, 4000 of whom attended the Grand Tasting alone. "Can you imagine what it would have been like, with cars roaring up and down and hoodlums shouting obscenities?" he asks.

As for its content, I know that Schrager is aware that more local talent needs to be involved in the festival next year. "I want the Michael Schwartes, the Willis Loughheads, the Elizabeth Barlows involved in the planning of the event. I'm going to need help," he says. But overall the event, from the beach barbecue at the Delano on Friday night to the Grand Tasting on Sunday night, was a phenomenal success. Every dinner and seminar was a sellout. And while we are all exhausted from it, organization for next year's event is already under way.

Still, "I'm sorry for Hal," Schrager sums up. "I know he feels I should have done more." Not something Rubenstein's partner should have done, however. He returned with Rubenstein to the festival after the critic was released one hour and twenty-one minutes later -- a brave and worldly thing to do -- and "was very emotional. I asked him to leave. I felt bad, but the last thing I needed was to be punched out at my own party."

If it weren't for Schrager, Rubenstein would be facing much graver charges right now. As Drew Nieporent notes, "You can't put your hands on a cop. Hal was fired up from the [seminar]; he was on a high a little bit. Normally it's my way to get involved but clearly the police officer had felt that he'd crossed the line."

It isn't the first time he crossed it. The night before, I'm told, Rubenstein shoved a regular patron, who was walking back into Ortanique on the Mile, out of his path so that he and his party, which included New York Times writer and seminar moderator Florence Fabricant, could enter. "Ladies first," he reportedly snarled. Talk about putting the pushy in New Yorker. But perhaps he's learned an invaluable lesson -- the next time Rubenstein wants to gamble with getting away with condescension, he can go to Fort Lauderdale.

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