Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Home cooking with Ferran Adrià, Google UK HQ


On Tuesday 27th September Ferran Adrià will be in London to promote his new book, The Family Meal: Home cooking with Ferran Adrià. In celebration of this, we would love to invite you to join a family meal at the Google Building from 12.00pm to 14.00pm with Ferran who will be dishing the meal up, followed by a talk from him to discuss the importance of a family meal.

Sounds like fun, doesn't it? I realise my own relationship with Adrià's work is slightly more complicated than some, but only a fool would dismiss the massive impact - for better or for worse - El Bulli has had on the way people eat in restaurants. And having tried the best - and worst - of the experimental chef's product in Spain (and only just lived to tell the tale), I was genuinely interested to see what he could do for more humble dishes. True, I'm no hard-boiled Ferran Adrià fanboy, but I like a Caesar salad as much as the next man, and trotted off to Victoria with high hopes. What could go wrong?

The answer, in case you're wondering, was more or less everything. Firstly, it turns out there are two 'Google Buildings', a fact we (that is, myself and the small gang of food writers and bloggers invited along that day) were only alerted to once we had cleared security and been given sticky name tags at the wrong one. Once we'd trooped 100 yards up the road to the correct building, cleared security for a second time, been given a different plastic badge and herded into a glass lift to the 1st floor for yet another security routine then the 3rd (no sign of any stairs), it was all starting to get a bit stressful.


I realised I was losing my appetite (shocking, I know) and couldn't at first quite put my finger on why; then it struck me. The whole experience, the visitors' pass, the unfamiliar strip-lit corridors, the awkward procession past office workers queuing hungrily for lunch while you tried to avoid eye contact, it was like waiting for an interview. I'm sure the original idea of having Adria's food served in an office canteen made vague utilitarian sense, but the reality of it was unpleasant and oppressive - nobody eats at an office canteen out of choice, they all have to be there. This is not a comfortable, restaurant environment. This is high school.



Shown to a reserved table right under the noses of queuing Google staff, we were told food would start arriving in five minutes, and patiently waited. A good twenty minutes later, with no sign of anything happening, one of our party got up to see if he could find anyone in charge, and after disappearing over the far end of the canteen came back with news that Adrià along with various other far more important (I don't mean that to sound too cynical - I'm quite aware of food bloggers' position in the grand pecking order) top-flight PR people and journalists were having their own private Adrià-time, and we had essentially been forgotten. Not long before I decided to give the whole thing up and sulk off home, someone eventually appeared with the news that, in fact, we needed to queue up for food after all, and after rather embarrassingly herding us towards the front of the lunch line (the people behind us were either used to this kind of thing happening or hid their frustration very well), we started loading our greasy plastic trays with salads and charcuterie.



Objectively, I think the food was quite nice. It's probably not the greatest compliment in the world to say it's the best work canteen lunch I've ever had, but I should, in all fairness, give them that much. The lamb kebabs were moist but under seasoned, the risotto was diabolical (you could have used it as an industrial sealant) and most of the "hot" food... wasn't, but I liked the Italian ham selection and the breads (neither of which Adria had anything to do with) and there was a very nice fresh lime and guava drink to wash it all down with. But by this stage, the battle had been lost and I found it very hard to ignore the fact that there we were, on the "bloggers table", left to pick up our own lunch well out of sight of where the real action was happening, surrounded by hundreds of Google employees presumably rather nonplussed that a PR company had chosen to feature their lunch break as part of some kind of ironic office-themed book launch.

Now, in many ways, food bloggers have it easy - possibly way too easy. We write what we want, when we want to, we get offered free meals, we (very occasionally) get sent on fancy press trips with goodie bags and kitchen tours and flattered with attention from PRs and restaurants. The downside, such as there is one, is that we do it all for free - just for the sheer nerdy, obsessive love of it, but there are certainly worse ways to spend your free time. And I can understand why anyone reading this would think I have no right to moan about yet another gratis lunch being not quite up to scratch, I mean, who cares? Certainly not Adria, whose (very good in fact) book will no doubt be a huge success, and certainly not anyone too high up at the PR company in question, who accused me of throwing my "toys out of the pram" when frustration got the better of me and I tweeted about what a miserable time I was having.

But the point is, there are better ways of going about these things. I've been to some PR events where proceedings have dissolved into complete shambles from the very first moment but they've still been great fun thanks to just a general sense of graciousness and hospitality. It's not about the fact we had to wait around, it wasn't so much the disappointing food or the sterile (and, if I'm going to be honest, rather culty) atmosphere at Google HQ, it was the feeling that we weren't really needed or fulfilling any kind of noticeable role. And maybe we weren't, but as I say, at least try and pretend we were - or don't bother inviting us in the first place. "We thought you'd be grateful", was the defensive response from one of the PR people when we voiced our annoyance at having been left to our own devices in a staff canteen for the best part of an hour and a half. "I know", I thought.

Anyway, apologies for the protracted rant on issues that affect no more than a handful of people in London, and I promise normal service will be resumed as soon as possible. The happy fact is, most of the PR people I have contact with are enthusiastic, knowledgable and thoroughly competent. For every incident like the above there are hundreds that are a joy to be involved with and whatever you might think about the consequences of bloggers (and journalists for that matter) getting too close to PR companies, when the relationship works, it's to everyone's benefit. And yours, dear reader, too - I picked up a copy of The Family Meal from one of the friendlier PRs today (well of course I did, I may be ungrateful but I'm not stupid), and I shall donate it to someone picked at random from the comments on this post. As ever, agreement, argument, abuse and lunacy all gratefully received.

39 comments:

Camilla said...

Rarely comment (and not doing so for the freebie!) but always read, and this struck a chord. I can't quite believe you were treated this way... I actually felt on edge and uncomfortable the whole time I was reading this, let alone being there in person. The invite list should have no 'tier one' and 'tier two' groups, in my eyes everyone is equal at the events we hold.

Big shame, but hopefully it's quite rare.

And don't worry, you won't have to pour your own beer at the BrewDog Camden launch :)

Cam

Gavin said...

You're a dreadful freeloader Pople. If it's not scotch eggs then it's hi-tech canteen scoff. Don't think you ever pay for a meal at all. Shocking.

Can I have the free book please?

Jonathan Crooks said...

Oh dear Chris really dont understand why you attended, or for that matter why they invited Bloggers if they were going to treat you in such a dismissive way .

rc33a said...

Just to clarify, was Adria 'cooking' lunch for the whole canteen, or were you being served a special meal, or are your food related comments related to the standard google employee canteen food?

Chris said...

R33a: Good point, and one I should have been clearer on. Adria wasn't cooking but the canteen was serving (some) ecipes from the book. I don't know if it's a permanent arrangement but I'm guessing not.

G said...

Those trays look distinctly odd... As you said, if you're not going to pay attention to food bloggers, why invite them? If you've invited someone to something like that, presumably you want to make a good impact so they will write something good. Now whether that is a journo from the Observer food section or a blogger, you can't complain if someone says the experience is poor.

Ridiculous.

Pavel said...

I would love to see Adria in a hair net serving up canteen slop.

Sad but true I don't much like this kind of event and I try to avoid them unless I'll know someone there or there is booze on tap. Both ideally...

Make an event fun for all concerned and I guarantee you'll get better copy from all concerned. Simple non?

Rob said...

What an odd day - sounds so disappointing. The tech nerd in me would love the Google angle, and obviously the food nerd would appreciate the chance to meet Adria... but it just sounds... so awkward!

Sally - My Custard Pie said...

I read this with great interest. The United Arab Emirates food blogger scene is growing at a super fast pace and is really exciting. A few PR companies have decided that it might be a good idea to talk to us and some events have been exceptionally good. Other requests show that they don't really know what to make of us all. I think that if you are inviting bloggers along that they should be treated the same as the journalists (or don't invite them). There is no guarantee that a publication will write something or indeed just publish uncritical views so they are courted. The same goes for a blogger - why should it be any different. With the trust and word of mouth currency that the blogger audience delivers it makes no sense at all for them to treat you as if you'd be grateful. And treated with a modicom of respect you probably would be. Thanks for sharing this.

Ino said...

What a shame that the PR people were too lazy to do this properly. They clearly thought that having some bloggers around will be enough to get some nice reviews, but the whole situation sounds incredibly awkward. There's no such thing as a free lunch etc.

(Btw, you can leave me out of the draw for the book as I've already spent money on it. It is indeed pretty good.)

Patrick said...

The tweet from Jo Barnes and your reply are hilarious

Patrick said...

The tweet from Jo Barnes and your reply is hilarious

Kavey said...

I too get that PRs may wish to prioritise professional journalists over bloggers. Given their readerships and reach, it makes statistical sense. However, if the PR company wanted to apply a two tier approach, they would surely have been better either hosting two separate events, or inviting bloggers to attend just the speech part of the event.

Leaving them sitting ignored for an age, whilst the VIPs were schmoozed and interacting with the Adria, does seem an immense cock up.

And, really, a PR ought to have better control of his/ her temper than to publicly tweet the toys out of the pram comment.

If (more than one) of the event guests are so pissed off they are tweeting negatively about it, it's down to her company's failure to get it right and to manage it properly when they find out.

Petulance on her part just adds insult to injury really, doesn't it?

Such a shame.

Entering your book competition. Though how will I compete should the lovely Eva wade in to defend your honour? ;P

Lizzie said...

Oh dear; it sounds excruciating. Google are famed for their canteen; I bet the google staff thought you were right prats ;)

It's pretty shitty for them to obviously split you up; either do two different events or leave the bloggers out. Lazy.

theundergroundrestaurant said...

Why the fuck wasn't I invited? I guess I'm C list?
Actually I had this experience with the Waitrose cookery school. I live nearby but couldn't go on the night in question.
I asked the PR if I could go on another night and she said, there is another night but I'm afraid that's for print press.
I thought that was stupid tactically because I'm a local and actually am far more likely to write about it for my very foodie motivated audience than say, a print press journalist who might give it a line or two to a generalised audience.

Siobhan C said...

I'm sorry...I still can't get past why it was even held at Google HQ. Do the employees live there too? If so, that might lend more weight to your feelings of the place being 'culty'.

Gregory said...

Not that I get invited to freebie gigs like this but surely if you hold an event in a canteen, everyone should get that same experience. That expectation should have been set.

If the PR company want to serve the meal to VIPs, go to a restaurant or private room. I cannot think of anything more insulting for the staff who were probably looking forward to this improvement over their regular dining experience. By the sounds of things the bloggers also got to share that feeling.

How long before there is a PR gig at a soup kitchen where the needy are pushed aside for the VIPs ?

and if PRs think it is OK to respond like that in the public domain perhaps they are in the wrong profession.

Gin and Crumpets said...

I'm enjoying the image Pavel has whisked up of Adria in a hair net and tabard standing behind the canteen serving hatch with a ladle.

PRs are funny beasts. Clearly they thought the bloggers should be grateful to simply be in the same room/quite near Adria and would write starry-eyed pieces about the incredibly hip way they used a canteen as a launch space (for a book about home cooking. Little bit of cognitive dissonance there).

They forgot that food bloggers don't need PRs. If PRs stop inviting bloggers to events then bloggers will just go to restaurants, shops and markets and write about them. Maybe they'll talk to the chefs/producers themselves, without the PR middleman setting up a falsely exciting gateway. Maybe they don't even want to talk to the chefs/producers.

And because the only limits on bloggers are legal, no career-enabling obligation to schmooze and scratch backs, inviting them to event and then making it clear they're crowd fodder, expected to low their unthinking fanboy praise however they're treated, seems very stupid indeed.

I think they need to crack open their Machiavelli and have a strategy rethink.

Cupcake Kelly said...

What an odd event! What was the point of having it in the canteen at the same time the hoards of employees were trying to eat lunch?

SAMMY said...

I have absolutely no sympathy for you, I had to eat from my own work canteen today which I'm sure isn't a patch on Googles on a bad day, having said that I was just reading the comment about Brewdog Camden and I'm excited by that, off to do some internet research

Mathew Crawford said...

I was at Google yesterday (as a guest) and I must say your review is harsh to say the least!!!!
The food and service was very good especially taking in to account the volume of people who were trying to get served.

Žiupsnelisdruskos said...

Gosh, that sounds dreadful. So often - just because you're 'a blogger' - people assume that you'd be happy to do stuff for free ('write us an article in exchange of EXPOSURE' or 'pass on the PR message in exchange for.. hm.. mediocre office lunch'). And since there's so many of us - there will always be someone to say YES.. Oh well. Live and learn :)

Hugh Wright said...

Ah, truly nothing better demonstrates one's protest at such appalling, scandalous, disrespectful treatment as still taking the free book.

Surely if you wanted to find Adria in the Google building you could have just 'searched' for him?

And I do hope that as you tearfully stormed from the building in your Ozymandian fury you did the Yahoo yodel just to really drive the point home...

Henry said...

'The culty atmosphere'you're quite right.And there is no one over the age of 35 - it's like Logan's Run. The non Ferran Adria food is excellent when I've been presumably so that the staff don't leave and mix with the norms.

Henry

Andrew Stevenson said...

All sounds a bit weird. Though like Jonathan Crooks says above, my first thought was whether the A-list attenders got Adria food, while you just got Google's ordinary canteen food.
Sounds like a bit of a cock-up by the PR company. Even if you were chucking toys out of your pram, that's only because mummy-PR wasn't rocking your pram and going "cootchy-cootchy coo" to keep you entertained.

My guess is that the PR co. had allotted somebody to look after your group who got too star-struck and spent the time gazing into Adria's eyes, instead of letting you know what's going on.

I'm also surprised that Google needs two buildings in London. What on earth do all the people do? Not sort out the problems I'm having with Android marketplace, that's for sure.

GinGoddess said...

Hmm! Give some highly articulate, motivated people, who have access to (an) audience(s), a noticeable second rate experience - did they not think you would complain.
Surely the point of using a PR agency to host such an event is that they spot the potential train wrecks in advance.
That said, would have loved to have been there.

Matt said...

I look forward to complaining about my free book when I win it.
HURRAH!

Helen @ Fuss Free Flavours said...

It does all sound a little odd.

My main PR observations are a) remember that bloggers talk to each other, so everyone has a good idea of what is going on. b) When I feature your client on my site, and e-mail you to say the post is up then I do appreciate a response. c) I am busy and I generally do not have a 24 hour turnaround on things.

Gastro1 said...

Bloody scouser

Mr Noodles said...

This is a tough one to call as to who is right and who is wrong.

Of the very few PR do's I, myself, have been to, there has been segregation between journos and bloggers. That didn't bother me, as I was looked after.

What was wrong in your case was that you were ignored. That is wrong.

But ultimately, the peeps I feel sorry for were the Google workers.

federilli said...

Oh Chris! You are welcome to come and try my work canteen any day. It's rubbish but there's no queue and no PR pushing you around... Don't worry about the book. I'm sure there are loads more worthy people commenting here. I saw Adria a few months ago...hes interesting but nothing more. Give me Heston any time....

Leigh said...

Wow - you guys are pretty lucky!!

dansumption said...

Ouch! Sorry to hear about your less-than-ideal experience. I was there too (in fact, you can see me in your second photo - in the grey shirt and glasses), purely by coincidence - I'd arranged months ago with a friend who works at Google that I would visit the canteen on the day. So it was a lovely surprise for me to get the Adria treatment (although not so lovely to have to queue for an hour). I can't help but agree with your conclusion: it was the loveliest canteen meal I have ever eaten.

dudara said...

What a spectacularly bad choice of location. Google is a company that deliberately uses a good canteen as a staff lure to encourage people to work late and stay in the workplace well past regular working hours. Read the Google story to learn more about the canteen in their first campus.

The PR company should be hanging their collective heads in shame. That tweet was a perfect example of how to behave unprofessionally with your client - and yes, the food bloggers were clients, even if they weren't the ones engaging the PR company.

Matt said...

I may not be a blogger, a PR person or a journo but I still love reading about incompetence! Brilliant post, as ever.

Telesto said...

Whatever the causes of the situation, the PR people handled it spectacularly badly. Even if there was no actual a and b list, there was certainly the perception of one from the way you were treated.

I'm shocked at the front of the PR woman's tweet, subsequent attempts to blame it on journalists overrunning and not the PR team's incompetence, and also trying to make out like they thought you actually wanted to be left unattended for ages. That's some serious PR fail right there - shit happens but it's PR's job to smooth things over, not get defensive and start blaming others (especially print journos running over!!)

Would love a cookbook too :-)

ibakewithout.com said...

Blimey. "love" the assumption these people have that if you are there for free (even though they obviously did ask you if you wanted to go) then they can treat you how they please. Then that woman's bitchy tweet. Sod 'em.

Am off to look up said book that I would love to win (but probably won't!) ;)

Chris said...

OK! Thanks everyone so much for your comments. I just used random.org to pick a random number from 1 to 37 (the total number of comments), and it came up with:

28

...which as far as I can tell is Helen @ Fuss Free Flavours! So well done Helen and if you email me your address I'll send it over to you.

Matt said...

Fuck me. One out.