sotto terra
Dear Food Diary:

So a couple weeks ago, I get the invite above. I’ve seen George Duran on the Food Network and was excited to see what new foodie project they had in mind. The words “intimate Italian restaurant”, “delicious four course meal” and “sangria” tickled my appetite. I accepted immediately. To hype it even more, I was told that this “exclusive” underground restaurant was only open for 5 days. Not only was I allowed to bring a guest, but they offered my readers a dinner for two though a giveaway.
sotto terra 1
We arrived at this beautiful brownstone, eager and hungry. Excited and happy to bring my friend J along for what I promised to be an awesome night of great food and new friends. But instead of an “exclusive dinner”, we were unknowingly part of a “focus group dinner”. 

Here’s how it all went down…
sotto terra 2
As we entered the warm living room, we were greeted by George’s special sangria, watermelon and cucumber gazpacho shots and bites of endives with goat cheese, orange, walnuts and balsamic reduction (which I didn’t care for since I don’t like goat cheese). 
sotto terra 3
The hosts were eager to chat with every guest and made sure we were taken care of drink wise. At this point I’m still not quite sure the purpose of it all. So I asked George if this was something that would lead to his “underground supper club” or a buzz for a “future restaurant opening”? He vaguely answered maybe and no, smiled and quickly changed the topic. He was very welcoming and friendly, making me believe this was his home. I requested a sneak peak of  “his” kitchen and our fancy dinner, but that was nicely rejected. Same thing with Phil Lempert, who was obviously knowledgeable about food in general, but never specific about why we were gathered here. 
sotto terra 4
As we were escorted downstairs to the main dining room, the setting once again reminded me of supper clubs I’ve attended. Since this was only here for 5 days, I felt honored to be “chosen”, but puzzled by the invite and how I would be of any help in all this (I mean after all, there’s no free meal). I kept asking my friend J, I wonder what this is all about…
sotto terra 5
The hosts sat on both ends and conversation was guided mostly by Phil. The topic revolved around food obviously, our preferences, childhood favorites, food memories. Then the focus shifted to healthy eating, fresh and local, seasonal, reading our labels, so on and so forth. Sort of like a Food Inc. panel if you will. I pointed out that the reason I ate organic, fresh and good food was because my calories are very precious to me, so I want to use them wisely. George would bring up, his time spent in France as a chef, his recipes, food and family. At this point, I’m thinking, maybe the two of them are into some Food Revolution movement like Jamie Oliver. Trying to change the way America is eating and thinking about food, which made sense to have bloggers there to contribute and spread the word.
sotto terra 6
Our dinner started with a Strawberry Arugula Salad, balsamic vinaigrette, goat cheese and hints of mint. I kindly pushed the goat cheese to the side and ate the rest. Simple and fresh. Easy to put together and very healthy.
sotto terra 8
For our main course, we were served Double Stacked “traditional” Italian Lasagna, with pepperoni, seasoned beef, sausage and four cheeses. George talked about how easy it was to make lasagna in big batches and share or have it as leftover. Plus his twist of adding pepperoni, the way he likes it most, bla bla bla… I was excited, but a couple bites later, I began to doubt George’s recipe and his ability as a chef. The pasta was soft and there was little meat and cheese. It wasn’t very flavorful, and I’ve definitely had better. It wasn’t gross nor inedible by any means, but nothing to be inviting bloggers to blog about either. There was a lot of questions revolving what we thought of it and my friend J felt obligated, out of respect for the “chef present” to finish it all. I left it about 1/2 of it, but since all conversation was guided, I didn’t have a chance to tell J it was ok not to clean her plate.
sotto terra 7
The Herb Cheesy Garlic Bread used a nutty whole wheat bread, George emphasized on eating whole grain and using fresh herbs. The bread was nice and chewy loaded with salty cheese and extra garlic. I had 2 pieces, since I liked it better than the lasagna. 
sotto terra 9
The palate cleanser was a much welcomed Mojito Granita Shot. Very refreshing.
sotto terra 10
The Razzleberry Pie a la mode looked great. But aside from the ice cream, the berry filling and crunch were super sweet. I left most of it behind. I noticed Phil didn’t have any at all. Which was odd, but I’m still naive and oblivious to the situation. 
sotto terra 11
The night ended with a giveaway of George’s cookbook, which I was wondering how good it was based on our meal so far. Then came the final surprise and reveal…

Well apparently, our main course and dessert, the lasagna and pie came from “Marie Callender’s” FROZEN BOXED MEALS. All George did was a la Semi-homemade style of stacking the lasagna and sprinkling fresh herb, then putting the pie in individual cups and topping it with vanilla ice cream. At least that explains why it wasn’t the amazing dinner I was expecting. I had a good laugh about it. Took a while to sink in, the whole night seemed like such a long and elaborate set up. I was a bit annoyed and truly disappointed/shocked, that George would be part of this at all. Specially the misleading way he talked about “his” favorite way to make lasagna, the ingredients, sharing with family and friends bla bla bla. Oh, and we were all being filmed! (J and I walked out without signing any waver. So I better not see us in any promo video). George said goodbye to us and hoped we weren’t “upset” about this whole thing. 

Our “guided” conversation was ALL based on eating better, feeding our kids, the concern of childhood obesity, farmers, eating fresh and local, seasonal ingredients, CSA… and the list goes on. Yet they were serving us a frozen meal, loaded with sodium. We brought up reading labels while we shop and being aware of what we eat, Phil and George agreed, yet this FROZEN MEAL/DESSERT had exactly what we were afraid of, ingredients I can’t pronounce nor understand. This made no sense to me whatsoever. Maybe they thought that psychologically, if we are thinking/talking about good food, happy food memories, our tastebuds would be distracted? LOL so silly

As bloggers we get invited to a lot of press/PR events/dinners and what not. Some turn out great, others like this one, not so much. I guess what I don’t understand is who’s genius idea was to bring in bloggers into this. Obviously we love food, we spend all our time, effort and money finding what’s above average. We don’t eat to live, we live to eat. Feeding me free food doesn’t automatically equate to great review. I’ll always keep it honest for myself and my readers, otherwise there’s no point to all this. I do advertising by day, thank you very much, at night, blogging is a passion and hobby. I won’t promote products I won’t eat myself. Either, they were too confident about their products or just didn’t believe in our palates and tastebuds. To make it even worse, a “giveway” that sounded like lavish dinner for my readers wasn’t a classy move either. If I accept an invite and it turns out bad, that’s fine, it was mine time, I can live with that. But having me promote it and then give my readers/winners frozen food isn’t called for.

Overall (some dishes aside), it was an alright evening. Good service, friendly hosts and guests, plenty of wine and sangria. Nothing tasted absolutely horrible, nor amazing. I wasn’t mad per se, but didn’t leave a happy camper either. This was a bit distasteful (pun intended!).

I’m NOT their target consumer and they were totally off by thinking I would buy or promote their highly processed frozen foods after tricking me to taste it. I’m not saying I ONLY eat/write about healthy and organic foods, but what unhealthy stuff I choose to eat/write, at least I was aware of it and it was my decision to do so.

LESSON LEARNED: when the invite sounds too good to be true, ALWAYS ask questions and double check!

50 Responses to SOTTO TERRA: PR dinner that MADE NO SENSE

  1. Anonymous says:

    I was at this meal too, Phil Lempert and George Duran are pieces of sell out garbage! How can they get away with this? Appreciate your honest opinion of what went down. Plan to avoid Lempert, Duran, and anything Marie Callenders!

  2. Anonymous says:

    Hey There! It was nice meeting you at Sotto Terra even though as you said- it was a PR dinner that made no sense. I've been trying to decided whether to write about it or not but it almost doesn't seem worth the effort. However I completly agree with your sentiments. I'm not mad but feel sorry most of all for my giveway winners. In the future I will be much more cautious as well…and I will not be buying any frozen dinners anytime soon:)

  3. Anonymous says:

    Sean, you comment was under the wrong post so I copied it over…

    Sean said…
    This is my honest opinion about the Sotto Terra food experience. To begin, this bizarre and slightly unethical experiment was in no way a pleasant evening of shared dialogue regarding contrasting opinions of food. It was however an opportunity for ConAgra Foods and its subsidiary Marie Callenders to manipulate reactions and conversation all while diners were unknowingly video taped. The staged event was such that no well-mannered person would be able to be totally frank about the meal. Otherwise, both my guests and myself would have shared our honest opinion of your high sodium overcooked lasagna. Nevertheless, the experiment was not totally in vain, I now realize just how pathetic George Duran and Phil Lempert are. These two men redefine the meaning of a "sell out," and any small amount of respect I ever had for them is totally lost. George was arrogant, awkward and frankly rude. From his opening point during our cocktail hour about how a waiter can get back at you by spitting in your food, to his pathetic “fishing” for compliments about a meal he did not even make. Phil Lempert was not much better; he manipulated all points of dialogue, never once allowing honest opinions of food to be shared. Instead he cut people off to make sure all remarks were not too taboo against our future frozen entree. Shame on these two gentlemen and CoAgra Food Corp. for allowing their potential customers to be manipulated in such a manner. Needless to say, Phil, George and any Con Agra foods are something I will encourage others to avoid.

    8/29/11 6:47 PM

  4. Anonymous says:

    Hi Tasty Trekker!
    it was nice meeting u too… I've been debating about writing too… since i did a giveaway, and promoted it all over twitter and facebook, i felt like i had to show what it truly was!

  5. Anonymous says:

    OMG. i feel like you totally got bamboozled!

  6. Anonymous says:

    I noticed Phil didn't eat dessert when I went another night.

    Yea another crappy PR event.

  7. Anonymous says:

    I was there a different night and I agree with Sean all the way.

  8. Anonymous says:

    I'm glad I'm not the only one that wondered what they were thinking. I myself wasn't upset about the dinner itself. Like you said it was OK. I guess my first clue should have been the simple menu, when I was expecting a more lavish 4 course meal. I was most upset about duping my winner and her guest, wasting their time.

  9. Anonymous says:

    Hey, it was nice meeting you and your friend. I was there, actually with Tasty Trekker and Sean. As a guest of a blogger, I had a great time and know that the deception had nothing to do with the bloggers and probably felt worse for you guys. I just thought it was funny how George thought he "tricked" us.

    At first I was really excited to try pepperoni in the lasagna. As I was eating it I was thinking “Where have I had these weird meat cubes before?” I then realized that they took the insides of a pepperoni Hot Pocket and expertly layered it into our main course. As someone who has had more than his share of frozen food I can without hesitation say it was good. Not up there with frozen tater tots or frozen White Castle burgers (they are the same from a microwave) or even homemade from my Mother, who was born in Taiwan, but I would probably eat them again if it was free, starving and kind of drunk. Which I was that night.

    I don’t think anyone thought the lasagna was that great and I would not have had the balls to tell a chef that his lasagna tasted like a hot pocket so I don’t know why George acted like he “got us”. Anyways I had fun and you are ever worried about devious invites feel free to send me.

  10. Anonymous says:

    Kero Lynn,
    Aren't you glad you didn't win?!

    yeah when i saw him not having dessert it should of been a clear signal!

    Jessica, Susanne
    I felt bad for the new moms like you who had to change plans, get baby sitters and stuff for this… did u get their email from ConAgra foods about getting your expenses back? I didn't reply and didn't want to receive any $ from them…

    Nice meeting u too! Yeah it was an odd way to do PR/advertising. I guess they learned the hard way and so did we… hmmm if i send u to things, you'll have to write them so I can post!

  11. Anonymous says:

    I didn't get that e-mail about expense but I prob wouldn't respond anyway. I'm not interested in any dialogue with them.

  12. Anonymous says:

    Wow, that was very not cool. Sorry you all wasted your time/efforts for that 🙁

  13. Anonymous says:

    you cant fake a home cooked, gastronomic well prepared meal with a frozen dinner…lame move.

  14. Anonymous says:

    Did no one see that Pizza Hut campaign a few years ago? The comments here are shocking..

    The comments here are, quite frankly, embarrassing.

    They are the very reason a frozen foods company would do a gimmick like this (similar to what Pizza Hut did when it introduced its pasta).

    The clear implication is that you would not waste your time attending and reviewing an event that touted frozen food. You make it clear you have a preconceived bias towards the quality and nutritional value of such meals.

    For many food critics and bloggers, that same bias would apply to chain restaurants.

    That, to me, is the "unethical" thing. You're not supposed to be looking forward to a free meal from a gourmet chef, you're supposed to be fairly reviewing food–whether it's a new McDonald's dollar menu item or a $500 cut of steak.

    The premise of this "PR stunt" was to call you out on such biases. To show you that, with the label removed, many will not be able to tell the difference between frozen meals and meals from high-class chefs.

    Granted, to your credit, you did claim to notice an inferiority in the taste–but based on your "outrage" with the review, I wonder how much of that "inferiority" was discovered retroactively.

    Seriously, you got "got." You got exposed as biased.

  15. Anonymous says:

    I disagree with that last anonymous commenter. The point was not to dupe a group of food bloggers. I bet they don't care what any of you thought or even what you write.

    The only reason they did it was to get a few camera shots of "real food bloggers" making "candid" comments to piece together a commercial. They're hedging their bets and hoping that the impact of their commercial will outweigh the impact of the pieces the bloggers write (or that the bloggers won't write anything at all). Unfortunately, they're probably correct. What a waste of time and excitement, though.

    Since you didn't sign a waiver, keep an eye out to make sure they don't use your likeness at all!

  16. Anonymous says:

    anonymous commenter is clearly a PR hack. This was very disingenuous. The guided conversation, manipulating, ick. I lost my appetite before the reveal..

  17. Anonymous says:

    Not a nice thing to do. And in that situation of a "fancy" dinner in someone's home, and the dishes presented as being homemade, no guest would insult the cook.
    Had they invited you to a focus group and said for example, that a new cuisine is being tried for a chain restaurant, then honesty would have prevailed. They would have then gotten honest opinions. LIke shopping in a store and seeing an ugly dress, it's okay to say, "that's ugly", but it someone comes up to you and says, "I made this dress, do you like it?". Of course you'll say, "yes".

    Oh, maybe they didn't set it up as a focus group because focus group participants gets paid. My guess is that in this case, only George and Phil got paid. Nice going guys. Invite bloggers to a what should be a great meal, serve medicore frozen dinners and tell them it's homemade by you, so they won't insult you, and then not pay them for being part of a focus group. Right, 'cause people who blog like to work for free.

  18. Anonymous says:

    you got a free meal out of it so what are you complaining about? from the looks of things you may want to avoid some of these luncheons and just order wonton soup and be sure to hold the wonton!!

  19. Anonymous says:

    You got what you deserved! Attending compedmeals as a blogger to review in the name of your "readers" is just as unethical as being tricked into eating some frozen lasagna.

    P. Channon

  20. Anonymous says:

    Did you see the "apology" from
    ConAgra as reported in today's NYT?
    "…there were people who were disappointed and we're sorry–we apologize that they felt that way." What!?! They are apologizing for the way you felt, rather than for what they have done? ConAgra really doesn't understand the issue.

  21. Anonymous says:

    Gotta love first world problems.

  22. Anonymous says:

    Yeah totally understand…

    LOL that was hilarious! hahaha

    I think they have common sense issues!

    exactly! and all that sodium and coloring crap they tricked us into eating!

    u sound like a PR person to me and a not very good one. if you have such strong opinions, maybe not stay anonymous? i wouldn't call it "retroactively" if I didn't finish most of the food! Plus not even the paid guy Phil ate the dessert!!

    thank you! at least most ppl here have some common sense and know right from wrong! I ran out as soon as I could. Didn't wanna sign anything or talk to any of the PR ppl there…

    yeap… love your last line! LOL

    @Simone M
    i don't think they know the difference! or just thought they were so clever… but funny thing, they paid Phil and even paying him, he didn't eat the dessert!!! I did notice he glanced over when I didn't eat the other 1/2 of my lasagna…

    i'm telling the truth of what happened, thank you very much.

    @Anonymous P Channon
    Unethical would be attending comped meals and receiving free products and raving about them without disclosure nor truth. I can sleep at night knowing that I don't do that, and never will.

    LOL yeah, clueless I tell you! I think they still believe they did the right thing! I heard from NYT writer that their defense was the word "surprise" on the invitation!!!

  23. Anonymous says:

    oh this is hilarious. You got your panties twisted because the food you ate wasn't organic kale grown on the moon.
    You are a precious little twit, aren't you?
    Love it. I wish they would show the footage, and all you douchey foodbloggers could get your comeuppance.

  24. Anonymous says:


    People talking about your "ethics" are cracking me up. Posting a negative review of a (free) meal that was a negative experience is part of the food blogging experience, no? You're exactly right that posting positively about something simply because it was free would be the dishonest move!

    Also, congrats about the mention and the link from the NYT (and NY Mag)! At least, as the NYT mentioned in the last paragraph, you weren't duped by Bernie Madoff… 🙂

  25. Anonymous says:

    David Lebovitz posted a link to the NYT on Facebook and I just starting clicking around who linked to each others blogs.

    I'm in shock. Talk about PR'ing to the wrong group of people. I'm no PR guru, but isn't knowing your audience one of the rules?

    I don't eat things I can't pronounce. 🙂

  26. Anonymous says:

    Hmmm, Lempert's website has a big old Monsanto logo on it…

  27. Anonymous says:

    Lempert's website has a big ol' Monsanto logo on it. Hmmmm…

  28. Anonymous says:

    This is hilarious. Crying about a PR dinner.

  29. Anonymous says:

    Nothing free is that good, learn to pass on. Funny mad about a free meal you accepted.

  30. Anonymous says:

    I'm sure if the recorded footage was released prior to the unveiling, all the diners would HAVE (not of, CCG)been shown raving about the food. I don't believe CCG disliked the food until she was tricked into consuming very precious calories. You got tricked, you didn't like it, the Internet found out about it, get over it. You act like someone committed a crime against you. I'm sure the footage would prove you were unable to discern the difference between frozen and freshly cooked food.

  31. Anonymous says:

    Wow I just can't believe PR even thought that was right. I'm not a food blogger but I would have been mad if I was expecting one thing and got something else totally. Good for you for blogging it!

  32. Anonymous says:

    "…we spend all our time, effort and money finding what's above average."

    Res Ipsa Loquitur? LOL! Obviously not.

  33. Anonymous says:

    i really appreciate your honesty! This was a great recap and what great photos. I have mixed feelings about the whole situation but I think you handled it well!

  34. Anonymous says:

    Are you kidding me? You're food bloggers, not famous food critics or world renowned chefs. Anybody can put anything up on the internet, and that is quite obvious here. You got duped by a frozen food company, OMG. Is the world going to come to an end? It was kind of shady, but c'mon. The food might not have been as good as a Food Network, but for frozen food it was probably decent. You got a free meal. There are people starving in 3rd world countries and you complaining about salt. Gi

  35. Anonymous says:

    Passing off frozen food as gourmet is just as funny as passing off blogging as a career.

  36. Anonymous says:

    wow. anonymous over there has got HIS panties in a twist. :

    i wonder if anyone from the pr company tasted the food that they served you.

    i can't believe the other comment above about people not being able to tell the difference between frozen food and that produced by high-class chefs. ridiculous. someone has exceptionally low standards.. apparently.. food technologists and 'high-class' chefs are a different breed altogether. i've worked with both 🙂

    thanks for posting this. i feel more disgusted by the comments left by the people who are obviously connected to the brand than their idiotic pr stunt. i don't want to support people like that. thank god for wikipedia and the list of conagra brands 🙂

  37. Anonymous says:

    So the moral of this tale should be:
    If the food sucks, have the guts to tell the chef. If you don't say it, you're just as disingenuous as he is.

  38. Anonymous says:

    Gross! I would have been so pissed. I can't believe some of the comments on this blog. We SHOULD be biased about what we eat! Not all of us just eat whatever cheese-pasta-pepperoni crap tastes good. If one chooses not to eat processed frozen foods, taste is probably not the reason why.

  39. Anonymous says:

    Hello, Chubby. I saw your comments about your calories being important to you and I felt you were a kindred spirit. I'm a physician, cookbook author, and fellow food blogger ( I just launched a healthy cooking iPhone/iPad app (Trufflehead) for students and young professionals that makes every calorie count. You can read about it on iTunes here: . I wonder if you'd like to offer some free downloads to your blog's visitors. If you are interested, let me know. Thanks. Deborah Chud, MD

  40. Anonymous says:

    As a PR person, I know how difficult it is to get a member of the media who may have pre-conceived notions about your product to try it. I thought this stunt was a good idea, but it had to be executed flawlessly for it to work. From CCG's description of the topics of conversation, it seems they were a bit misleading and the agency may not have done all their homework on the media they invited (at least in this blogger's case).
    Some people don't like to be surprised and I'm sure that played a role in some of negative coverage. I think CCG fairly reviewed the food, but she didn't like it and ConAgra didn't get the good review they were hoping for. Worse they're getting a negative review!
    I wonder how many positive reviews they did get? CCG, were there any media giving positive reviews during the dinner? Don't have to name names, but I haven't seen any food bloggers admitting they like Marie Callender's lasagna lately.

  41. Anonymous says:

    I think it's less likely a focus group and more likely a commercial shoot. I can just see a commercial released a couple of months from now showing "real food bloggers" trying the NEW Marie Calender's food line. "What, it's frozen. Really?" Throw in a few more out of context comments from people that did sign the waver, and suddenly you've got food bloggers raving in a commercial for Marie Calender's.

    It was a sad stunt by someone who I had little respect for in the first place. However, some of the comments questioning the integrity of the guests is also a little sad. Critics and bloggers get invited to preview dinners all the time. How many critics probably went to a preview dinner at Lincoln and went on to post subpar reviews for what I'm sure they were hoping would be a three or four star restaurant? I'd say accepting comped dinners during the review process blurs the line, but going to some sort of "exclusive" vague food event where even you don't really know what you're doing there hardly does.

  42. Anonymous says:

    As a public relations professional (not a hack or a flack) and a rather new blogger, I've followed this story closely. I appreciate your review of the evening. It appears balanced and honest and it includes high-quality photos.

    Being invited to any PR event does not guarantee positive reviews, whether money is exchanged, meals or activities are complimentary or not. In any industry, risks are taken, some end favorably, others do not.

    I'm probably most bothered by the leading dialogue (likely scripted or at minimum, suggested) by the hosts so that guests would reply or say what they (the brand) wanted to hear for taping purposes. And IMHO, the invites should have been for media & bloggers only, not offered as a giveaway, because as you said, I'm reading many bloggers felt bad for their readers/winners. A giveaway of products post event may have worked, some bloggers would have offered it and others would have declined.

    So many lessens to be learned here, from the brand, their hired PR company, the hired hosts (and their tarnished reputations) and the value of our free speech as it is represented in the blogging community. Know your audience, keep it real & above board and accept critical and constructive feedback as an opportunity for change and/or validation.

    Thank you for writing this post. I am off to read others.

  43. Anonymous says:

    "you got a free meal out of it so what are you complaining about? "

    They didn't get a free meal. They got fed an imitation meal.

    There's a world of difference between food and fake food.

  44. Anonymous says:

    "The staged event was such that no well-mannered person would be able to be totally frank about the meal"

    Um What? Isnt' that what food bloggers do? You may not say it to his face but I would assume that you review each meal honestly, regardless of who hosts or cooks the meal.

    If you don't like it you don't like it. I think the only people who should be truly angry are those who only eat organic, have allergies to additives and preservatives or only eat non-processed foods. If you eat any fast food AT ALL or any boxed, processed, etc foods then I don't see the anger involved.

  45. Anonymous says:

    Lessons to be learned??? For all the PR flaks who think this was somehow acceptable, how about "Do onto others as you would have others do onto you" and "Thou shalt not lie." Give people the basic respect they deserve and don't invite them somewhere on a false premise — especially if you suspect they wouldn't want to come if they knew the real reason for the invitation!

  46. Anonymous says:


    I am not a food blogger, I was a guest, and I am not talking about the reviews after the meal. Rather, how people reacted to George Duran saying, " I worked really hard on this meal….actually hours. What do you think?" Most people just awkwardly nodded.

    It was not like we waited on two minute line to try a hot dog and were asked, "what do you think?" They manipulated everything, from start to finish, and I did want to leave, but I thought it would be rude.You spent three hours with these weirdos, and only manners kept me in my seat. Needless to say, I wish I had more wine so I could tell George and Phil how I really felt.

  47. Anonymous says:

    Very dishonest and underhanded. Nice photos though.

  48. Anonymous says:

    Anyone else notice that the Anon hater comments are almost identical on every blog that covered this? Methinks there's something rotten in the state of Denmark…

  49. Anonymous says:

    That looks like fun, thank you for sharing.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.