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In the Alinea vs. Cat Cora Battle, Everybody Loses

Cat Cora behaved badly at the Chicago restaurant, but owner Nick Kokonas hardly did better

Cora photo: Joe Scarnici/Getty Images for Gold Meets Golden; Kokonas photo: Laura Cavanaugh/FilmMagic

Last weekend, Iron Chef star Cat Cora and Chicago restaurateur Nick Kokonas engaged in a very public spat on social media and on the blogging platform Medium, in an event that food media Twitter treated as if it was Mayweather versus McGregor.

In case you missed it: Cora showed up to Kokonas’s restaurant Alinea Saturday night. When she was told there wasn’t an available table, Cora allegedly caused a scene before departing the restaurant. She then took to Instagram to decry her treatment, writing (in a now-deleted but screenshotted post) that “my time, as everyone (sic), is limited and only want to support good establishments- I would never do this in one of my restaurants.” She noted that she had a confirmation for the reservation, and complained that chef-owner Grant Achatz didn’t come out of the kitchen to apologize for her lack of table. Cora threw out the words “arrogant” and “disrespectful” to describe her perceived treatment. (Achatz has not responded publicly.)

In response, Kokonas shot back with an Instagram post of his own, showing surveillance footage from that evening, alleging that Cora gave the finger to Alinea’s staff. On Sunday, he produced a 1,300-word post on Medium, arguing that Cora’s confirmed 5 p.m. reservation was for Friday evening, not Saturday, and the restaurant assumed she had no-showed. Kokonas writes the restaurant attempted to still accommodate her by offering a Saturday reservation at 9 p.m., which Cora’s assistant declined. Kokonas peppered the post with bonus digs at Cora. “We do not comp people just because they are ‘celebrities’  —  I suspect that this also offends Ms. Cora,” he writes.

Both of these hospitality pros should have known better.

In a statement provided on Sunday, Cora said that her Instagram post “was originally put up a [sic] to start a conversation about what hospitality means to people”: Part of starting that conversation, apparently, was through tagging totally unrelated chefs, from David Chang to Dominique Crenn, in her complaint. Blasting the restaurant in a public forum is a breach of a protocol of sorts: Most restaurateurs and front-of-house professionals would say they’d rather hear feedback directly, and try to diffuse the situation in the moment. It also appears that Cora didn’t offer any anything resembling a compromise or a resolution (usually a good idea when complaining), jumping straight to being offended instead of considering the not-unreasonable idea of eating at 9 p.m. Perhaps most crucially, as someone who’s operated restaurants, Cora should know better than to berate a front-of-house employee; she should know firsthand as a manager that those employees semi-regularly face off with rude, even abusive customers for issues that aren’t of their own making.

Kokonas’ potshots and lengthy take-down weren’t a good look, either, for someone who purports to provide excellent hospitality. In trying to absolve blame away from his staff, he publicly named and shamed Cora’s assistant, who reportedly made the booking, despite the fact that she’s not the tantrum-throwing celebrity that caused the whole fuss. Good hospitality should entail some degree of discretion and respect for clients’ privacy: It’s safe to assume that the Alinea staff likely doesn’t blast out its list of celebrity customers. Cora obviously forfeited this for herself by taking her beef to social media, but her assistant, who is not a public figure, should still be entitled to her privacy. On the flip side, if Kokonas’ own staff fumbled a reservation, he would presumably agree that they would not deserve the level of criticism dished out to Cora’s assistant.

Instead of matching Cat Cora’s level of aggression, Kokonas would have done well to consider Danny Meyer’s version of “enlightened hospitality” — one where the customer is not always right (or nice, for that matter), but the onus is on the restaurateur to take the high road.

As any front-of-house employee can tell you, shitty customers are part of the business (ironically, the chefs who pull diners through the door are often physically insulated from having to deal with those customers), but no matter how bad they are, you have to remain calm: Yelling back achieves nothing. Yet that’s more or less what Kokonas did, publicly and after the fact — the surveillance footage (which is too blurry to really see anything) is accompanied by shouty commentary, and the Medium post goes far beyond a simple disproval of Cora, documenting the missed reservation.

For Kokonas, it’s ultimately selling food — and hospitality — to people that’s earned him and Alinea years’ worth of accolades. Kokonas’s public response took what should have been an internal tale of a customer embarrassing herself and turned it into one of those fights where the average spectator wants both sides to lose. This isn’t a story of an entitled celebrity facing off against a nice restaurateur: It’s one of two “industry leaders” who both should’ve known better.

Iron Chef Cat Cora Storms Out of Alinea After Reservation Dispute [ECHI]
Chef Cat Cora flips off Alinea staff after alleged reservation snafu, criticizes restaurant on Instagram; Alinea co-owner responds [Chicago Tribune]
Into the Litter Box [Medium]