- Subject: False Alarm
- From: Susan Ohanian <SOhan70241@AOL.COM>
- Date: Sat, 8 Sep 2001 17:52:00 EDT
- Reply-to: Assessment Reform Network Mailing List <ARN-L@LISTS.CUA.EDU>
- Sender: Assessment Reform Network Mailing List <ARN-L@LISTS.CUA.EDU>
Not really related to our discussion, though if this professor loses his job,
surely he could find work at one of the testing companies.
September 8, 2001
Scholar Sets Off Gastronomic False Alarm
By JOHN KIFNER
Krista Niles/The New York Times
Jean-Claude Baker, who owns Chez Josephine, suspected that something was not
quite right about a letter complaining of food poisoning.
When Jean-Claude Baker, the owner of Chez Josephine, got the letter, he was,
he said, "devastated."
It was a restaurateur's nightmare: a patron celebrating his wedding
anniversary — a Columbia professor no less — said he had been sickened.
"Extended nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and abdominal cramps all pointed to one
thing: food poisoning," the letter said.
"Our special romantic evening became reduced to my wife watching me curl up
in a fetal position on the tiled floor of our bathroom between rounds of
throwing up," the letter, on Columbia Business School stationery from Frank
Flynn, professor of organizational behavior, went on.
Chez Josephine's chef, Marvin James, was, if anything, even more heartbroken.
"My ego was hurt. I thought we had let Jean- Claude down," Mr. James said. "I
ripped my cooks apart."
Unknown to the Chez Josephine crew, similar scenes were being played out at
restaurants all over town — 240 of them, Columbia now says — that received
the identically worded, totally fictitious letter from Professor Flynn as
part of a study to determine how they responded to complaints.
It was culinary chaos as owners, managers and chefs searched through
computers for Professor Flynn's reservations or credit card records, reviewed
menus and produce deliveries for possibly spoiled food, and questioned
kitchen workers about possible lapses, all spurred by what both the
university and the professor now concede was the business school study from
On Thursday, bicycle messengers made the rounds of all the 240 restaurants —
Chez Josephine, Le Bernardin, Gotham Bar and Grill, Judson Grill, Bolo, Mesa
Grill, AZ, 26 Seats and all the rest — with a formal letter of apology from
the dean of the business school, Meyer Feldberg.
It was, Professor Feldberg wrote, "an egregious error in judgment by a junior
faculty member" that was "part of an ill-conceived research project." The
letter went on to say that "while the professor initiated this research
project on his own, he failed to think through the toll this study would take
on its recipients."
The 240 restaurants also received a second letter from Professor Flynn — on
plain paper this time — written to "sincerely apologize for the horrible
mistake that I have made."
The first letter "was fabricated to help collect data for a research study
that I designed concerning vendor response to consumer complaints," Professor
Flynn explained. "The study was of my own doing and not that of the business
school or of the university," he added. "None of the data collected for the
study will be used for publication, and I will not conduct similar studies in
In his original letter sent to all the restaurants in mid-August, after
graphically describing his supposed symptoms and spoiled anniversary,
Professor Flynn wrote, "Although it is not my intention to file any reports
with the Better Business Bureau or the Department of Health, I want you, Mr.
Baker," he named each restaurateur here, "to understand what I went through
in anticipation that you will respond accordingly.
"I await your response."
Professor Feldberg said the matter had taken up almost all his time, in a
flurry of meetings and memorandums, after he returned from vacation on Monday
"It's awful, it's awful," he said yesterday afternoon. "What can I say?"
What will happen to Professor Flynn? he was asked.
"Clearly the issue is being very thoroughly reviewed and investigated," the
dean said grimly.
Professor Flynn did not respond to messages left yesterday on his office
answering machine and at home.
Distraught by the letter, Mr. James, the chef at Chez Josephine, in the
theater district, drilled his staff in the gleaming new kitchen —
custom-designed by Larry Bogdanow as part of a $500,000 renovation —
hammering home all the standards: hot sauces held hot, cold sauces held cold;
when to ice; the cutting boards bleached overnight and after chicken and fish.
"This could be the kiss of death for a restaurant," Mr. Baker wailed. "It
could be on the front page of the papers with the headline: some famous guy
from Columbia University. Columbia, it's a world-famous institution. It's
almost like the White House. This was a very traumatizing experience."
But the more they examined the letter, the more Mr. Baker and many of the
other restaurateurs became suspicious.
For one thing, they said, the letter did not say when Professor Flynn had
supposedly eaten dinner. More important, it did not say what he had eaten.
While food poisoning cases are extremely rare, they said, someone who
complains will almost always specify a dish. And, there were no complaints
that anyone else had been sickened, as there would be if an ingredient had
been contaminated. The suspicions hardened as no records of Professor Flynn's
reservation, table number or payment turned up in the computers.
"I am an old fox," Mr. Baker explained in a thick French accent.
Nevertheless, in part to draw him out, he wrote a courteous letter to
Professor Flynn offering a refund and a meal with his wife as Mr. Baker's
guests in hopes "you will have the enchanting event you anticipated."
It was one of 60 replies to the original letter, Professor Feldberg said. At
least one, he added, alleged fraud, prompting the university's investigation.
Kim Huskey, the general manager at Judson Grill in Midtown, said that when
she saw Professor Flynn's letter, "I was really shocked, I showed it to the
chef." Ms. Huskey said: "If somebody calls in and said they got sick, that's
really bad. I was upset."
"I think it was a terrible thing he did," she added. "Some people could have
gotten in trouble, with screaming and yelling."
At Le Bernardin, the four-star seafood restaurant in Midtown, Tito Rahman,
the assistant general manager, said: "He must have thought about it quite a
lot because the letter is very good, very dramatic, and made us very upset.
We did a lot of research, going into dates of reservations and looking for
table numbers and orders."
Laurence Kretchmer, a partner in Mesa Grill, was one of several restaurateurs
who immediately suspected a ploy to get a free meal.
"It had no date, no reference to anything suspicious," he said. "There were
so many things that stood out indicating a scam."
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