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Lawyer Letters Run Amok in Simple Restaurant Review

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By Mark Wilson, Esq. on April 29, 2015 12:58 PM

It all began as a restaurant review -- and not even a scathing one, like Pete Wells' legendary 2012 takedown of Guy Fieri's Times Square restaurant in The New York Times.

Jay Rayner of The Guardian paid a visit to Jinjuu, a new Korean restaurant on London's touristy shop-filled Regent Street. The executive chef, Judy Joo, claimed in her online biography that she spent two years working for Gordon Ramsay. Rayner emailed Ramsay's company, Gordon Ramsay Holdings, to see if that were true.

Big mistake.

Pork Belly With a Side of Litigation

Who could have predicted that a simple factual question would unleash a horde of lawyers? According to Rayner, GRH responded that "Joo was only given part-time experience as a gesture of goodwill at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay in the pastry section" and didn't work directly under the bombastic celebrity chef.

Rayner then turned to Joo, asking her by email if this were true. Instead of a friendly response (which he said he expected because he'd met Joo before), Rayner received a 17-page letter from Joo's lawyers denying everything GRH said. The lawyers said Joo worked five days a week as an unpaid intern at three of Ramsay's restaurants. The letter also included pages of testimonials from chefs around the world -- something the lawyers had gathered in just 36 hours -- extolling Joo's virtues.

But the lawyer army didn't stop there. "Over the next few weeks legal letters from very expensive lawyers start flying all over London. Gordon Ramsay's lawyers write to Judy Joo's lawyers. Judy Joo's lawyers write to Gordon Ramsay's," and according to Rayner, the lawyers suggest he has some sort of vendetta against Joo.

Libel Wars

It's not clear why GRH was so adamant that Joo was little more than a part-time assistant. It's also not clear where the truth lies. What is clear, says Rayner, is that "in London's modern restaurant business, the combination of furiously high costs, reputations and big egos can be explosive." Indeed, especially in the days of the "celebrity chef" (Joo is apparently one of the four UK "Iron Chefs" and regularly appears on TV), Joo -- undoubtedly just like Ramsay -- must ensure that her brand is spotless.

The Takeout Takeaway

There's no indication that the lawyer battle will escalate into a full-blown lawsuit. The UK's notoriously plaintiff-friendly libel laws got a makeover in 2013, requiring "serious harm" to the plaintiff and affording more protection for published material on a matter of public interest.

But how was the food? Rayner said it was middling and that there are "better places to go" for Korean food that are cheaper and where "they don't send out legal letters." Perhaps The Streisand Effect has yet to make an impression in Europe.

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