The Olive Garden's currently getting some bad press after a Florida restaurant accidentally served a toddler sangria instead of orange juice. But another controversy is brewing this week, one that strikes at the Italian-American restaurant chain's very ethos. Someone claiming to be a former Olive Garden manager has taken to the social news website Reddit to proclaim that the Olive Garden's iconic Culinary Institute of Tuscany–where the chain says it sends its top cooks and managers to "learn authentic cooking secrets" from sagacious chefs in, one imagines, an idyllic land flowing with unlimited soup, salad, and breadsticks–is a sham.
Well, not entirely a sham. The poster, going by the name Fidelia079, says he was sent to the culinary institute in 2007, which he describes as "more like a hotel." But he says the trip was essentially glorified sight-seeing outing, with a little training sprinkled on top. The Olive Garden would use an adjoining restaurant "as a classroom for maybe an hour here or there and talk about spices or fresh produce for a minute," he explains, and "the only time we saw the 'chef' was when she made a bolognese sauce while taking pictures with each of us to send to our local newspapers." When it all ended, he adds, the Olive Garden "sent pre-written articles out to local newspaper with fake quotes from me and a group photo." In a back-and-forth with commenters that careens in all sorts of improbable directions, he says his biggest takeaway from the trip was that "most italian food isn't like OG (shocker right) In Italy they like to use a few simple ingredients."
The food blogs are not surprised. Jason Best at SlashFood writes, "Seriously, if there's anyone out there who thinks then Olive Garden really serves authentic Italian cooking, then boy have we got a trash bag full of authentic Louis Vuitton purses to sell you."
It turns out, moreover, that this isn't the first time the authenticity of the Olive Garden's cooking school has been scrutinized. Last year, when an Olive Garden commercial came out depicting chefs in white coats at the rustic cooking school tasting tomato sauce and kissing their fingertips, questions spread on sites like Twitter and Facebook about whether the Olive Garden was drawing its inspiration from the Old Country or a really good advertising executive. CNN investigated and determined that the institute–situated on a property known as Riserva di Fizzano–is open for 11 weeks each winter, inviting over 100 top Olive Garden chefs and managers for cooking lessons led by a Tuscan chef, and serves as a bed and breakfast for the rest of the year. They did not issue any findings on whether this actually improves the Olive Garden menu.