When one hears the phrase “hand outs”, Michelin-starred culinary icons don’t typically come to mind — but here we are. Not one but two advertisements for Michelin-starred French chef Joël Robuchon’s upcoming Montreal restaurant have appeared in local publications in recent days, and they appear to have been paid for by a Quebec government agency.
The advertisements are dressed up as articles — one piece from La Presse extols the virtues of Robuchon’s executive chef Eric Gonzales. It appears in the “Xtra” section of the La Presse website and iPad app — if your French is a little rusty, Xtra translates roughly to “copy that businesses paid to publish and which wasn’t written by journalists”.
Over at the Montreal Gazette, a more general advertorial appeared on Saturday, promising that L’Atelier will make Montreal a “world class food destination”. It’s clearly marked as a sponsored story, and at the end the Gazette notes that it was produced by publisher Postmedia’s in-house “commercial content division” — in simpler terms, “journalism-lite that got paid for”.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with a restaurant seeking to promote itself and generate some buzz in the abstract — but this is an unusual situation because the Robuchon restaurant on government property. The location for L’Atelier is the Montreal Casino, owned by government agency Loto-Québec, which more or less manages all gambling activities in the province of Quebec. And Loto-Québec appears to be running the operations at the Robuchon restaurant — for example, jobs at L’Atelier were mostly posted on Loto-Québec’s careers pages.
Connect the dots and you have what looks like a government agency purchasing advertising for a chef who is known for charging $US445 per person for a tasting menu and who is apparently worth millions of dollars. It’s not clear exactly how much the advertorials cost, but newspapers don’t exactly give this kind of space away — the Gazette’s most recent public rate card quotes almost $25,000 for a full-page ad on a Saturday. The advertorial isn’t a full page, but there would be the extra costs for an in-house writer at the Gazette’s parent company to write it, and possibly extra charges for the story to appear on the Gazette’s other platforms, such as its apps.
Of course, Loto-Québec does have its own sources of income from lottery sales, casino gamblers, and so forth. So the money for the ads likely come out of that, but the image of a public agency spending money on something pretty much no other restaurant in the city can afford isn’t very becoming.
In an email to Eater, Loto-Québec spokesperson Patrice Lavoie writes that the funding for this campaign comes from a broader advertising budget allocated to L’Atelier Joël Robuchon at the beginning of the year, and that no extra money from outside that budget was spent on the advertorials.
Lavoie says this type of advertising is standard practice for any restaurant at Loto-Québec’s casinos, highlighting that a St-Hubert rotisserie chicken restaurant at the Charlevois Casino will get the same treatment “c’est bien normal et souhaitable.” Fair point, but at least St-Hubert is a Quebec brand. In any case, it seems the issue here is less the advertising and more the broader question of whether a public corporation is the right place for a star-studded restaurant at all.
In the meantime, Montreal Gazette food critic Lesley Chesterman sums it up pretty nicely in one tweet.
Casino buys advertorial space w/ public funds to promote opening of Atelier Robuchon. Few restos could afford this. https://t.co/0tqXMd71ax— Lesley Chesterman (@lesleychestrman) October 31, 2016
- L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon Sets Opening Date at Montreal Casino [EMTL]
- Eric Gonzalez débute le service à L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon Montréal [La Presse]
- L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon Montréal aims to be world-class food destination [Montreal Gazette]
- Behold, The New $445 18-Course Tasting Menu at Joël Robuchon [ELV]
- America’s 25 Most Successful Chefs of 2016 [MSN]
- Gazette Rate Card — 2013 to 2014 [Postmedia]