Italian chef Floriano Pellegrino of Bros’ finds fame after an epic takedown

LECCE, ITALY (NYTIMES) – The restaurant's guests had finished their appetisers of fermented ricotta puffs and a paper-thin slice of fish skin in the shape of a fish when the kitchen prepared a citrus palate cleanser called Let's Make Out. The cooks reverently squeezed a pale orange foam into a ceramic cast of the chef's open mouth, and waiters instructed the diners to lick it out.

"The idea is love at first bite instead of love at first sight," said Floriano Pellegrino, the chef and mouth model, as he stood in the kitchen of Bros', the only Michelin-starred restaurant in the southern Italian city of Lecce. "It's supposed to be funny."

But this month, the joke was on Pellegrino, who became an object of global ridicule when a travel blogger's epically bad review of an October dinner at Bros', with its chef's kiss of the mouth mould, went viral.

"There was nothing even close to an actual meal served," wrote Geraldine DeRuiter on her blog, the Everywhereist, in which the James Beard Award-winning writer derided the "cement cell" decor, knocked a server's introduction of "rancid ricotta" and accused the restaurant of ignoring allergy restrictions when her husband's lips swelled.

Top restaurant critics jumped on the takedown bandwagon, championing a democratic revolt against a Michelin-starred restaurant with an expensive tasting menu of tiny portions and heaps of pretension.

Pellegrino's condescending response, which included drawings of men on horses and a three-page explanation of his cutting-edge approach to dining ("What is a chef? What is a client? What is good taste? What looks beautiful? What is a man on a horse?") only invited more scorn.

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Former kitchen staff came out to him of mistreatment and breaking promises, of punishing them by demanding push-ups, and of displaying a general pattern of bullying behaviour. ("Not everything you hear is true," Pellegrino said, when asked. "Especially in this moment, we're dealing with baseless rumours." )

CNN, The Washington Post and even The Late Show With Stephen Colbert could not resist an easy target in a world of abstract morsels already ripe for satire. DeRuiter seized on the moment with social media posts, national media appearances and a think piece about what it all meant.

On a recent afternoon at his restaurant, Pellegrino, 31, was also trying to make sense of what had happened as he stood with his celebrated head chef and girlfriend, Isabella Poti, 26, who is expecting their first child.

"It's surreal," Pellegrino said as another e-mail from America ordering a cast of his mouth popped up on his phone. The casts, at €58 (S$89) apiece, had sold out, but scores more were pre-ordered, and their supplier rushed to keep up.

The couple will soon launch a Let's Make Out non-fungible token, or NFT, the blockchain-based collectible that is all the rage in the art world.

"This is a big opportunity," he said, adding that the review "only gave us publicity".

That publicity feeds the restaurant world is nothing new. The celebrity chef constellation is as much about television ratings and assorted synergies as it is substance or sustenance. The insight that both the critic and the criticised could benefit from a viral pan is less than extraordinary.

That is especially true of Pellegrino and Poti, who see themselves as avant-garde envoys of the flavours of their native Salento territory and also happen to be tireless self-promoters and unabashed hustlers.

Artmotion Asia

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