We all have our chain restaurant guilty pleasures. For me, it's the Cheddar Bay biscuits at Red Lobster: hot, buttery and "made from scratch and baked every 15 minutes," according to the restaurant website, they make sitting through the Festival of (frozen) Shrimp almost worth it. I also have a weakness for the unlimited garlic breadsticks and salad—ok, just the breadsticks—at The Olive Garden. I honestly can't remember anything else I've eaten there. So when it was recently revealed that The Olive Garden Culinary Institute of Tuscany touted in the franchise's ubiquitous commercials was more a sightseeing stop than a school, I wasn't completely surprised.
Apparently OG rewards about a dozen managers a week to the Institute in Chianti, Italy, during the tourism off-season November through March. There they spent "maybe an hour here or there [in the classroom] and talk about spices or fresh produce for a minute before going sightseeing all day," wrote a former OG employee who was sent there in 2007. "[OG] paid for everything from meals, sightseeing, flight—but in return, they sent pre-written articles to our local newspaper with fake quotes from me and a group photo."
So it's more of a PR stunt than cooking school, fine. I don't go to The Olive Garden looking for an authentic Italian meal. In fact, one of the most entertaining restaurant reviews I read this year was L.A. Weekly's Jonathan Gold's impression of the place. (Long story short: The "cappuccino" was topped with whipped cream and the eggplant parmigiana consisted of "crunchy eggplant Pringles bound with leathery straps of mozzarella.")
But all that aside, I do think it's a good incentive on the company's part to keep managers motivated through the year. And if they can bring a smidgen of what they learn in Italy back to their restaurants—come on, chicken scampi??—even better.