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.
CLARISSA CRUZ is the Fashion Features Editor of O, The Oprah Magazine. She is the former Style Editor of People magazine and has written for Entertainment Weekly, InStyle, Food & Wine, and Budget Travel. @clarissanyc1