Tag Archives: Okun

Valenti’s: Where are they Now?

24 Jan

A little over a year ago, then-Buffalo News restaurant critic Janice Okun reviewed a seemingly pedestrian and typical red sauce joint that had recently opened in a plaza in North Tonawanda.

In ten years of blogging, no other series of blog posts I’ve ever done so completely unraveled some bad journalism, a pack of clumsy lies, or generated quite as much conversation in comments and social media. The saga of Valenti’s will go down in the annals of western New York’s culinary lore. 

 At the time, it was fun to deconstruct Okun’s reviews, and how they emphasized booth comfort while de-emphasizing food taste and quality. Yet the Valenti’s review was different, because Okun’s review recounted how the young owner-chef had recently returned to his native western New York after stints as an executive chef in Texas and Florida. But that’s not all – Valenti was reportedly so accomplished that he supposedly competed against – and defeated – celebrity chef Bobby Flay on the TV program “Iron Chef America”. This was a lie. It was alleged that Mr. Valenti’s culinary excellence had rendered the lowly parsnip into something so delightful that the judges were floored.  Here is a snippet from Okun’s review, which I annotated at the time: 

To this day, I don’t know what constitutes “parsnip cuisine”, nor do I understand how it could be the “parsnips that did it” if, apparently, they were the secret ingredient for the fictional episode on which Valenti never appeared.  In fact, the image shown above reflects the Buffalo News’ first edit of the review, to remove a mention that Valenti had appeared on Iron Chef America in 2003. At that time, no such show existed. Valenti also claimed to have graduated from the prestigious Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in 1993 – another lie confirmed by that institution’s spokesman, Jeff Levine. By the end of that particular Friday, Okun’s review in the online Gusto was changed to read thusly: 

As it turned out, he never could have been a cook at Mama Leone’s, either, as it had long since closed by the time he allegedly graduated from the CIA

But don’t blame Ms. Okun – she was doing what a lot of journalists do; transcribing press releases almost verbatim.

But Valenti’s had bigger problems than just a cook with a false resume. Terry Valenti and his girlfriend Lori Brocuglio opened the restaurant with a partner in September 2011. It was a problem tenant for plaza owner Frank Budwey almost from day one. By early February, Valenti’s was evicted for failing to pay back rent. It had loads of debt and a trail of people who had been taken advantage of.  Among them was Valenti’s and Brocuglio’s nominal “partner” in the business, Melissa Janiszewski, who had signed on for all the business’ liabilities, but had no access to the restaurant’s finances, no signing privileges on the business’ accounts, and (ultimately luckily for her), was not named on the lease.  It appeared to be was a bust-out scenario, where Valenti and Brocuglio used Janiszewski’s good credit to run up debt, skip town, and leave her holding the bag. Luckily, she got wise and sought help, but not soon enough to avoid a bankruptcy filing. 

Dramatically, during the late January 2012 eviction trial in North Tonawanda City Court, Terry Valenti was taken into custody on a Texas felony warrant for forgery. After losing his job at Captain Hiram’s in Florida, Valenti moved to Texas, where he cooked at a retirement community in Odessa. Valenti stands accused of forging an ex-girlfriend’s name on a Power of Attorney and title, to fraudulently transfer a motor vehicle for his benefit. The whole saga is available here, with an innocuous takedown of a Janice Okun “review”, updated herehereherehereherehere, and here.)

So, where are they now? 

By late February, Budwey had contracted with Cash Auctions to sell off the contents of Valenti’s Restaurant. The building now houses North Tonawanda’s own branch of Mighty Taco. 

In April 2012, a Midland County Texas grand jury indicted Valenti on the forgery charge. Interestingly, around that same time, there was a rumor that Valenti was back in western New York, looking to start up a new restaurant on Delaware Avenue, and was supposedly trying to recruit people who had worked for him in North Tonawanda.  This turned out never to have materialized, thankfully. 

By late June 2012, the Texas charges against Valenti were still pending, and he was appearing there in person with counsel. Meanwhile, in Florida, Valenti’s ex-wife initiated a court action seeking physical custody of their son. Lori Brocuglio’s ex-husband in Florida had custody of their son, and an action was brought to allow his new wife to adopt. Brocuglio contested the adoption, but the court instructed her that she needed physically to appear in court to testify – the problem is that there were a couple of minor warrants out for Ms. Brocuglio in that state, rendering her appearance a tricky proposition, at best. Meanwhile, Mr. Budwey’s criminal complaint against Ms. Brocuglio for grand larceny is still pending in North Tonawanda City Court and scheduled for an appearance in February. 

Meanwhile, the entire time they lived in western New York, Valenti and Brocuglio rented a living space in Eden. 

By July, Valenti had rejected a guilty plea in Texas that would have resulted in probation, court costs, and restitution. As for the adoption case involving Ms. Brocuglio, when process servers in New York attempted to serve papers on her, Valenti told them that she had moved back to Connecticut. This was quickly resolved – during the time that Mr. Valenti had to appear in Texas, they re-served papers in Eden knowing that the only person who would be home would be Ms. Brocuglio.  On July 29th, she was home, and she was served. 

But Valenti and Brocuglio attempted to fight back.  Valenti sought a temporary restraining order against Valenti’s ex-girlfriend, but failed to serve it in a way that could be enforced against a non-resident of New York. At best, it was a nullity; at worst, it was an attempt to intimidate the star witness in the Texas forgery trial. Nothing ever came of the TRO. Lori Brocuglio lost her parental rights as to the son in Florida in November on the grounds of abandonment. Terry Valenti’s ex now has physical custody of their son in New York. He is also about $13,000 in arrears on child support. There are no-contact orders imposed upon Valenti and Brocuglio in connection with these actions. The forgery action in Texas had to be re-filed and a new indictment was issued in December, and that matter is still pending. 

About that place in Eden: as you might expect, Valenti and Brocuglio ended up mistreating their landlords there, as well. They were forced to bring two eviction actions against them; the first time, they obtained an emergency rent assistance loan from Erie County, and the back rent was paid. By July 2012, the landlords were dealing primarily with Brocuglio, who indicated she was going to Texas. After the second eviction for non-payment, the judge gave Valenti and Brocuglio a week to show receipts that $3,000 was paid.  It hadn’t been. Not only did Valenti and Brocuglio skip out on back rent, but they are alleged to have stolen or sold items belonging to the landlords that were stored on the property, such as an upright air compressor, a drill press, welders, and a John Deere tractor and trailer.  The house was left in a horrible state, filled with garbage and junk. They left moldy, rotten food in the refrigerator, moldy clothes in the washer, food and garbage in the dishwasher, 36 bags of garbage, six truckloads of garbage furniture, six very large televisions, and tons of clothes and belongings left behind. Among the treats Valenti and Brocuglio left behind was shut-off of all utilities for non-payment, including $800 for electric fees. Because the electric system ultimately needed to be changed, it took three months and thousands of dollars to do so and also to clean up the property. 

Their whereabouts are not precisely known at this time, but Ms. Brocuglio’s grand larceny charge is set for an appearance in North Tonawanda City Court on February 7th.  There are also rumors swirling of new charges. 

Throughout all of this – right up to the present day – a very cohesive group of former strangers has formed, all with one thing in common – each one has been cheated or mistreated by Mr. Valenti, Ms. Brocuglio, or both. Through a bizarre set of Artvoice posts – all relating to a strange restaurant review in the Buffalo News – these people have developed a virtual support group to help each other find out where these two are, what they’re up to, whom they might be taking advantage of, and to generally vent about the wrongs done to them at the hands of Iron Chef Parsnips and his henchwoman. There have been bankruptcies, lawsuits, criminal actions, threats, harassment, child custody actions, evictions – federal, state, and interstate civil and criminal litigation has arisen as a result of two apparent sociopaths riding roughshod through the country, leaving behind a trail of debt, lies, broken lives, and broken property. The Valenti / Brocuglio fact pattern could very easily be an essay question on a bar exam. 

In the end, be nice to people. Treat them with respect, fairness, and kindness. If you don’t, you could be in for a world of hurt, and karma will indeed maintain its reputation for being a bitch. 

Valenti’s: Might Want to Frame Those Gift Cards

26 Jan

An empty restaurant (click to enlarge)

It’s been about six weeks since the Buffalo News’ sole restaurant critic gave this Italian upstart a 2.5 star review, extolling the virtues of their red sauce and their Iron Chef and parsnips-based provenance.

On January 20, Budwey Supermarkets, Inc. filed a Notice of Petition to evict “Desires Unlimited d/b/a Valenti’s Italian Restaurant under index number LT-0055-12 in North Tonawanda City Court. The matter is scheduled for a hearing on Monday January 30th at 2pm in that venue. Budwey alleges that Valenti’s owes him $5,200 in unpaid rent, plus $500 in attorneys’ fees.  As of right now, no counterclaim has been filed against Budwey.

I have a call in to Budwey’s attorney.

A source close to the matter says that, as the restaurant was readying for lunch service on Wednesday, the electricity was shut off. Terry Valenti had been attempting to open an electrical account in his name, but Budwey put a hold on the service, which rendered that impossible. With power off, food that was slated to be served yesterday is still sitting out, and the food that is in the coolers and freezers may spoil, costing upwards of $15,000 to replace. The problem is that Valenti’s cannot get a purveyor to service the restaurant due to unpaid bills, and a dubious check may have been cut to Curtze’s. (UPDATE: Curtze’s confirms that, although Valenti’s did not have an account with it, they did buy stuff from them from time to time, and they also confirmed that Valenti’s last check bounced – that there was no money in the account and they can’t locate the person who passed it.)

When the electricity was shut off, a source says that Valenti and Brocuglio pulled the Ansul flame retardant system, possibly damaging equipment and necessitating a very costly recharge of the foam system.

 

It’s unknown whether Valenti and Brocuglio intend ever to return to the restaurant at this point, but signs point to “no”. It’s also been reported to me that many valuables and important files and financial documents have been removed from the premises.

At 11am on Thursday, the lights were off, Valenti’s was empty and closed.  In the meantime, someone had created a “Budway Valenti“[sic] Facebook account to mock Valenti’s landlord and estranged partner in the business and former server, Melissa Janiszewski. Screen caps below.

 

 

Brian Kahle Responds to Terry Valenti

19 Jan

On today’s Shredd and Ragan show, Terry Valenti tried to explain away his boasts of having defeated Bobby Flay on Iron Chef, and accused the “marketing company” he hired for Googling him and using false information he had given to people in the past for manufacturing the claim.

So I contacted Brian Kahle, the well-respected local PR pro whom Valenti retained prior to opening the restaurant. It was Kahle’s press release that made its way to Janice Okun, and into her original review. It was Kahle and Lori Brocuglio who acted as Okun’s two sources for the Iron Chef claims, and when Okun called Kahle to verify the Iron Chef claim after their falsity was uncovered, he was perfectly correct in telling her that it’s what Terry and Lori told him.

But as far as journalism in WNY is concerned, take a look at Kahle’s release, and see how closely Okun’s words follow its template:

Co-owner (with his wife, Lori) and Chef Terry Valenti is a Western New York boy recently returned home from Texas and Florida — he cooked at Mama Leone’s in Manhattan and in resorts in Daytona. In 2003 he took on uber-chef Bobby Flay on the popular “Iron Chef” program. Knocked the socks off him, too.

It was the parsnips that did it,” says Lori. For the show, Terry produced Chilean Sea Bass stuffed with that vegetable (and artichoke hearts for good measure). He even dreamed up a Mango Parsnip Ice Cream that went over very well.

Everything that’s bolded in the two quoted paragraphs is a lie. So, how did it make its way into the paper?

Kahle explained that he doesn’t issue a press release and media kit until after (a) the clients help to write it; and (b) the clients approve it. In this case, every claim Kahle wrote on Valenti’s behalf was told to him by either Terry or Lori.

Although Valenti accuses Kahle of having Googled him, and including materials he found from prior lies he told Florida employers, Kahle vehemently denies doing any such thing. Indeed, Kahle is incensed at the suggestion that it was he, and not Terry or Lori, who fabricated or blew Valenti’s owns claims out of proportion. He was gratified that Valenti didn’t use Kahle’s name during his radio interview.

In other Valenti news, I learned that the Department of Labor did show up at the restaurant yesterday, but there was no fine leveled or violation drawn up.

What follows below is a PDF of the original press release that Kahle sent to media outlets throughout western New York on Valenti’s behalf.

Valenti’s Restaurant Media Kit Release//

Thus Spake Terry Valenti

19 Jan

Terry Valenti called in to Shredd and Ragan on WEDG 103.3-FM, and the audio of that call was played on air Thursday morning. Here is the summary of what he said:

  • He denies owing anyone any money.
  • When asked whether a check was bounced off Frank Budwey, he replied, “yes and no”, and accuses Budwey of taking an unsigned check off the counter despite them having paid him cash.
  • Valenti claims that they moved in Sept. 26th, and that the deal was for free rent for October, November, and December. In early January, Budwey demanded rent for December. They had a dispute, and Budwey asked Valenti to “just give me something.” They paid him some cash and claim to have the receipt.
  • Lori was arrested and bailed out soon thereafter, and she has an attorney assisting her.
  • Valenti never talked to Janice Okun about anything – Lori did, and his PR people did.
  • He claims that the Iron Chef thing is all a big misunderstanding. He did a “mock Iron Chef” in Florida, and backdated it to 2003 for some reason that I didn’t comprehend.  The audio of him blatantly claiming to Channel 7 to have appeared on Iron Chef America was played for him, and he said that he “shouldn’t have said it like that.”
  • He admits that he never attended the CIA, and that he lied in 2007 on an application to get a job.
  • He says he’s trying to come clean because he’s put his business and his employees in a “predicament”.
  • Valenti claims he wanted to just open up a little restaurant, and he hired a marketing company that took the lies that he told a Florida reporter and used that information to puff the North Tonawanda venture.
  • Did he work at Mamma Leone’s? He says he worked at _a_ Mamma Leone’s in New York City. He denies working for _the_ Mamma Leone’s. There is no evidence of another Mamma Leone’s existing in New York City – indeed, for an Italian Restaurant to do so would be a blatant violation of every intellectual property law and theory I can think of.  He said there were “twenty” Mamma Leones in New York City. That is as blatant a lie as saying you’re a Hell’s Angel, or an Iron Chef winner, or a CIA graduate.
  • Mr. Valenti claims to understand the blowback against him, and finally denies ever claiming that he was a member of the Hell’s Angels. This audio right here puts the lie to that (audio NSFW).


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Email me at buffalopundit[at]gmail.com

Tea from Leaves!

13 Jan

Buffalo News diner Janice Okun reviews Ming Cafe today. The charming little Chinese restaurant is located on the same block as Shango, across from UB South, and is well-known for odd opening times and great food.

Ms. Okun’s review reveals:

1. Ming Cafe makes its jasmine tea from actual tea leaves. Somehow, this is surprising or unusual.

2. Ming Cafe doesn’t offer all that sweet-and-sour crap you’re used to seeing on Chinese menus, but mixes it up a bit. Also, the menu is not “tomelike”.

3. She ordered Crab Rangoon, except it had shrimp and ricotta instead of crab and cream cheese. Shrimp Yangon?  She also ordered tofu and spinach dumplings, “fried as crisp as could be”.

4. Given a chance to order a really interesting escargot dish, she instead ordered Singapore noodles (found on every Chinese menu), and was surprised that it had curry. Singapore noodles is universally recognized as a vermicelli dish with meat, shrimp, veggies, all loaded with curry. It’s curried noodles – you can’t be “surprised” by the curry. This is akin to her being surprised that a muffuletta comes with an olive salad. Sichuan chicken, also found on just about every Chinese menu, was served with “medium” heat, on a bed of spinach.

5. Ms. Okun says the food and service were “excellent” and “very good”.  This doesn’t explain why she gives Ming only 3.5 stars under her unexplained scheme. On what basis is the half-star given? Everything was good based on the safe choices she made, and her surprise over something quite predictable.

6. The image accompanying the review features the owners, and a plate of beef tofu.

Based on the foregoing, I give this review only one and one-half okuns.

I am not at liberty to explain how I arrive at that figure.

A 3 1/2 Okun Review

9 Jan

Janice Okun dined at the somewhat newly reconstituted Rue Franklin, and reviews it here. For the second time in as many weeks, she did not give a half-star. This is a peculiar change from the norm.

What we do learn from her review of this venerable French restaurant is the following:

1. Her dessert was “nonthreatening”. That seems to be the underlying theme for most Okun reviews; one might describe it as, “almost totally subliminal”.

2. Lighting is important to a restaurant’s ambiance. Who knew?

3. The portions were to her liking; i.e., large.

4. Although this is a French place with traditional French dishes such as seared foie gras, Ragôut of veal sweetbreads with white wine, mushrooms, tomato and tarragon, poule au pot, and a braised short rib specialty of Gascony, she ordered two benign salmon dishes.

5. As usual, there is less information about dishes’ flavor than there is about ambiance, lighting, and the fact that Okun knows the waiter’s name.

As such, I give this review three and a half okuns. In keeping with the Gusto’s restaurant reviews, I will give no background on how the okuns are awarded.

Valenti’s: Still Going

9 Jan

Way back in mid-December, I wrote two posts smacking the Buffalo News and its restaurant reviewer, Janice Okun, for regurgitating untrue claims made by a couple running a red sauce joint in North Tonawanda. The first post is here, the second is here.

The original post is now up to 140+ comments, many of which detail various legal problems and outright lies told by these restaurateurs. It has since drawn the attention of the Metro papers, here.

After contacting the Food Network, and the production company in charge of producing the show Iron Chef, Triage Entertainment, Inc., both companies indicated having no record of Valenti appearing on the show.

“We have a master list that shows every competitor that has appeared on the show,” said Courtney Mattox administrative assistant at Triage. “There is the possibility that his name slipped through the cracks but we keep pretty good records.”

After trying to contact Valenti to provide him the opportunity to prove otherwise, Metro was only able to contact his wife, Lori, who stated “I will not comment on this matter, I will have Terry call you back.”

Terry never called back.

Brian Kahle of Magic Marketing, provided a press release to The Source regarding the restaurant grand opening, which took place Monday, Nov. 14, which read:

“Executive Chef and co-owner, Terry Valenti, is a guy who took-on and defeated celebrity chef Bobby Flay during a 2003 episode of TV’s popular ‘Iron Chef.’ When challenged to come up with four great dishes using parsnips, of all things, Terry produced four exquisite offerings, including his Chilean Sea Bass, stuffed with parsnips and artichoke hearts”. His creative dessert choice was a Mango Parsnips Ice Cream, which the judges also loved.”

The funniest thing I saw, however, was this article from Brevard County Florida, outlining Valenti’s elaborate claims about being a CIA graduate, and such a valuable asset to the then-defunct Mamma Leone’s restaurant in Manhattan that the owner “cried” when he resigned.

Click to enlarge

I’ve never seen such a wide and deep volume of utter nonsense just to puff some nondescript restaurant and a nobody chef, and none of it is necessary to run a decent Italian food joint. Interesting what a simple vetting of an Okun review might reveal.