Saturday, July 1, 2017

Chowhound: 20th Anniversary

CBS told me they were planning a 20th Anniversary "celebration" of Chowhound, and asked me to reply to a list of very open-ended questions. They also promised to plug my app, Eat Everywhere. The result was this rather sad little throwaway (turn your volume off before clicking...the auto-play video ad is quite loud).

Anyhoo, as a treat for Slog readers, here's my full set of answers, which I hope offers a thoughtful and fitting look back at something launched on a whim as an ad-hoc little side project ("a three hour tour....").

How did you come up with the idea of creating Chowhound?
I'd attracted a following as a restaurant critic, and felt under increasing pressure to act like an “expert.” Ick. I was never comfortable with the notion that my taste buds are more significant than anyone else’s.

I knew loads of people who knew as much as I did about food, and who had great taste. I do have a special knack for treasure hunting, and for writing evocatively, and I was glad more and more people were enjoying my reports in various publications. But the “expert” thing felt creepy and dishonest (I wrote more about this here).

After gradually working my way up the NYC restaurant critic ladder, I got a call from The NY Daily News, which, at the time, was the highest-circulation paper in America. They were looking for someone to take over their restaurant review column. After a series of meetings and interviews, I was finally called into the editor’s office and told I had the job. I asked about pay, and was told that for two pieces per week, plus an occasional longer feature, I'd get $250/week. In a state of shock, I managed to croak out a question about food expenses, and they said I could take care of that out of my $250/week.

The scales instantly fell from my eyes. I understood the game was strictly about vanity (which explained a lot of the lazy food writing at the time). I liked eating well and writing well, period. I wanted to evangelize treasure and tempt folks to stop settling for mediocrity, but felt no urge to puff myself up. The solution came to me immediately.

A network of avid eaters would be way more useful than any one gilded palate, so I'd gather kindred spirits online in an atmosphere filled with zest and personality - as opposed to dry user-rating services like Zagat. And I'd make it flatly horizontal, not hierarchical. I'd been moderating online forums for years as a hobby, so the whole thing came pretty naturally.

I suppose I was the Gorbachev of restaurant critics, working tirelessly to ensure my own obsolescence.
What are your top 3 favorite threads in Chowhound?
Ha. I never looked at it that way. Let me try to explain...

Many users are naturally drawn to the prolific, confident writers - the food critic wannabes. Some of these posters are/were terrific, and many of us, including me, learned a great deal from them. They were always very welcome!

But the stuff I most appreciated was posted by random posters who'd occasionally drop an awesome tip into the mix. They weren't looking for cred. Some had trouble crafting a coherent sentence. But they'd quietly, modestly make it understood that they knew their stuff - had tried every tamal in Queens - and were sharing hard-won solid gold. The poster named "Fedex Guy", for example, was actually my Fedex guy! His tips were always on the money, even if his spelling was a little dodgy. He'd been chowhounding on his delivery route for years.

I often felt like I was the only one paying attention to some of these people. And they were the ones that came to mind whenever I questioned my commitment to keep the lights on.

I'll say one thing, though. I've spent the past two years building an ambitious cuisine app, and whenever I Googled some super-obscure culinary question, I'd inevitably stumble upon some amazing Chowhound thread offering the definite word on the topic. I didn't always have time to read much of the site back in the day, but I'm constantly discovering, even now, how phenomenally useful this data trove is. Years later, there's still nothing like it.
What are your most fond experiences with the community?
I loved seeing great places - which otherwise would have been ignored - thrive and prosper thanks to chowhound support and evangelization.

Everyone assumes that cream floats - that great stuff eventually gets discovered and praised. But that's not true at all! Treasure withers from disinterest all the time. It kills me when greatness fails. It's such a dangerous precedent.

I'm proud that our community has elevated so much treasure. We've done an awful lot to encourage the good guys, and to help make quality profitable.
How many Chowdowns have you organized and how many have you participated in?
None! I was too busy running this beast to gallavant with the crowd! Also, I needed to maintain food critic anonymity. The community arranged and enjoyed them on their own.

Hey, the cook back in the kitchen rarely enjoys the front-of-the-house conviviality. But the chowdowns sure sounded like fun!
Who designed the original logo? Was it based on a dog you own?
Cecilia Lehar designed it. We went through a ton of drafts, trying to ensure the dog didn't look scary, or sloppy. He needed a happy, eagerly-loopy, bon vivant flair, which was hard to achieve. Can you see the cocktail glass in his nose? :)
Could you explain the mystery behind the dog mask?
As a restaurant critic, I needed to retain anonymity. This made it difficult to appear on TV. I was on a program featuring a roundtable discussion with two other critics (one of whom was Ruth Reichl), and the producers offered to provide a disguise. They handed me an awesome dog mask, and let me keep it. I wore it to all public events (e.g. this book signing). About a week after I left the operation, I found it in a box that had been resting on a radiator. It had melted into a pile of gloop.
Have you ever imagined that Chowhound would be around for this long?
Absolutely not. My business partner Bob(TM) and I had planned on five years, tops. It was a fun kooky project, never intended to blow up so large or to last so long. Whenever I hear site users complain about this or that issue, I often have trouble getting my dander up. To me, the fact that Chowhound even still exists is a miracle. How many web sites from 1997 are still out there, serving their original mission?
In your words, what defines a Chowhound?
In the old days, we made all new arrivals to the site read through a text-filled front page, explaining all that. It was designed to filter out the trendies!

*Everyone has one in his or her life: the brother-in-law with a collection of 800 takeout menus, the coworker who's always late from lunch because she HAD to trek to one end of town for the best soup and to the other for the best sandwich. Chowhounds know where the good stuff is, and they never settle for less than optimal deliciousness, whether dining in splanky splendor or grabbing a quick slice of pizza. They are the one in ten who live to eat.*

*We're not talking about foodies. Foodies eat where they're told; they eagerly follow trends and rarely go where Zagat hasn't gone before. Chowhounds, on the other hand, blaze trails, combing gleefully through neighborhoods for hidden culinary treasure. They despise hype, and while they appreciate refined ambiance and service, they can't be fooled by mere flash.*

*No media outlets serve chowhounds. There are no chowhoundish newspapers, magazines or TV shows. And they've never had a place to gather and exchange information. This discerning, passionate crowd has long been completely invisible and utterly disenfranchised.......until now!*

*'s Alpha Dog, professional restaurant critic/author Jim Leff, along with Bob Okumura, launched this site to provide a non-hypey haven where their fellow hounds can opine, bicker, and rave to their hearts' content. Anyone who eats is welcome to stop by for unbiased, savvy chow advice or to just sit back and watch in amazement.*

*If you, too, fret endlessly about making every bite count; if you'd grow weak from hunger rather than willingly eat something less than delicious, this place is for you! Welcome to our community. Let's talk. Let's swap tips (click below to get to the meat & potatoes).*

Also....this article, "A Tale of Two Chowhounds", which has been republished many times, was a foundational document.
What would you like to say to the members who’ve been in Chowhound since the beginning?
Check out the cookies from these guys. They're the best I ever had. My favorite flavor is toffee, not listed on their site. Try to score a special order!
What have you been doing since you stopped running Chowhound?
I went on a long binge of exercise, yoga, and meditation. I also learned to cook healthily. Then I got my trombone technique back again (I started out as a professional musician, but hadn't played a note in years, being so busy running the site!). Then I got involved in a few kookie and rewarding projects (intentionally) off public radar. And wrote a Slog, which continues to this day.

For the past two years, I've been working - with a team of chowhounds - on a magnum opus: "Eat Everywhere", a iPhone/Android app that serves as an on-the-fly guide in restaurants of any cuisine. It's like the hitchhiker's guide to the food universe (John Thorne calls it "an impressively designed and wickedly ingenious app. Endlessly useful, surprisingly entertaining, and highly addictive....the distillation of a lifetime of adventurous eating").

If you're a newbie, it will make you fearless about approaching any immigrant restaurant at home (or foreign eateries while traveling), and confident about copping a fantastic meal. If you're already expert, it's the cheat sheet you've always dreamed of.

Everyone knows about samosas and pad Thai. But there are equally killer things in every cuisine. This mines all the best treasure. Really, I should have done this before starting Chowhound. You've got to know what to eat (and how to eat it) before you worry about where to eat!
How are you going to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Chowhound?
I'll be doing what I did for 20 years before Chowhound, and for the 20 years since: trying to maximize my deliciousness. I'll be out there searching for the geniuses, kooks, and hold-outs who aim for more than maximal profit from minimal effort. It's what I do! For a few years there, people paid some attention, but that was never a goal. I'm just a guy who really, really enjoys chowhounding!

Here's my Slog posting from Chowhound's 15th anniversary.

Here is the first installment of the epic tale of the selling of ("Bubbles, Slogs, and Selling Out").

Here are all Slog postings tagged "Chowhound".


Val in Seattle said...

One of my best experiences with Chowhound -- a hot dog tour of Union County NJ. This was probably ten years ago. There was a guy named John who had a passion and discernment for hot dogs, buns, condiments. Never have I been so stuffed as at the end of that tour. I learned about little places that were near my home. Thanks Chowhound!

Jim Leff said...

Funny thing: I hate hot dogs! :)

Wouldn't it have been awful and stifling if one dude's pref like that had been the law of the land?

Thanks for the comment, Val!

Unknown said...

Wishing you continued success down the road Dog! Thanks for creating Chowhound!

Seth Godin said...

Thanks for these riffs, Jim.

Chowhound's behavior continues to astound (what, did they run out of space?) but this is a menschy piece, and I'm glad you posted it.

Your original leap continues to leave ripples.

Jim Leff said...

"Your original leap continues to leave ripples."

Thanks, Seth. I think the app is way more useful and ingenious than Chowhound was. Everyone who's taken the time has agreed. It depresses me when people who respect my work won't take that time. But I think I see the problem.

Consider this blog. It launched after the blogging trend. So people dismissed it for the superficial form of it - for some strange reason failing to imagine I'd make something fresh of that form. If you don't dive in, it's easy to imagine that this is "just some blog" (love it or hate it - I know it's not everyone's cup of tea - it's definitely not "just some blog").

Same for the app. Apps are passé, so it's hard to get people to care - including those who ought to trust me not to be dull. I'm forced to concede Chowhound didn't succeed because it was great, heartfelt, or useful. It mostly succeeded because it was a web site, and web sites in 1997 were cool. Period.

I'm a poor match for this world. I've got a jazz musician's disregard for form. It's not the song, it's what you do with it.

Seth Godin said...

But not all jazz musicians belong in a Monty Python sketch.

I meant what I said. You did a good thing. I accept my compliment on your behalf.

Jim Leff said...

Hey, I know! I ONLY do good things! Not cuz I'm Mr. Fabulous (I'm definitely not), but simply because I stubbornly decline to do non-good things!

I don't want compliments (save them for Mr. Fabulous!). But I would appreciate engagement with my other work, and willingness to evangelize them with some fraction of the enthusiasm that my best-known work encouraged for OTHER people's good works.

Not as a favor, but simply/purely to help connect good things with those who'd enjoy them.

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