By Nina Thorsen

Chefs and culinary professionals gathered for the annual Worlds of Flavor conference at the Culinary Institute of America's Napa Valley branch in St. Helena. (Nina Thorsen / KQED)
Chefs and culinary professionals gathered for the annual Worlds of Flavor conference at the Culinary Institute of America’s Napa Valley branch in St. Helena. (Nina Thorsen / KQED)

There have been websites to help people connect with what they want to eat since the dawn of the Internet. But the idea that individual chefs should develop their online presence is still fairly new — and it was a hot topic at an industry gathering in mid-November at the Culinary Institute of America in Napa Valley.  Previous iterations of the Worlds of Flavor conference have included “The Rise of Asia” and “Spain and the World Table.”  This year, it was “Kitchens Connected.”

I talked with several presenters, including Brendon Marshall, the co-founder and CEO of Kitchit. It’s a San Francisco company that connects chefs with customers looking for an in-home cooking experience. They’ve expanded to L.A., New York and Chicago since opening two years ago.

“We’re very much in the early stages of seeing the world of food and the world of technology come together,” Marshall said, “and the companies that’ll succeed are the ones that help the chefs succeed.”  He got the idea for the site when he was at Stanford Business School, trying to plan dinner parties with his classmates.

Kitchit chefs don’t specialize in the old-fashioned kind of catering, where most of the cooking was done off-site or behind closed doors.  The chef is part of the dinner party’s entertainment. “We want to create incredible memories, where food is the conduit,” said Marshall.  “Now you can really understand what the caterer’s story is, what the chef’s story is.  They’re really the artist of this food, and to be able to interact with them to create the best experience possible.  It’s your menu, your items, but working with the chef to learn new things about the food.”

Marshall said it works out being a good deal for chefs as well as Kitchit’s users.  “What the consumer’s paying for is the chef’s time and the cost of ingredients.  So that’s a much more efficient model than even a traditional restaurant.  We have many chefs that are making close to 100 percent of their annual income off Kitchit.  The other component is they’re able to showcase their talents.  So our restaurant chefs might want to experiment with new concepts, try new things in people’s homes, and then that shows up on the restaurant menu.”

Jared Rivera is the co-creator of ChefsFeed, which won “Best of 2012” from iTunes, and is now available as a website for all platforms. It collects restaurant recommendations from chefs and culinary experts. So even people who will never get a reservation at the French Laundry, much less hang out with chef Thomas Keller, can still find out where he likes to get pastrami sandwiches in Los Angeles.

Of course, there’s no shortage of restaurant tips online.  But Rivera says the ones that collect user-generated content from anybody with a keyboard aren’t always accurate, which was a regular annoyance in his previous career doing public relations for restaurants. “There would be reviews about our clients that said things like ‘I had a great meal, but my bike got stolen while I was inside, so I’m giving this restaurant one star.’ Now that’s not fair to the restaurant because they had nothing to do with that bike being stolen.”

But some chefs want to bite off more new technology than they can chew, says cookbook author, editor and publisher Nick Fauchald of All Day Media.

“The biggest surprise is how much it’s going to cost,” says Fauchald. “I get a call or an email every week from somebody who says, ‘I want to make an app, and I want it to do this, this and this — I want to wave at it and have it show me a new recipe….’  Well, all those things are possible to build, but you’re going to spend thousands of dollars. So what I usually do is try to talk them out of whatever crazy technology they want to embrace, and start with something simple — really, what’s the purpose, what’s the goal, what do you want people to do with it?”

Fauchald says the daily life of a chef has changed dramatically. “It used to be you could be in your kitchen, you wouldn’t see the dining room, you wouldn’t see your guests unless you felt like venturing out to say hello, and you could just be with your ingredients and your stoves.  (The change) started with open kitchens, so people could watch you cooking as a spectator sport, and now you’re expected to be reaching out to the dining public pretty much 24 hours a day, through social media, through television and video.

“I don’t know if it’s fair to ask all chefs to be completely friendly and engaged and open to the public, but there certainly is that expectation now from the diners.”

Author

Nina Thorsen

Nina Thorsen is a radio producer and director, and frequently reports on sports issues.  Previously, she produced and co-created KQED's "Pacific Time" and was the deputy foreign editor for "Marketplace". Thorsen began her public radio career while a student at the University of Minnesota, as a ticket taker for "A Prairie Home Companion".

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