With chefs, it often seems as if there’s a thin line between self-promotion and egomania. But I never realized how thin until I logged onto a certain chef’s website. A face the size of a screensaver materialized as soon as I clicked on the “biography” link, and then on the “works” link (to his cookbook and his two restaurants). His visage stared out sultrily from the recipes page before the food photos kicked in. And on the “gallery” page, loaded with head shots, it became very clear what he means to do when he formally hangs up his apron: model and act. After all, he’s already played a chef on TV.
Rocco DiSpirito may be larger than life in cyberspace, but he is not alone anymore. It’s no longer enough for a chef to rely on reviews, cookbooks, TV gigs, ads and constant hustle to stay visible in a world overrun with Wolfgang wannabes. The star-making machinery now runs 2 4/7, and only a website can keep it fueled nonstop.
Most of the world’s most famous chefs, like Puck himself and Daniel Boulud and Alain Ducasse, have been aware of this ever since America went online big time. A website is like a PR agent who never sleeps: The press and public can log on any time and from anywhere to dig up almost any amount of information, from the menu to the wine list to the driving directions.
The surprise is not that so many chefs would stake out cyber-territory but that any of them would not in a world where even the corner pizzeria is likely to have its own URL. So many restaurant-goers, particularly those heading for culinary shrines, obsess in advance over what to order and what to drink. A website lets them preview the pleasure. It gives groupies a chance to keep up with where they might meet their idols next. And it lets aspiring Emerils test-drive a multitude of recipes.
Some chefs work the ether extremely well, so sensually and graphically that you almost don’t need to go to the real restaurant; others are still wandering in the wilderness. (A single page with a phone number is not going to do it.) The most enterprising are capitalizing on the Web as a mall, selling their own products, often autographed.
I started obsessing about chef sites a few weeks ago after going online in search of the menu at Valentino while researching a story. Clicking on pieroselvaggio.com brought up lively music and then a slowly branching purple tree with the restaurateur’s places lined up below it. By clicking “skip intro” I was able to quickly link to those. But the Valentino page produced only press-release-quality prose, a photo and a link for making online reservations. I could tap into catering menus but had no idea what I might expect if I ate there. Or what it would cost.
Those two elements would seem to be the bare bones of what a chef site should provide. It makes it so much easier to recommend restaurants to my friends if I know they can log on, peruse the menu and wine list and check for themselves the potential or budget-busting risk.
Unfortunately, some chefs who go to all the trouble of setting up a site can’t even get it noticed by the big search engines (internal coding helps). In running down a list of maybe 30 chefs, I abandoned any whose home page did not turn up in the first three pages of Google hits. You should never have to call a restaurant to see if it has a website.
Consequently, some high-visibility Los Angeles chefs were not to be found instantly, Mark Peel and Nancy Silverton among them. (You need handy old media, such as the James Beard Foundation’s restaurant directory, to get to campanile.com fast.) Alain Giraud of Bastide is equally lost.
Suzanne Goin pops up at aocwinebar.com, complete with full-screen head shot. Essentially an Internet press kit, the site leaves nothing to the imagination: All contents are displayed on the home page, with more emphasis on the room than on the food. But four menus and a list of wines by the glass from the Cruvinet are accessible.
It’s no surprise to see Joachim Splichal with a huge Web presence at patinagroup.com. The company appears, from the site, to have nearly as many outlets from West Coast to East as McDonald’s. And all are covered, in photos, menus, even virtual tours.
Like Splichal, many of the most overexposed (and sometimes overextended) chefs have put up the most sophisticated sites. There’s a reason nationally famous chefs are nationally famous: They know how to get themselves noticed. The way this comes across on the Web is that they spring for good designs and easily navigated sites to create cyber amusement parks. Wolfgang Puck’s eponymous URL could be austrian-omnimedia.com, given how aggressive it is in promoting his restaurants, books, appearances and cooking shows, with video preview. But he also includes an extremely deep recipe database and a selection of cooking tips, like how to pit olives and julienne vegetables. And to his credit, the face that pops up first on the home screen is that of one of his executive chefs -- Mark Ferguson in Las Vegas.
Puck is proof of a new maxim: If you’ve seen a chef on TV, he’s twice as visible on the Internet. Anyone plugged into the Food Network in particular usually has a well-designed, user-friendly, recipe-packed site. Search for either Susan Feniger or Mary Sue Milliken of “Two Hot Tamales” and you can find them fast at marysueandsusan.com, a lively home page with links to their restaurant pages and links from there to menus and more. (Border Grill has a glossary, for instance.) They also have the requisite head shots posted, but smallish, and they compensate with a dense, solid database of recipes, many from their five books.
Emeril Lagasse also has an impressive site (emerils.com), more commercial than most but crammed with easily accessed information on his 11 restaurants around the country, myriad products for sale and countless enticing recipes (maybe I’m just partial to duck). If you want to go to work for him, he also has an employment link. But you may not want to after clicking on his photo, which comes up DiSpirito size.
Caprial Pence of Seattle has an equally extensive and navigable site, caprial.com. The recipe database is particularly well stocked and easy to search.
If you happen to be looking for Mario Batali, he’s at babbonyc.com, which couldn’t be a better designed or more useful site. Some of it seems pretentious, like the “vision” page, but samples of the nightly menus with prices are posted along with a rich archive of recipes and dissertations on ingredients. He even has a travel page, with his own and staff tips for Italy. Other restaurants should borrow the “gifts” page, which has extensive instructions not just for arranging to spring for meals as gifts but also for wine and dessert for those not ready to pony up for an entire dinner. Probably the most impressive part of the site, though, is that the only glimpse of “Molto’s” famous naked shins is tiny, on a cookbook cover.
San Francisco chefs, possibly because their proximity to all those laid-off Silicon Valley Web designers, tend to have a dramatic cyber-presence as well. Gary Danko’s garydanko.com is one of the most impressive I pulled up. The tour is like being there, the menus are up to date and the recipes come with slide-show tutorials explaining how a dish is prepared (slides that also fill in the blanks in the recipes: The skillet should be covered when cooking the horseradish-crusted salmon medallions to serve over a superb cucumber salad, for instance). The cheese page lists likely candidates so that potential patrons can bone up before being confronted with the cart. You can reserve on the site or buy a gift certificate. There’s no music, as there is at some sites like Rocco’s, but to me that’s a good thing.
Danko also considerately gives his virtual visitors a choice between fast Flash format and HTML, for those on slower connections. And although his photo does pop up, it’s briefly, before you move on to the lusciously photographed food.
Thomas Keller’s frenchlaundry.com is equally stunning, once you get past the neon-cheesy MasterCard logo on the home page (a chef with half a million cookbooks in print, serving $500 dinners, has to take advertising?) Prowling through the site is like being there (there being Napa Valley and not New York, of course), with gorgeously gauzy photos of place and food. The menus, unfortunately, download as PDF files, which is slower and more cumbersome than on screen but is probably easier for the site manager to update. As a bonus, you can try three recipes online and then buy the book, along with a $400 set of Thomas Keller MAC knives or the Raynaud of Limoges dishes used in his restaurants.
Daniel Boulud, who is known as much for covering all bases as for his food, has another dazzler: danielnyc.com. It’s a beautifully designed showcase for his four restaurants, his many books and his myriad products, from caviar to Champagne (most available signed). He also provides plenty of cook-friendly recipes; the elegant ones from his catering business, Feasts and Fetes, are particularly enticing, such as cucumber cups filled with mango and crab.
Alain Ducasse, however, runs a train wreck of a site (alain-ducasse.com), in two languages (except for the employment information, which is in only French).
It’s painfully slow, even with my DSL connection. It’s not particularly attractive, almost austere. And links don’t open new pages, they just create annoying popups. Menus are all printable, though, if you want to fantasize about one with truffles in every course ($300 a person). And you can get one of those dated 360-degree “tours” of his restaurant in Monaco, which looks rather like a mausoleum (just as it does in real life).
For all its flaws, the site does bring home again how accessible the world has become through this technology.
Even chefs who are not in such a media glare are easy to find and borrow ideas from, such as Frank Brigtsen in New Orleans (brigtsens.com), who has a fabulous recipe online for butternut squash made from shrimp stock, or Kathy Cary in Louisville, whose menu and recipes on lillyslapeche.com almost add up to a seminar on contemporary Kentucky ingredients.
And for all the benefits of a website to diners, the true value is to the chef -- it’s an image builder, a way to imprint a name on customers’ consciousness now that promotional matchbooks are becoming obsolete.
But it is not infallible. One of the first sites that turned up when I Googled Rocco was roccodispirito.net. And that took me to a screen with a foreboding message: shut down for lack of money and interest.
For a moment, I had high hopes.