Regrettably, the web site Chowhound is shutting down soon after a distinguished 25-12 months operate. The web site advanced by the many years, but not enough can be reported about its founder Jim Leff. Back again then, most food items crafting in New York centered on extravagant restaurants, and Chowhound was at minimum partly dependable for setting us on the culinary route we’re on today, one which is a lot more inclusive and a lot less Euro-centric.
I satisfied Leff someday all over 1994. We ended up launched by Sylvia Carter, a restaurant critic for Extended Island’s Newsday, who included lesser recognised areas in the 5 boroughs and on the Island. Her evaluate outings have been frequently attended by a group she curated for their adore of what had been then generally dubbed ethnic eating places — generally modest mom-and-pop places that served food items you would not locate in a diner. Leff was an itinerant trombone player who mostly did marriage ceremony gigs, and I wrote a foods fanzine termed Down the Hatch. I’d also recently started a weekly column in the Village Voice, while Leff wrote a competing column in the New York Press.
Remaining a Extensive Islander, Leff owned a auto, and we quickly built use of it to check out out new places to eat. I had several other means of acquiring to the restaurants I coated, but an invitation from Leff provided an knowledge to be relished. He may say, “Hey, I’ve heard of a person that sells Thai skewers from a cart on a lifeless-close road in Rego Park. Want to go?” I’d say yes, knowing that a Leff food trip normally turned out to be a affirmation of Zeno’s paradox: On the way to the vacation spot, he’d retain imagining of other spots value checking out, and you’d halt at them a person by just one. Quickly, you were zigzagging throughout the town, so that you approached, but by no means rather attained, the original goal. “Another working day,” he’d say as we halted an expedition out of sheer tiredness.
Leff cobbled collectively freelance work opportunities crafting about food stuff, actively playing his trombone all the while, but he in no way located his raison d’etre until finally he co-launched Chowhound in 1997. To those people additional common with today’s foodstuff web sites, social media landscape, and digital newsletters, the early Chowhound would appear hopelessly crude. It was a electronic bulletin board of kinds, divided geographically and according to food items-connected topics, these as What Jim Had For Supper, to which contributors initiated threads that could be answered by other participants. There were being no shots, and the site would be accessed by phone modem when it launched. On the web-site, participants, acknowledged as “hounds,” proven reputations by locating tiny-identified dining places and extolling them.
A cult shaped about Chowhound. Volunteer moderators would law enforcement the web page to avoid foul language and other infractions. For illustration, the lousy actions or even criminal pursuits of restauranteurs might not be talked about, or in fact any legal matters involving dining places, primarily health department closures. There had been other procedures, far too. Mentioning the whole names of restaurateurs was discouraged if their immigration position appeared in question. Adverse thoughts of eating places, if considered far too severe or untrue, were being frequently excised. Nonetheless, the dialog flourished.
Leff’s design of restaurant criticism on the boards and in print involved deciding on a constrained number of excellent areas and hyping them incessantly. He lifted a handful of tiny places to eat from obscurity and built them famed. He first instructed me about Sripraphai in 1996, when it was a small Thai bakery in Woodside. He talked the spot up until eventually it commenced evolving into the sprawling restaurant intricate it is currently.
Di Fara was a different discover he raved about on Chowhound, a neighborhood pizzeria that would have been of no unique curiosity other than for its isolated site. The very first time he took me in the late 90s, I instructed him, “Jim, I could place to 20 other community pizzerias within a three-mile radius that are just as good.” It’s possible that was the case, but Dom DeMarco was a vibrant character, who did in truth hold pots of basil developing in the window and obsessed on the total of cheese he sprinkled on each individual pie. As the decades went by and his fame amplified, DeMarco’s pizzas turned even much better via Leff’s encouragement.
Other Leff finds involved the Arepa Lady, Kabab Café, Donovan’s, David’s Brisket Household, and Charles Southern Kitchen area — all benefitted from his cheerleading. Additional importantly, Chowhound authorized Leff and fellow commenters to immediate general public interest to a full course of dining establishments that had been largely disregarded right before, creating a new lifestyle of food stuff curiosity, culinary internationalism, and a enjoy for vernacular eating.
The two Jonathan Gold and I have been common contributors to Chowhound in the late ’90s, when Gold was based mostly in Los Angeles and visited the Chowhound board for that city, and later on when Gold was the critic at Connoisseur and lived right here. We gave and obtained heaps of fantastic ideas, but we found ourselves running afoul of the moderators, so that on individual instances we have been every single questioned to leave. Both of us were being guilty, at instances, of staying a tiny also vehement about our cafe viewpoints. Right after a discreet interval, we scampered again, simply because Chowhound was additional than a website, it was an habit.
When Calvin Trillin printed “New Grub Streets” in the New Yorker in 2001, which prominently showcased Chowhound, it thrust the focus of food items obsessives on inexpensive and eclectic having to countrywide prominence and prompted an influx of new participants to Chowhound. But step by step, the bulletin boards appeared considerably less a selection of familial foods nuts, and much more a throng of strangers demanding restaurant information with out offering any in return. Its sale to CNET/CBS and the departure of Leff and co-founder Bob Okumura (the tech dude who developed the website) in 2005 seemed to me like an finish of an era, and I seldom frequented soon after that.
With Leff no lengthier haunting the boards, and the gradual exodus of avid lovers, the web site underwent the expected complex enhancements, structure innovations, and information growth from 2005 till the present. Recipes, dietary information, historical accounts, essays on kitchen equipment, and attribute tales on journey and other random subject areas crept in as the original bulletin boards offering restaurant assistance receded into the deep history. Chowhound experienced dropped its soul, and in executing so experienced forgone what made it special and magnetically attractive. Sooner or later, it grew to become just one more normal food items web site, of which there are now way too many to rely, earning its sad departure from the scene an inevitability.
In the interim, I misplaced keep track of of Leff, but read rumors he lived in Connecticut, and then he’d acquired a farm someplace down South and gotten married. But at the time he’d supplied up Chowhound, and stopped driving all over seeking for cafe ideas I could use, I genuinely was not way too curious of a hound any more.