The chef’s job isn’t just in the kitchen anymore. In the post-Food Network era of celebrity chef fandom, the profession is no longer tethered to the stove, hidden away and unfamiliar to the customers who enjoy his food. The first wave of celebrity chefs like Emeril Lagasse and Mario Batali established the concept of chef-as-brand; fans now feel they know their chefs and can interact with them, peering behind the curtain of a formerly obscured profession.
It has happened on the local scale, too – especially after the social media boom that first gave us Facebook and Twitter and then made them inextricable from modern culture and the way the public gets its information. Now, not only can we get real time updates about the details of food in Providence – when a restaurant has an event like a wine dinner, or is running a special – we can engage with chefs, reviewers and local growers in a totally unprecedented way. And it’s making us think differently about food.
On March 20, the kitchen at Nicks on Broadway was bustling with preparations for the first Eating with the Ecosystem dinner, which is a new initiative to make the public more aware of how to eat locally and sustainably. A couple of years ago, before it was important to be able to read short bursts of information in real time, only the kitchen staff would have known what was happening behind the scenes at that dinner. But Derek Wagner (@NicksonBroadway), head chef and owner of Nicks, made sure that his followers on Twitter knew exactly what was happening, too. During prep for service and throughout the dinner, he tweeted: a picture of a hog from Stoney Hill Farm in mid-preparation, one showing a beautiful presentation of Geer Farm Black Corn Crusted Skate Wing, and a shot of the kitchen staff plating dozens of tiny, delectable-looking desserts.
This kind of information sharing works in several ways. Not only do Wagner’s tweets allow his followers to know more about how he prepares his food and where it’s sourced, it gets them interacting with him, even though he’s behind the scenes in the kitchen. “It’s been really great to see,” says David Dadekian, a private chef and food writer who runs the website EatDrinkRI.com (and is the food critic for our sister magazine The Bay). “Chefs are really using Twitter to show who they are and what they do. It’s not advertising, it’s more showing what they offer, the kind of food they serve, what they’re all about.”
Many, if not most, big name chefs and restaurants in Providence are prolific tweeters, among them: Beau Vestal of New Rivers (@NewRiversBeau), who posts pictures of his food foraging adventures and highlights what he thinks is particularly worthy of diners’ attention at the restaurant on a given night; Darius Salko of Tini (@TINIfoodbar), who also showcases the restaurants innovative cocktails; Ed Repoza of Thee Red Fez (@edfezRI), who posts detailed descriptions of every night’s specials at the restaurant. Cook and Brown Public House (@CookAndBrown) announces its weekly menu via Twitter, and The Dorrance (@The_Dorrance) keeps the public aware of its entertainment schedule.
“Now you can market yourself so easily with Twitter and Facebook,” says Nick Rabar, chef/owner of Avenue N in Rumford and star of Nick Rabar: Chef 2 Go on Cox Sports (on Facebook as “Avenue N American Kitchen” and “Nick Rabar: Chef 2 Go,” respectively). “You have to do it now. You’re lagging significantly behind if you don’t use those tools that are right at your fingertips.”
There are countless others, from all over the state, though they’re largely centered in the places most known as dining destinations like Providence, Newport and Bristol. But it’s not all about self-promotion, not by a long shot. It’s about being excited about a particularly nice delivery of Moonstone oysters from Narragansett; about helping to get the word out about the abundance of high quality growers and food producers we have in Rhode Island; about promoting the state’s excellent dining culture. It’s especially about that. The people who create the best food are also the biggest cheerleaders for others who do the same thing. When Matt and Kate Jennings of Farmstead and La Laiterie (@MatthewJennings) advanced to the finals of the James Beard Awards in late March, which is big news in the culinary world, it was tweeted and retweeted by countless local chefs, bloggers and foodies.
“I’m really encouraged by it,” Dadekian says. “I’ve worked in Boston and New York, and they don’t have this kind of camaraderie that they have in Providence. There are a few major events here that get all the big chefs, which would be really hard to do in New York. It’s almost unheard of. I don’t think any of these guys view each other as competitors because what they do is so different.”
Besides sharing big ideas about food, though, the social media boom has made business possible for smaller food operations that don’t have consistent ways to promote themselves – or, for that matter, consistent locations. Chez Pascal’s food truck, Hewtin’s Dogs Mobile (@ChezPascal), was the first locally to utilize Twitter as a business tool, but the trend has blown up in the past year. Last year saw the debut of successful food truck operations, including Mama Kim’s Korean BBQ (@MamaKimsKbbq), Poco Loco Tacos (@PocoLocoTacos) and Mijos Tacos (@MijosTacos), that rely exclusively on social media to get the word out about where they will be serving food on a given day. This year, there look to be even more. Rocket Fine Street Food (@RocketTruck) and Fancheezical (@Fancheezical) have already made a big splash, and it’s early in the season for this much talk about street food.
Dadekian says, “It’s almost a required part of their business if they want to track customers. It’s a huge piece of the success of those food trucks right now. Of course the food and the quality come first, but if you can’t get the customers there you can’t sell it.” Rick Conca, producer of Chef 2 Go, agrees. “We did a segment this coming season on Mama Kim’s Korean BBQ truck. They’re in the truck serving food and meanwhile they’re up on Twitter and Facebook – they’re getting orders, people are asking, ‘Where are you parked today?’ It’s really become an integral part.”