Ten years ago, New Yorker Jim Leff co-founded Chowhound.com, where the catch phrase is “for those who live to eat,” because he felt the need for a network of “real food experts.” Since then, the Web site membership has swelled considerably, CNET has taken over, and Leff has started and finished a North American culinary tour. The Chowhound-at-large took some time off from steaming Swiss chard and millets to talk to the Resident.—Rhea Saran
Do you have a memorable childhood food-related story?
JL: As a child, I would bug my parents to go to particular places to eat. I would bug them to go to a certain pizzeria that was far away or to a specific breakfast place. I just assumed I was being annoying the way kids can be about certain things. Then, years later, people told me that I was spot on about those places. So, I’d been right all along and my parents were wrong. It’s the ultimate revenge.
What led you to Chowhound.com?
JL: I’d already been writing for years. I had a book out and I’d written columns for Newsday, New York Press and Brooklyn Bridge. So, I was already an experienced writer, a sort of ‘man in the street.’ But I realized that the media wasn’t covering the good stuff. They were relying on press releases. Then, there were the people who really got it. They were the UPS drivers who knew exactly where the best donuts would be emerging from an oven at exactly 1:30 p.m. These were the real food experts. So I set up Chowhound to get straight to these people.
How has the transition been since CNET took over?
JL: It’s going well so far. There are small problems, like right now we’re going crazy because the search engine isn’t working. I never expected everything to be perfect after the acquisition. But essentially, it’s the same great crew of people. And every morning when I start up my computer, I’m delighted to see that there’s someone on the message board talking about a new place for great lasagna.
How has it changed your role?
JL: I’m no longer a janitor. I am a writer and, before, I didn’t have the time to write. Now, CNET takes care of the janitorial work and the financial aspect. Earlier, I used to have to scheme about how I was going to raise $4,000 a month for the server bill. Now, that’s taken care of.
Tell me about the CHOW Tour.
JL: I was on the road from about August 15th to December 15th 2006. It was an assignment from CNET. Most of the content [on his blog at chow.com/tour] ran after the tour ended.
What was it like eating out all the time?
JL: It was not the most pleasant or healthful thing, even when you’re just sampling. It did do damage to my health. I was eating at about 11 places a day and no days off. I’m still recovering. One day, I was at a farmer’s market in rural North Carolina and there was this woman cooking up farm fresh soul food. She handed me the most beautiful chicken drumstick and I had only one bite (it was 11 a.m.) before putting it down and asking for the check. It was the best fried chicken I’d ever had.
There were parts of the country you didn’t get to on this trip. Do you think you’d do something like this again?
JL: I covered a lot of ground, but it is true that I didn’t make it to many states. I tried not to linger and move as fast as I could. It would be interesting to do something like this again, but it would have to be structured differently. And my doctor wouldn’t be too happy about it.
So, what’s next then?
JL: Well, right now, I’m just taking time off to get back to regular life. In real life, I’m a trombone player, so I’m picking that up again. I’m also doing an hour of yoga and going to the gym every day. I’m still recovering from the tour, so I steam organic Swiss chard and millets (without any seasoning) for every meal.
Photo: A discovery of Leff's