Some people say grace before a meal. I have a similar ritual before chowing down, as do so many others in this social media age: I take pictures of my food. If I am dining with friends, I excuse myself beforehand, apologizing for the practice. But I perform it religiously.
The images go up on social media, mainly Instagram and Facebook. My audience is small—just closing in on 3,000 followers on Instagram and around 800 friends on FB. But it includes some of the most celebrated names in food, who I have gotten to know through my ritual dining out, as well as colleagues in the news business in which I've worked for more than 30 years, at Time, People and currently Bloomberg Businessweek, where I am deputy managing editor.
I am more of an enthusiast than a reviewer. I go to the restaurants I like again and again. If I try someplace new, it's mostly because I'm following a cook or staff from my favorite places to their latest culinary ventures. Social media allows me to share my enthusiasm with the rest of the world—and in that way, I feel I am doing what I can to promote the work of the chefs, sommeliers, bartenders, waiters, managers and other talented people I now have the privilege of calling my friends. It's my way of being grateful—of saying grace.
Sometimes, I get invitations to try new restaurants from people who follow me on Instagram. But I'm a creature of habit and prefer to spend my money on places I know I will enjoy, restaurants that are an extension of my sense of home. Recently, after telling one of my friends I might try to come by his new place, I was told, "Maybe you can get another food influencer to come along with you."
I didn't realize until that moment that I had become a cog in the influencer economy.
It's ironic. Despite my obsession with all things culinary, in my career I've mostly focused on hard news—politics, religion, war, scandal, crime, and now business. When I was at Time, I suggested some chefs for the Time 100, the magazine's annual list of the world's most influential people. After leaving there in 2013, I dabbled in food journalism—with mixed results. I started a weekly column called "Cocktails and Carnage" on Roads and Kingdoms, a gorgeous food and travel website. Alas, my columns managed just a hundred or so readers a week, and after 30 installments, I agreed it was time to shut it down.
My other professional foray into food had the Twitterverse up in arms, and with good reason. I had returned to Time as a freelancer to oversee a special project called "The Gods of Food." Unfortunately, this elaborate genealogy of the world's most influential chefs failed to include a single woman. I found myself in the eye of a social media storm, and nearly three years later, I still get called out on it. The one positive thing about the controversy was the attention it helped focus on the work of women in the restaurant business. They can't be ignored or left off any list now.
There was a time when I wanted to keep secret the restaurants I love. That way, I could walk in and grab a seat at the bar or reserve a table without trouble. Of course, that's not the way the business works. If no one else goes to the places you adore, then the places you adore won't be around for long. And so today, I post constantly—every day, in fact—about the chefs and restaurants in New York that give my life meaning.
Restaurants have always been intrinsically woven into my life and my work—long before social media began its reign. On March 19, 2003, I was having dinner at Annisa, in Greenwich Village, when my phone rang. It was the news desk at Time. The Second Gulf War had just begun with the "shock and awe" bombing of Baghdad. I turned to Jennifer Scism, Annisa's co-owner and manager, and apologized for having to leave in the middle of meal being prepared by chef Anita Lo. I was the news director of Time and had to oversee the deployment of reporters in a sudden war zone. "You've got to eat," Scism insisted. And then, as fast as the lunch-rush crew at McDonald's, the staff at Annisa had my main course in front of me and my dessert wrapped to go. I noshed on sesame mochi—one of chef Lo's specialties—as I spent the rest of the night tracking down reporters to make sure they were in their assigned military embeds.
When I'm done with work (or when I think I'm done), you'll continue to find me at Annisa or the 25 or so other restaurants in the city that consider me a regular. And nowadays, you can track where I'm eating, because I'll be posting it on social media.
Here, some of my favorite Instagram posts from the past year.
I love coffee and am grateful that Blue Bottle has made it over to New York from the West Coast. But posting pictures of coffee is a challenge because of the sameness to the product. Fortunately, one of my favorite cafes has a window seat across Lexington Avenue and allows me to practice my other passion—photographing the reflections in liquid or stone. The funny thing is that one admirer of my coffee photos is Michael Anthony of Gramercy Tavern, whose newest restaurant, Untitled at the Whitney Museum, is another of my favorite places. It turns out he lives in one of the buildings often mirrored in my coffee cup!
Cafe Altro Paradiso
A rare image taken in sunlight. Usually, I get to restaurants late—when the brightest light is often a candle. Altro Paradiso and Estela, Ignacio Mattos' other restaurant, have particularly moody illumination. That probably contributed to New York Times restaurant reviewer Pete Wells' observation—in an adulatory, two-star assessment—that Altro's food wasn't particularly pretty, and that the carpaccio looked like a "skinned knee." Mattos was grateful for the stars, but soon a new cocktail appeared called The Skinned Knee. I noted it on Instagram. Wells commented: "It's a pretty good name for a drink."
I started going to Casa Mono because one of the chefs, Diego Moya, started following me on Instagram. I never expected to enjoy tapas in New York—believing that the best were only available in Spain. I was wrong. I also discovered there is an enormous amount of culinary talent waiting in the wings in the city. I go to Moya's pop-ups when I can, just as I do those of other up-and-coming chefs, including Anup Joshi, formerly of Tertulia, who had a marvelous run at making delicate yet flavorful dosas in the West Village before heading up the kitchen at Inday.
Fabian von Hauske Valtierra and Jeremiah Stone have two of the most exciting new restaurants in New York—and Wildair and Contra are just a door away from each other on Orchard Street. The wunderkinds joined forces with Michael Anthony of Gramercy Tavern to stage a collaborative dinner for 23 guests in the private room of the venerable restaurant. All the spots were gone within an hour of an email blast announcing the one-night-only feast. Thanks to knowing all three chefs, I got early wind of the event and managed to snag a place at the table.
I've been coming to Blue Hill on Washington Place since it opened in 2000 because, well, Dan Barber [second from left; the author is at far left] is a culinary genius. WastED was a pop-up series in which he and guest chefs put together dishes from ingredients usually tossed as garbage. The guests in this picture were Daniela Soto-Innes, chef de cuisine at Cosme, and Enrique Olvera, Cosme's executive chef and co-owner who also runs Pujol, one of the most acclaimed restaurants in Mexico City. I've put this picture up on Instagram three times now—the last to congratulate Soto-Innes for winning the James Beard Rising Star Award—and it just gets more and more "likes" from her increasing army of fans.
I try to skip desserts. Mostly I fail. Matt Lambert's variation on the traditional Australian/New Zealand standard is almost bejeweled—and irresistible. His restaurant is probably one of the most overlooked haute cuisine establishments in the city. The wines are mainly from Lambert's native New Zealand and they are delicious. And yes, that is a musket hanging over the bar.
I first had Jesse Schenker’s cooking at his first restaurant, the recently closed Recette. It was the Fourth of July and I could hear the fireworks from the nearby Hudson River. But I was mesmerized by the food and was hooked. I miss Recette, which was a victim of the real estate inflation that is decimating the industry in Manhattan. But he still runs The Gander, and eating there is just like coming home, not just for Jesse’s cooking but for the contributions of talented colleagues Ed Brumfield and Audrey Villegas.
Billy Durney makes my favorite barbecue in New York. He is also one of my favorite restaurant people. He's big and warm and humble and honest. Durney wasn't originally a cook but became enamored of barbecue while traveling in the South, working security for celebrities and entertainers. He learned to smoke meats and mastered the craft in his hometown of Red Hook, Brooklyn, adding to the quintessential American cooking style the global influences that pervade New York.
The restaurant is popular because of its thin-crust pizzas, but the rest of Nick Anderer's menu is terrific as well—except if you want pasta, which it doesn't serve. (You'll have to go to Maialino, the sister restaurant, next to Gramercy Park.) I have an eating group that formed a mutual love for this place and we've given our Instagram photos there the hashtag #martaholics.
Chef Amanda Cohen was one of my toughest critics in the "Gods of Food" debacle. I felt I had to reach out—and so I tried to walk into her vegetarian restaurant, which had received some of the best reviews in New York. That wasn't possible: There were only 12 seats and it was booked for weeks. Indeed, Dirt Candy had become famous for turning away Leonardo DiCaprio, who had also tried to walk in one evening. I eventually got to enjoy her astonishing, fun and innovative cuisine. We've become friendly, which I count as a blessing. I rejoiced when she opened a much bigger space in downtown, one of the first to pioneer a no-tipping policy.
I learned the benefits of being a regular at Michael White's restaurant when I walked in to find just one bar stool available on a crowded evening. But that seat was inaccessible: Two men had angled their chairs in such a way that you couldn't squeeze into the free spot. The maître d' saw my consternation, walked up to the man closest to the free stool and said, "Mr. Murdoch, would you mind moving so Howard can have a seat at the bar?" Rupert Murdoch moved.
The first time I ate at this former Bushwick pub, my friend and comrade-in-eating Sunjit Chawla drove me over in his car. Now, I get there on a half-hour subway ride, almost every week, because I love the cooking. Chef Ella Schmidt produces dishes from her native Colombia, like empanaditas, as well as the amazing pastas she perfected while working in the kitchen of Il Buco Alimentari. It's a tiny operation, with Schmidt doing almost all the prep work herself. But the passion shows in the food.
The influence of Japanese cuisine is everywhere. For example, Chris Jaeckle combines it with Venetian cooking at All'Onda (check out the ramen with parmesan dashi!). Shalom Japan, however, is more than a delicious fusion of Jewish and Japanese. It is an example of restaurant diaspora—and how it expands my own horizons. Sawako Okochi, who is co-chef with her husband Aaron Israel, used to work at Annisa. And so I've followed her to South Williamsburg, in Brooklyn. The restaurant's manager is also a veteran of Annisa (and Maialino). I've followed other veterans of my favorite restaurants to new and exciting ventures elsewhere. There is a Blue Hill diaspora that is just as fascinating to track—all the way to Napa and St. Louis.
Every time my friend Ferran Adria and his wife Isabel visit from Barcelona, I am terrified. Where do I bring one of the most famous chefs in the world, the master of El Bulli? I've brought them happily to Annisa, Momofuku Ssam Bar, Marta and Fung Tu. In 2013, I took them to Hooni Kim's Hanjan, which serves traditional and modern Korean cuisine. The Adrias loved it. Kim, who is a celebrity chef in South Korea, is a meticulous guardian of technique and flavor—a discipline he probably honed while he was studying neurosurgery in medical school, a career he gave up to become a chef.
Chef Ryan Hardy once cooked privately for Jay Z and Beyoncé, so occasionally the famous couple shows up at Charlie Bird and Pasquale Jones, which Hardy and Robert Bohr own and operate. But there's already enough excitement in the vibe and the food and the wine (and the appearance, every now and then, of little Henry, the newborn son of Bohr and his wife Jordan Salcito, the acclaimed wine director of Momofuku Ko).
Howard Chua-Eoan (@hchuaeoan), deputy managing editor at Bloomberg Businessweek, has worked in the media business for more than 30 years, including at Time and People. "There was a time when I wanted to keep secret the restaurants I love," he writes. "Of course, that's not the way the business works. If no one else goes to the places you adore, then the places you adore won't be around for long." Today, he posts every day on Instagram and Facebook—entertaining and informing his followers and helping keep his favorite restaurants cooking.
This story first appeared in the June 6, 2016 issue of Adweek magazine.
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