Nature of Food on the Web

Posted by Kim Lau on Wednesday, August 29th, 2007. Filed under: eHub Features

I’ve recently discovered that talented geeks also make great chefs and restaurant critics. So many of the qualities that make geeks so valuable as your personal tech support and computer programmer – obsessive attention to detail, an eagerness to learn and research, and a fascination with process – make them wonderful in the kitchen. Along those lines, I’ve found a wealth of sites, built by talented geeks to cater to theirs and our food and cooking obsessions.

The Internet is a great place for sharing and finding information about food. We can search for easy recipes instead of culling through our cookbooks, talk to others about the best dim sum restaurant, or find a video of Christopher Walken teaching us how he roasts a chicken. Good food and drink are on our minds a lot these days, and trying to wade through the mass of information can be a Herculean task.

I selected the sites that I believe will be of great interest and use to the average user interested in food, recipes, cooking and baking. Because food is so often a communal act, it’s no surprise that the best sites aren’t necessarily the flashiest or slickest in features, but ones with strong communities of passionate food lovers.

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Yelp is (in)famous for its averaged review ratings of local restaurants. Although Yelp is not strictly a food-oriented site, its influence in the food world has been so great that chefs and owners of restaurants admit to having to maintain customer satisfaction in order to keep their ratings on Yelp up. Although Yelp does not monitor communications between restaurant owners and registered users, many have noted in their reviews that they’ve been contacted by businesses to either thank them for a positive review, or find out how to improve upon a negative review. Now that’s customer service!

In addition to posting reviews, registered users can participate in Talk, message other users, post photos of the reviewed sites, add business information (such as availability of parking, what hours the restaurant is open, etc.), create themed lists, personal bookmarks, add friends, and comment on other users’ reviews, voting on whether it was “Funny”, “Useful”, or “Cool”.

Another sweet incentive to join the community is the Yelp Elite Squad, a selected bunch of reviewers (registered users can nominate people, or be selected by Yelp’s team themselves) who, in exchange for giving up anonymity (Elite Yelpers must use their real names and post a photo of themselves) are given an “Elite” badge to post on their own page, and given exclusive invites to Yelp Elite events in various cities.

Although the site design is a bit clunky and cluttered, the search is reliable but not great, new features are being rolled out all the time. Yelp’s thriving, passionate, and influential community is truly a force to be reckoned with.

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Chowhound was originally a simple forum for self-described “chowhounders”, who, according to their original manifesto “never settle for less than optimal deliciousness”. Chowhound is now owned by CNet and is also the online home of defunct print magazine Chow, whose target demographic were young people interested in food. Not-so-coincidentally, it overlaps with Chowhound’s demographics.

The Chowhound forums are the heart and soul of site; readers and users can debate the best burger in Los Angeles or discuss who the winners on Top Chef might be. The boards have been credited with keeping several small restaurants in business, as chowhounders extolled the virtues of hole-in-the-wall gems and taco trucks.

Besides being a useful forum for food-hungry posters, Chow is also an online publication. Readers can view recipes, read stories on topics as varied as the ultimate veggie burger and the virtues of zinfandel, subscribe to various blogs devoted to subjects such as a tour from England to Mongolia, or wine, listen to podcasts, and watch Chow videos, both instructional and entertainment.

As a registered user, you have the perks of posting to the many boards, managing the various threads, which can quickly become overwhelming if you’re not careful, upload photos and add to the Places database. You can also add items to your Favorites, such as threads and recipes. As with Yelp, the attraction of Chowhound is the community itself rather than bells and whistles.

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Serious Eats is a new kid on the block – the brainchild of a few passionate food lovers who were looking to create a positive place to discuss and share information about food and drink. Although the site is pretty new, it’s already undergone a site redesign. Readers don’t have to join the site to gain a lot from it. You can view Serious Eats created videos, read restaurant reviews, get recipes and ideas, read the Talk forums, and learn about the street stalls in Singapore or find out how to green your cooking.

The Talk sections are a great hub for registered users, who post and answer questions on how to cook okra or who their favorite Food Network personality is. Although Serious Eats has a smaller community than other major food-oriented sites, it continues to expand its food coverage, and expand on the features offered to their users.

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Cookthink is a recipe search site. It is deceptively simple, beautifully designed, and quite elegant in execution, if not perfect. You do not have to join to make use of the site; currently there are no features that I can find that are available only to registered users except for the claim that the site will pick up on your search preferences and modify results accordingly. I haven’t used the site long enough to find out if it’s true.

So what do you do? Enter an ingredient you’re “craving”, hit enter, and a tag cloud will pop up. You can add to your original choice by choosing another ingredient, cuisine, dish, or mood. When you’re finished, click on “Cookthink it!”, and exactly one recipe will appear. In addition to the recipe, you can also view related tips, what other recipes the dish will go with, and recently viewed recipes. If it’s not exactly what you’re looking for, then click on “show me similar recipes” to find other suggested recipes. All recipes in the Cookthink database are accompanied by a picture, and tested by the site owners. While this guarantees quality, it also limits quantity, and can be a bit annoying if you’re a more adventurous cook and would like to find out more than one way to cook an artichoke. Nevertheless, the site’s elegance and simplicity is something that more websites should take note of, and I should say, very easy to use and a great example of geeks solving a frustrating problem.

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Bakespace is Myspace for “cookers and cakers”. There’s even a fake profile for Paris Hilton with her “Jail break Top Ramen” recipe. Although Bakespace is relatively new, it’s already created a thriving community full of people who love food. You can upload your own recipes, ask others about their recipes, bookmark favorites, and join in on the chats or the messageboard, or create a blog. You can also upload video and other media to your profile, which can be kind of annoying for those of us who get annoyed with auto-loading sound.

I found Bakespace to be a bit cluttered with extraneous stuff like the Marketplace category, and I did wish that the forums and the chat were more integrated into Bakespace, but overall I had a lot of fun with the site. It was great to see what others had uploaded, and their takes on different recipes, and I appreciated the categorization method, which made it easy to find what I was looking for. Bakespace will appeal to anyone interested in food and wants to interact with people who are interested in the same things.

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GroupRecipes is another recipe-oriented social network site. However, it’s very unique in its approach; a lot of the features use standard web 2.0 features very creatively. For example, you can search for recipes using the “Go Stumble” tool, or by searching Tags. GroupRecipes allows you to do everything a food social network would normally do, and then some. In addition to completing your profile, uploading and bookmarking recipes, interacting with other registered users, creating groups, you can also create and upload your own food tv show, organize your recipe collection, and have “Roger the Recipe Robot” learn your tastes in food, so that he can search for recipes for you effectively.

I like the site a lot; it’s very easy to use and straightforward. It is, however, a little disorganized and a bit disjointed; it took me almost five minutes to find out where the “Go Stumble” link was. Overall, it’s a lot of fun to share and find new recipes, and GroupRecipes takes a lot of the tedium out of the process.

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Open Source Food is a “social network for food lovers, recipes, pics, and more.” It’s a fairly new site with some nice innovations and an emphasis on the photos of food. Registered users can upload pictures, recipes, rate other people’s recipes, create an original menu from available recipes, and use a blog widget to create a slideshow on your blog. You can add comments or suggestions to recipes. There’s more, of course; “Pro” users can add tips – although I was unable to find out exactly what else a “Pro” user does or who qualifies for the title from the site itself.

Open Source Food is very lovingly designed, and I love the fact that not all the recipes are in English. Many of the recipes that I saw were from all over the place, and this diversity was very appealing to me. The site is also very accessible to non-registered users, and can be a great resource for a budding chef looking for inspiration. Each recipe is accompanied by a high-quality photo, and you can click on “Blog this!” for some code to embed into your own blog entry about the recipe you just viewed. I love this site; while it may not be as comprehensive or as extensive in features, as GroupRecipes, it definitely has a lot going for it, in terms of features, design, and user experience.

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Imcooked is a video-recipe sharing site. It is now famous for its video of Christopher Walken roasting a chicken. It was created to solve a very basic problem – many food-related videos do end up on places like Youtube, but searching specifically for video recipes proved to be very difficult. Thus, the idea for Imcooked was born, and now food videos are a lot easier to find and share. The videos are Flash-based, so make sure you have the latest player installed so you can view them.

Registered users can upload videos of themselves as the stars of their own cooking shows. Will we find the next Rachael Ray on Imcooked? Imcooked deliberately limits itself to food-related videos – there are no printed recipes to share or comment on. The videos themselves vary in quality, but you can rate them, make comments, share and discuss them with other people. There aren’t that many videos uploaded yet, but the site is off to a good start, and the many oddly charming personalities who post videos will keep you occupied for days.

The sites I’ve selected above all have two things in common – a love of food, and a desire on the part of the creators to solve a problem they were frustrated with running into. In creating the space they wanted, the answers to the problems they sought, they also made something bigger than a solution – they also fostered community and the act of sharing. That’s something we can all get behind!

Comment(s)

  1. Nico on August 29, 2007 at 12:02 PM:
    Very cool article, I like the parallel between geeky details and food details – I’m trying to something different, but with beverages: how to make your own wine at home.  We’ll see how it goes.

    These are great quality sites – thanks for posting this.

    -Nico

  2. Steve Murch on August 29, 2007 at 01:16 PM:
    Don’t forget BigOven (http://www.bigoven.com), where about 50,000+ home cooks swap recipe ideas, and can subscribe to each other’s recipe ratings and postings in RSS, do tagging, and much more.  About 160,000+ ingredients—you can even enter a couple items in your fridge and find great ways to use up leftovers.
  3. Jason Coleman on August 29, 2007 at 02:20 PM:
    Nice round up, Emily.

    Allow me to give a shout out to http://www.friendseat.com, which is a site in the same vein as many you reviewed.

    Also on the wine side there is:
    http://www.winelog.net (my site, the best)
    http://www.corkd.com (pretty, Gary V!)
    http://www.snooth.com (lots of data)
    http://www.cellartracker.com (hardcore)
    http://www.bottletalk.com (UK)
    … and a bunch of others. Cheers!

  4. Chuck on August 29, 2007 at 04:57 PM:
    Great collection of “foodie” sites, several of which I had never heard of.  Thank you for this great article – as usual ;)
  5. Chip on August 29, 2007 at 05:31 PM:
    Kim: Thanks so much for including Cookthink in this round-up of excellent sites. Since we launched the site a couple of months ago, we’ve been making some tweaks to the search here and there. We’re testing some of those now and plan to make them live next week. As we work on the search tool, our recipe volume is admittedly pretty low (and definitely leans towards simpler fare). But we’re planning to beef up our database in a big way very soon. And since our top search tag has been chocolate, we’re also planning to get on desserts very soon.

    Please keep letting us know what you think of Cookthink. I’m at chip@cookthink.com.

  6. David on August 30, 2007 at 04:27 PM:
    Great collection. I am the reverse. I started as a food person (management & prodcution) and now for the last 10 years creating web product & services for food and beverage professionals.

    Eatup Drinkup Inc.,
    Dave
    http://www.FoodandDrinkJobs.com
    http://www.DiscoverChefs.com – coming soon!

  7. Cupcake Lover on August 31, 2007 at 08:09 PM:
    Why no click-tracking for my favorite site of all time – BakeSpace.com?
  8. Jason Coleman on September 02, 2007 at 07:22 AM:
    ’just noticed this one was actually written by Kim. Nice round up, KIM. Thanks again.
  9. rickdog on September 03, 2007 at 10:40 PM:
    How about the original geek cooking site, Cooking for Engineers?

    http://www.cookingforengineers.com/

  10. Celebrity Foods on February 22, 2008 at 02:47 PM:
    Wonderful article.  Very good descriptions of the sites, I am going to try a few of them out.