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The dish on chefs' websites

Want to vicariously visit a hip restaurant or see a chef demonstrate a technique? Just go online.

March 17, 2004|Regina Schrambling | Special to The Times

With chefs, it often seems as if there's a thin line between self-promotion and egomania. But I never realized how thin until I logged onto a certain chef's website. A face the size of a screensaver materialized as soon as I clicked on the "biography" link, and then on the "works" link (to his cookbook and his two restaurants). His visage stared out sultrily from the recipes page before the food photos kicked in. And on the "gallery" page, loaded with head shots, it became very clear what he means to do when he formally hangs up his apron: model and act. After all, he's already played a chef on TV.

Rocco DiSpirito may be larger than life in cyberspace, but he is not alone anymore. It's no longer enough for a chef to rely on reviews, cookbooks, TV gigs, ads and constant hustle to stay visible in a world overrun with Wolfgang wannabes. The star-making machinery now runs 24/7, and only a website can keep it fueled nonstop.

Most of the world's most famous chefs, like Puck himself and Daniel Boulud and Alain Ducasse, have been aware of this ever since America went online big time. A website is like a PR agent who never sleeps: The press and public can log on any time and from anywhere to dig up almost any amount of information, from the menu to the wine list to the driving directions.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday March 20, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 46 words Type of Material: Correction
Restaurants -- An article about chefs' websites in Wednesday's Food section incorrectly stated that chef Caprial Pence is based in Seattle. Caprial's Bistro is in Portland, Ore. In an accompanying box, the website address for Campanile restaurant in Los Angeles was incorrect. It is at www.campanilerestaurant.com.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday March 24, 2004 Home Edition Food Part F Page 2 Features Desk 1 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction
Restaurants -- An article about chefs' websites in last week's section incorrectly stated that chef Caprial Pence is based in Seattle. Caprial's Bistro is in Portland, Ore. In an accompanying box, the website address for Los Angeles' Campanile restaurant was incorrect. It is www.campanilerestaurant.com.

The surprise is not that so many chefs would stake out cyber-territory but that any of them would not in a world where even the corner pizzeria is likely to have its own URL. So many restaurant-goers, particularly those heading for culinary shrines, obsess in advance over what to order and what to drink. A website lets them preview the pleasure. It gives groupies a chance to keep up with where they might meet their idols next. And it lets aspiring Emerils test-drive a multitude of recipes.

Some chefs work the ether extremely well, so sensually and graphically that you almost don't need to go to the real restaurant; others are still wandering in the wilderness. (A single page with a phone number is not going to do it.) The most enterprising are capitalizing on the Web as a mall, selling their own products, often autographed.

I started obsessing about chef sites a few weeks ago after going online in search of the menu at Valentino while researching a story. Clicking on pieroselvaggio.com brought up lively music and then a slowly branching purple tree with the restaurateur's places lined up below it. By clicking "skip intro" I was able to quickly link to those. But the Valentino page produced only press-release-quality prose, a photo and a link for making online reservations. I could tap into catering menus but had no idea what I might expect if I ate there. Or what it would cost.

Those two elements would seem to be the bare bones of what a chef site should provide. It makes it so much easier to recommend restaurants to my friends if I know they can log on, peruse the menu and wine list and check for themselves the potential or budget-busting risk.

Unfortunately, some chefs who go to all the trouble of setting up a site can't even get it noticed by the big search engines (internal coding helps). In running down a list of maybe 30 chefs, I abandoned any whose home page did not turn up in the first three pages of Google hits. You should never have to call a restaurant to see if it has a website.

Consequently, some high-visibility Los Angeles chefs were not to be found instantly, Mark Peel and Nancy Silverton among them. (You need handy old media, such as the James Beard Foundation's restaurant directory, to get to campanile.com fast.) Alain Giraud of Bastide is equally lost.

Suzanne Goin pops up at aocwinebar.com, complete with full-screen head shot. Essentially an Internet press kit, the site leaves nothing to the imagination: All contents are displayed on the home page, with more emphasis on the room than on the food. But four menus and a list of wines by the glass from the Cruvinet are accessible.

It's no surprise to see Joachim Splichal with a huge Web presence at patinagroup.com. The company appears, from the site, to have nearly as many outlets from West Coast to East as McDonald's. And all are covered, in photos, menus, even virtual tours.

Like Splichal, many of the most overexposed (and sometimes overextended) chefs have put up the most sophisticated sites. There's a reason nationally famous chefs are nationally famous: They know how to get themselves noticed. The way this comes across on the Web is that they spring for good designs and easily navigated sites to create cyber amusement parks. Wolfgang Puck's eponymous URL could be austrian-omnimedia.com, given how aggressive it is in promoting his restaurants, books, appearances and cooking shows, with video preview. But he also includes an extremely deep recipe database and a selection of cooking tips, like how to pit olives and julienne vegetables. And to his credit, the face that pops up first on the home screen is that of one of his executive chefs -- Mark Ferguson in Las Vegas.

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