Before I Became a Food Writer, I Was a Chowhound
Melanie Wong reminisces about local food writer Luke Tsai’s early days as a Chowhound:
Melanie Wong | about 1 hour ago
Today Luke Tsai of KQED offered his condolences on the demise of this site, calling out chowpals Ruth Lafler, rworange, and ckshen, as well as founders, Jim Leff and Bob Okumura. Luke was a member of our community himself and weaves his personal arc into the piece.
"… While subsequent review sites like Yelp provided a platform for the restaurant-going masses, Chowhound prided itself on offering a home to the expert food explorer—the person who had eaten and documented every single al pastor taco in Fruitvale, or the post-doctoral researcher from China who translated local restaurants’ special menus and arcane food-related historical texts in their spare time. A super-user named ‘Ruth Lafler’ introduced me to the pleasures of an hours-long taco crawl; another who went by ‘rworange’ first inspired my curiosity about the culinary delights of Richmond and San Pablo. Meanwhile, Leff himself wrote that he, in fact, actively sought to repel the kind of casual posters who might fill the message board with ‘trendy ditz.’
Luke, who contributed to Chowhound
even before his formal debut as food
writer in the East Bay Express in 2012,
writes of the contribution of
Melanie Wong and her secret
promise to Jonathan Gold:
Perhaps no one embodies the Chowhound ethos better than Wong, the aforementioned retired pharmaceutical executive whose discerning posts on everything from döner kebab shops to the local competitive barbecue circuit on the Bay Area board were the stuff of legend—to the point that the Los Angeles food critic Jonathan Gold once wrote her a fan letter and, eventually, struck up a friendship. (Like many professional food writers, Gold would post on Chowhound under a secret alias; even after Gold’s death in 2018, Wong has kept her promise to never reveal it.)
Wong is now one of the site’s last remaining regular active users, and says she’s posted her food discoveries on Chowhound nearly every day since around 2000. “Being part of an online community is as natural for me as going out for drinks with friends after work,” Wong says. “It has been my daily habit.” Even during Chowhound’s lean recent years, when I’d check in on the site once every couple of months, Wong kept up her prodigious output. Most days, it seemed like she was the only person who was still posting on the Bay Area board.
Sampson Shen of Hungry Onion, has created the closest thing yet to the old Chowhound, according to Luke. HungryOnion is nonprofit and has expenses of about $100 per month.
Sampson Shen, who posted on Chowhound under the user name “ckshen,” was one of those who migrated from the site in 2015. He wound up creating his own alternative: a not-for-profit discussion forum called Hungry Onion that he hosts on a monthly budget of less than $100. It’s probably the closest thing on the web right now to the old Chowhound: It has a similar stripped-down aesthetic, and counts a large number of Chowhound exiles among its frequent contributors.
Still, Shen admits that Hungry Onion would struggle to even come close to the vibrancy of Chowhound’s golden age when, in any given discussion thread, you might have 20 knowledgeable posters writing in-depth analyses of the merits of a particular dish. An immigrant from Hong Kong, Shen says that while he knew quite a bit about his own culture’s cuisine, Chowhound provided him access to deep knowledge about so many other genres of food. Hungry Onion simply doesn’t have the critical mass of active members to do that to the same extent.