Friday, August 1, 2014

Farewell, Serious Eats Chicago

Posted By on 08.01.14 at 01:12 PM

Ed Levine (in mid-chew of Great Lake Pizza) and Nick Kindelsperger at Serious Eats Chicagos launch party in 2011.
  • Michael Gebert
  • Ed Levine (in midchew) and Nick Kindelsperger at Serious Eats Chicago's launch party in 2011

Every food-media website deserves notice on its way out the door, so this is mine for Serious Eats Chicago, which technically still exists but has largely been absorbed back into its New York mothership. That this was happening was obvious several weeks ago (when its Chicago focus was radically reduced and, more significantly, shifted to items of tourist rather than local interest), but is de facto confirmed by the departure of editor Nick Kindelsperger and the site's general reorganization as a more recipe-driven site following the arrival of a pack of consultants. (Disclosures en masse: I wrote for the site, I'm a friend of Kindelsperger's, I succeeded him as editor of likewise-deceased Grub Street Chicago, and so on.)

Food critic Ed Levine started Serious Eats in 2005 in New York City, devoted to the same thing that motivated some of us to launch LTHForum a couple of years earlier in Chicago, or Jim Leff with Chowhound a half dozen years before that: finding the good stuff that was mostly under the mainstream media's radar. It also focused on a lot of do-it-yourself cooking, particularly the Cooks Illustrated-level scientific exploration of techniques led by J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, who went to fairly obsessive lengths to determine the best techniques for things like pan-searing steak. Kindelsperger—a Columbus, Indiana, native who cowrote a blog for young single guys trying to cook well called the Paupered Chef, contributed to the site on Chicago topics and recipes before launching an official Serious Eats Chicago as its editor in 2011—planned to be the first of a series of local sites in food cities like San Francisco and Austin. (The fact that he, like Levine, can't stand Chicago deep dish probably especially recommended him, but was surely not his only virtue.)

I wasn't a contributor until my gig as Kindelsperger's replacement at Grub Street Chicago ended several months later, but from the start I liked Serious Eats Chicago for doing a lot of the same kind of thing we'd been doing at LTHForum, but often for younger readers and with younger writers. If they sometimes breathlessly discovered something we'd breathlessly discovered five or seven years earlier, that was okay; enthusiasm is good any time, and they were reaching people that LTHForum, which skewed mostly older and suburban by that point, wasn't, and they were doing so with fresh eyes that sometimes caught things LTH had written off, just as LTH had for things earlier media had written off.

Kindelsperger's initial recruits were like himself, a lot of younger people interested in food. But at times the seriousness of the positioning seemed a bit obscured when it covered the same not-really-that-impressive openings as straight up food news sites like Grub Street, Eater, and Time Out Chicago—and a few of the writers had too-close ties to the PR industry. Over time he refined his list of contributors, which included taco scholar Titus Ruscitti, but the center of it was Kindelsperger's own approach to running a subject to ground. Lots of people did "What to eat at Eataly" pieces, but his series of articles was comprehensive, dogged, and precise beyond any of them. You may think there's nothing new to be said on Italian Beef, and I was proud when I found one new one nobody had talked about that was quite good, but Kindelsperger uncovered an entire, basically overlooked category of Italian beefs worth exploring.

But the internet keeps changing, and the disruption it once visited on print media now happens to online media that have been around a little while too, and were founded when a different advertising model held sway. There's a lot you can read about what they went through in this post from Levine and in the comments, mostly responded to by Lopez-Alt, but what it seems to come down to is that consultants told them that what did well in search engine traffic was recipe posts, and so they needed to join the legion of sites getting traffic from people who search "best way to sear a steak." As far as local coverage was concerned, Lopez-Alt promised "we don't mean to say that there will be zero city-specific coverage, but just that each city story will be much larger and more useful in scope." Which in practice, meant pieces for tourists about restaurants Chicagoans kind of don't care about. In the Internet age, you're either locally focused or you're not.

And increasingly the answer is "not." Serious Eats Chicago is just the latest casualty in a series of Chicago editions of sites from New York or elsewhere to get the boot as online publishers focus on New York, capital of media capital and advertiser attention. Grub Street killed its non-New York editions; Eater beefs up in New York in hopes of a sale, one suspects, but with nowhere near similar resources devoted here; Time Out Chicago killed its print edition; Tasting Table just did the same thing as Serious Eats, going to a national strategy that significantly reduced local coverage. It's ironic that the technology that makes it possible to publish anywhere now seems to make food media more Manhattan-focused than ever before. Chicago has never had a more exciting or influential food scene; be glad there are still old print outlets with a strategy of serving this market to cover it.

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