Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Food Hacker


Below you can find another early piece from my food writing class, a profile of food writer Ike DeLorenzo. What I didn't say: I found Ike's lightning-fast move from "I think I want to try food writing" to "I'm a regular at the Globe and the Atlantic"  to be inspiring, intimidating and inducing of envy to the point of queasiness. In manner and looks, he reminded me of Rob Morrow, but I feared the instructor wouldn't know who Morrow was, so I didn't mention that. Also, Ike seemed really, really nice, like someone I would want to be friends with, except that he clearly had money. Quite a bit, I suspect. As I get older, I find it harder and harder to make friendships that bridge the ever-widening gap between income levels. With old friends, there can be enough history to fill the space. But new friendships just don't spring up between people who live in nice condos in the stylish part of town and people who live in rental apartments in the frumpy neighborhood. If the basis for the friendship would be a shared interest in food, the problem become even more complex. Food can be marvelously democratic - the best apples in the world can be purchased by all but the poorest - but five-star dining is simply not a possibility for most people. When your idea of an indulgent, celebratory restaurant meal is a $20 entree, how do you talk food to someone who considers that weeknight fare? It's a conundrum. Anyway, that's a huge topic I'm not going to delve into now, but do read about Ike. He's pretty cool.
The Food Hacker
Only three years ago, computer-geek-by-day, foodie-by-night Ike Delorenzo submitted his first story to the food pages of the Boston Globe. Today he is a regular contributor to the section, as well as to the online Atlantic Monthly Food Channel where he rubs virtual elbows with such culinary world luminaries as Corby Kummer and Marion Nestle.  His meteoric rise reveals readers’ continuing hunger for fresh and unique voices: in his case, a gastronomical sensibility that owes as much to Silicon Valley as Napa Valley.

Former Vice President for Product Design at Genius.com and still employed as a consultant in the field, DeLorenzo  incorporates technology into each step of the writing process. He utilizes digital cameras, recording devices, organizational software, and an automated transcription service to write his stories, then tracks his success through Twitter and Facebook.  And when it comes to cooking, he continues to think like an software engineer.

“Food is the newest thing you can hack,” the writer declares. 

For one of his most popular stories, De Lorenzo bought every espresso machine offered for sale on Craigslist for under $100. He then tested them with a range of beans and came to a surprising conclusion: freshly ground beans from the local coffee shops were not as good as the pre-ground Italian brands, and technique mattered more than equipment. With the right grind and the right skills, cheapo espresso makers could make a cup to match any barista.

It was a typical techie’s approach to a problem: lay out the possible factors, test them one by one, and let the conclusions fall where they may.  The fact that the results were unexpected clearly delights DeLorenzo, who looks for the counter-intuitive when hunting down a story.  When his mother’s Wesson-oil-based piecrust recipe won out over traditional lard and butter crusts in a Globe writer contest, he scored another point for evidence-based cookery.

“I like to find out about new, crazy ways to do stuff,” DeLorenzo says.

He is hardly the first foodie to treat the kitchen like a laboratory. Alton Brown and Christopher Kimball have built careers on nebbishly fastidious application of the scientific method.  But this enthusiastic geek brings the methodical approach to culinary journalism, a field dominated by two poles: the warmly effusive and the comically wry.  In contrast, his anything-goes hacker enthusiasm is tempered with Gen X skepticism about the food establishment. On his personal blog, The Ideas Section, he eviscerates sacred cows of the restaurant world, describing the clientele at LA Burdick’s, the wildly popular Cambridge chocolate shop, as “Harvard hangers-on” and “windbags.”  He was unafraid to expose Yelp’s dubious practices around restaurant reviews and even challenged world-famous chef Marco Pierre White, taking him to task in the Atlantic for using his celebrity to hawk unhealthy and, worse, unappetizing  products, like Knorr’s  bouillon cubes.

“He would say things like ‘I always made bouillon with Knorr’s bouillon cubes. It’s easier and better than making homemade stock,’” DeLorenzo says with disgust. “Things that were manifestly false.”

DeLorenzo seems more offended by the offense to the public’s palate than to their blood pressure;  he mentions the high salt content, but his real outrage is reserved for the poor flavor. For all his attachment to technology, he remains at heart a man who loves food. Fortunately, he has found a way to indulge both his passions.

“A lot of my stories have a technology thing, because that’s what I’m natively interested in.  I think people bring their own native interests to food, because food is so big.”

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