Unless you've been living on a dessert — uh, desert — island, you must know that the Web is really cooking — literally. When it comes to finding great recipes, locating exotic spices, or learning to prepare a complicated dish, the Web has become a virtual master chef.
Cindy Martin, 46, a part-time culinary student, enjoys using the Web to find recipes she's seen on TV. But recently, Martin and her fellow classmates at the Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago found themselves running to the computer for help with their homework. "We were trying to make ice cream, and someone knew of a great recipe they'd seen on a Web site," Martin says. "So we used one of the computers at the learning center to surf the Web for the recipe, which we found. We made the ice cream, and it was delicious."
This edition of @work offers a tasty sampling of the best that the Web has to offer — sites that provide tips and techniques, advice on cookware, and even booking a table when all you really want to make for dinner is reservations. It also offers an in-depth comparison of four of the most popular food sites, as well as insights from an influential digital chef and Martha Stewart's recipe for success on the Web. So get out a bowl, strap on an apron, and feast your eyes on Fast Company's menu for the best bytes on the Net.
Recipes for Success
"I can't believe I surfed the whole thing." When it comes to searching the Web for tips on preparing great meals, the biggest problem is that the portions of information are just too generous. Log on to Yahoo! or Lycos, do a keyword search for "recipes," and you'll get so many links that you'll have indigestion. To help you avoid that too-full feeling, we've carefully gathered a collection of recipe sites that should please even the pickiest surfers.
If you're not quite sure what you're craving and you have time to browse, then visit the Recipe Network (www.allrecipes.com), a fitting URL indeed: It's got recipes galore, organized in individual sites by category, such as vegetarian (www.vegetarianrecipe.com), salads (www.saladrecipe.com), and cookies (www.cookierecipe.com).
If time is an ingredient that's in short supply, but you still want the scope of a general recipe site, then take a look at soar, The Searchable Online Archive of Recipes (http://soar.berkeley.edu/recipes). You can browse SOAR's archive of more than 60,000 recipes, arranged by type of entrée (main courses, side dishes, restricted diets), region (Africa, the Middle East, Europe) or ethnic group (Chinese, Cajun), and food type (pizza, meat, cheesecake). If a recipe exists, chances are good that you will find it here.
Another indispensable site for time-starved chefs is ucook.com (www.ucook.com). This site is the brainchild of Susan Purcell, a busy mother of three who created the site after many fruitless attempts at tracking down recipes in her own vast library of cookbooks. So she mentioned her frustration to her friend, culinary legend Julia Child. Child suggested developing a search technology for finding recipes by name, cookbook title, preparation time, nutritional information, ingredients, ethnicity or region, dietary preference, and course. What Purcell created is a recipe index of the books found on many chefs' shelves. Searching the database to find out which book has a particular recipe is free. However, if you want the recipe itself, you'll have to fork over some dough for each one that you request. To buy the entire cookbook, click on the picture of the jacket cover next to the recipe you've found. That will link you to that book on barnesandnoble.com.
Ever wonder how Seinfeld's Soup Nazi made his crab bisque irresistible? Ever wish you could make a Frappuccino like the ones you get at Starbucks? Then stop by Top Secret Recipes (www.topsecretrecipes.com), which is the online version of Todd Wilbur's best-selling books of the same name. Wilbur is a native of California who enjoys concocting "kitchen clones of America's favorite brand-name foods." The site doesn't offer the authentic recipes, but Wilbur's extensive experience has made his knockoffs the next-best things.
If your palate isn't satisfied by merely a searchable cookbook collection, try Meals For You (www.mealsforyou.com). You can search recipes according to word, phrase, and ingredient, and you can get complete menu plans by category, such as weight loss, vegetarian, or gourmet. Once you've selected a recipe or menu, you get not only the directions but also preparation times, nutritional information, and even recommended wines for some dishes. By clicking on "Shopping List," you'll get a list of all the meal's ingredients, which you can print out and take to the store. Now that's really cooking.
But Web-based recipe sites aren't just for Julia Child wanna-bes. Some sites, such as The Reluctant Gourmet (www.reluctantgourmet.com) and Messy Gourmet (www.messygourmet.com), are aimed at the more timid and reluctant cooks among us.
You'll have no trouble finding your way around the Reluctant Gourmet — even if you get lost in your own kitchen. The "From a to z" section is a comprehensive glossary of terms ("al dente," "saffron," and "Worcestershire sauce," for example), while the "Cooking Primer" has detailed explanations of basic techniques like roasting and braising. The site also has recipes for beginning cooks that come from other beginners. These can be found in the appropriately titled "Novice to Novice Recipes" section.
Messy Gourmet's main ingredient is fun. Besides recommending cooking tools that have been rated and tested by the site's food engineers, it also offers such handy tips as how to get stains out of Tupperware or how to get rid of odors on your hands (by washing them with toothpaste). Messy Gourmet shows you ways to have fun, make a mess, and clean up.
Tools of the Trade
Great recipes are just part of the, well, recipe for success in the kitchen. Any good cook will tell you that a dish is only as good as the ingredients that go into it. So before heading for the grocery store, visit Phil Lempert, the Supermarket Guru (www.supermarketguru.com). Lempert is food correspondent for NBC's Today show and a contributor to USA Weekend. His site serves up a cornucopia of tips, tricks, and strategies that save time and money. "Shopping 101" offers advice on choosing a grocery store, as well as the pros and cons of specialty-market versus superstore shopping. There's even a section on understanding labels that includes "Top 10 Misleading Labels" and "Deciphering the Clues to Freshness."
Whether you're a seasoned chef or a culinary newbie, there are a few sites that you'll want to check out. Fabulous Foods Online Cooking School (www.fabulousfoods.com/school/schoolf.html), for instance, offers information that runs the gamut from how to stock a basic pantry (or deluxe kitchen) to how to roast the perfect turkey. The Cook's Thesaurus (www.switcheroo.com) offers suggestions on substitutions for thousands of cooking ingredients, whether you've run out of an herb, need a low-cal, low-fat alternative, or just want to replace a hard-to-find spice.
Finally, if you need to know how to brighten those aluminum pans or are looking for a new way to prepare artichokes, you'll want to visit the "Epicurious Index" on Tips from Great Chefs (http://food.epicurious.com/e_eating/e02_secrets/index2.htm), which promises to provide 1,000 "tips and tricks from some of the world's best chefs."
Time for Takeout
The fast pace of work and life in the new economy has made it increasingly difficult for most of us to get home in time to make a meal. Which raises the question, What about using the Web for takeout?
Tim Glass, cofounder of Food.com (www.food.com), asked himself the same question a few years ago, as he watched Sandra Bullock's character in The Net order a pizza online. He created a site called CyberSlice, which soon became Cybermeals, and then Food.com — now one of the biggest players in online takeout and delivery, with more than 12,000 partners (restaurants) and approximately 650,000 registered members.
To use Food.com, members log on, enter their street address, phone number, and email address. They then get a list of restaurants offering takeout or delivery to their neighborhood. To place an order, users click on the menu items they want and check off the details related to that item. You can specify how you want your cheeseburger cooked and the kind of cheese and condiments you want on it. The system keeps a running tab of items ordered, plus tax and delivery charges. After you submit the order, you get a confirming email that includes an estimated delivery time and a request to keep the line free in case the restaurant needs to call you. Once Food.com receives the order, its computer translates the order into a voice message and makes calls or sends faxes to the restaurant. Although delivery times vary, you can expect to be eating within 30 minutes of placing your order.
Waiter.Com (www.waiter.com), in Sunnyvale, California, offers many features similar to those found on Food.com, including a personal start page called "My Waiter." It also offers "WaiterPoints," a loyalty program for earning free food. Waiter.Com has also partnered with some of the most popular restaurant chains, including Chili's Grill & Bar and California Pizza Kitchen. Waiter.Com's coverage is, however, limited. With only 1,300 restaurants in its network and most of them in California, your chances of finding more than one or two restaurants outside that state are slim.
If you're looking for a happy medium between getting the ingredients to prepare a feast yourself and ordering from Chili's, then go to CookExpress.com (www.cookexpress.com). The San Francisco - based company, which was launched in January 1999, offers nationwide service, delivering its Mealkits anywhere in the country via FedEx. Mealkits contain everything you need to prepare a meal at home. All the ingredients are fresh (never frozen) and are already sliced, diced, measured, and marinated by the company's chefs. Mealkits have instructions that are nearly foolproof. Ingredients are even labeled with letters that correspond to those in the recipe, so you don't need to know what an ingredient looks like to use it. Meals take anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes to prepare. Kits include everything you need to cook up a gourmet feast, except for some of the basics like salt, pepper, olive oil, and, of course, pots and pans.
Mealkits come in coolers that also contain cold packs and time-temperature indicators, which let you know whether your meal has been kept properly chilled. If it hasn't, you throw the kit away and CookExpress will give you a replacement. Place your order before 1 PM EST Monday through Thursday for next-day delivery. (Monday and weekend deliveries aren't as yet available.)
Specialties Are Their Specialty
Who needs Dean & Deluca when you've got the Web? For regional, seasonal, and exotic specialty items, the Web is like having a neighborhood gourmet shop right around the corner. But most of these sites are small-town operations — and it shows. If you're looking for sleek designs and flashy ordering processes that rival those found on Amazon.com, you'll be disappointed. What you will find are great products and personalized customer service. It's the digital equivalent of getting extra-thin - sliced roast beef from your neighborhood deli.
Say you grew up in Maine eating lobster, but you now live in Chicago. To satisfy your yen for that crustacean, just surf to The LobsterNet (www.thelobsternet.com). This site ships live lobsters caught off the coast of Maine the morning before they arrive at your door. You can also get all the trappings needed for an authentic lobster bake, including corn on the cob, potatoes, bibs, and even a pot. Prices vary and are updated regularly. This fall, a lobster bake for two costs $95.95, including shipping.
Some other fabulous regional favorites include ice cream from Cincinnati-based Graeter's (www.graeters.com) and delicacies from Zingerman's Deli (www.zingermans.com) in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Graeter's site is extremely easy to navigate. From the home page, you can find a brief description of the company's famous French-pot process, which accounts for the ice cream's texture and richness; the flavor-of-the-month list (cinnamon for November and eggnog for December); and the all-important order form. Make sure you try the flavors with the chocolate chips. Graeter's was a candy manufacturer (you can also order candy from the site) before it was an ice cream maker, and its chocolate chips are incredibly dense — and huge. Our favorite: black-raspberry chocolate chip.
A minimum order is six pints, which cost $60, including shipping. The ice cream arrives the next day in a styrofoam cooler packed with dry ice to keep the contents frozen. After that, you're on your own.
Zingerman's opened in 1982 as a small deli in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Today, there's Zingerman's Delicatessen, Bakehouse, Practical Produce, Mail Order, Catering, and even training seminars. But it only recently launched a Web site. Although the site is a separate business and is not run by Zingerman's owners, it offers many of the same foods found in Zingerman's catalog, along with its famous Food-of-the-Month clubs, which include bread, pastry, and cheese. The Web site's content is more extensive than the catalog's and has recipes as well as items that are exclusive to the site. If you're into food, this is one site you'll want to sample.
Many seasonal specialties are a snap to find — when they're in season. Thanks to the Web, you're no longer bound by the seasons in order to get your favorite items. Consider Vidalia onions, grown in Vidalia, Georgia and usually available in your local grocery store only from May through June. After the season ends, most Vidalia-onion lovers are left crying for more. But at Vidalia Onion Bros. (www.vidalia.net), you can get fresh onions shipped to you well into November, along with a slew of other Vidalia products — salad dressings, salsa, relish, and barbecue sauce — throughout the year.
Another popular item is Copper River Salmon. These salmon have a high fat content that protects them from the frigid waters of Alaska's Copper River and makes them the best-tasting salmon around. But they are available only between May and August — and even then they're hard to get.
But you don't have to go to Alaska for this delectable fish. Instead, just head for Copper River Fine Seafoods (www.copperriverseafood.com). The site offers a variety of fresh- and smoked-seafood products as well as recipes for preparing the fish. You should know, however, that there's a 10-pound minimum for most fish orders, so you'd better like what you choose.
Having trouble finding your favorite Costa Rican or Italian-roast coffee or Ceylon tea? Then check out the Baltimore Coffee & Tea Company (www.baltimorecoffee.com). The only thing missing from this site is the smell of the beans. This Maryland-based coffee roaster offers an amazing selection of coffees and teas from around the world, including more than 600 varieties of tea, from such well-known companies as Fortnum & Mason, Republic of Tea, and Good Earth Herbal Teas.
Nothing is more annoying than finding the perfect recipe and then spending days or weeks tracking down that one exotic herb or spice. Well then, be frustrated no more. Thanks to The Spice House (www.thespicehouse.com), virtually every herb, spice, and seasoning is only a mouse click away. Whether it's everyday favorites (basil, thyme) or the truly bizarre (epazote, pomegranate molasses), you'll be hard-pressed to find a more bountiful selection. Each spice comes with recipes and a description of its uses, and you can order the spice in small amounts or in bulk. The cost is frequently less than what you would pay in a store — that is, if you could find it there in the first place!
If you're looking for exotic ingredients, you may also be interested in ethnic foods. EthnicGrocer.com (www.ethnicgrocer.com) is the one-stop shop for ingredients in foods from five regions of the world: Asia, the Mediterranean, Latin America, Europe, and the Middle East. Looking to explore some unfamiliar or exotic cuisine? Just choose a country, and the site will give you a brief introduction to the land, its people, and the local cuisine. There are even recipes for typical meals. If you find one you'd like to prepare, click on the "Buy Ingredients For This Recipe" button, and the ethnic items will automatically be added to your shopping cart. Now all you have to do is convince your kids to eat what you cook.
Gina Imperato (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an associate editor at Fast Company. Her to-die-for lasagna recipe is available via email.
Action Item: Recipe for Success
Are you tired of spilling red sauce on Mom's beloved lasagna recipe? Kitchen Assistant from Brother is a recipe computer that's small enough to fit on your kitchen counter. You can enter your own recipes or purchase one of several digital cookbooks that are available. Need a shopping list to take to the grocery store? Just press a button to print one out. (— Liz Zack)
Coordinates: $299. Brother Internat'l, 888-879-3232 (www.brother.com); Bloomingdale's nationwide (www.bloomingdales.com)
Sidebar: Vintage Sites
Buying wine over the Web is not exactly a killer app — especially for typical wine consumers who often need to pick up a bottle as they are heading out to a dinner party. And legal restrictions make it hard to ship wine across state lines.
But there's more to wine than just buying it. And that's where the Web delivers. If you're looking for a recommendation, swing by Prime Wine (www.primewines.com) and try its decision-making tool. Select a taste preference (dry, fruity, semidry), color (red or white), and food (pasta, red meat, fish, and so forth), and the search engine will retrieve a description of a suitable wine, its cost, and a picture of its label.
For the connoisseur, Tastings. com (www.tastings.com) offers ratings for wine, beer, and liquor. You can search the site for a specific beverage or category (all Napa Valley cabernets scoring better than 80 points, for instance). You can also find an in-depth list of wineries, breweries, and distillers that includes addresses, phone numbers, and links to their Web sites.
There is certainly one reason to use the Web for wine — to send it as a gift. If that's what you're looking for, look no further than Send.com (www.send.com). Each bottle will be dusted, wrapped in a white linen napkin, sealed with a copper- embossed band, and accompanied by a handwritten note. One word of caution: The service isn't cheap.
Sidebar: Martha's Web Recipe
Martha Stewart is more than just an arbiter of good taste. As chair and CEO of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia LLC, she is also a new-media powerhouse — a world-renowned brand with a high-powered presence in magazines, radio, and TV.
What's Martha Stewart's next frontier? How to bring good taste to the Web. Her site (www.marthastewart.com) debuted in September 1997. Organized into seven content areas — Home, Cooking & Entertaining, Gardening, Crafts, Holiday, Keeping, and Weddings — it offers discussion forums, 24-hour bulletin boards, and a weekly question-and-answer hour with Stewart, her editors, and experts. The site has nearly 1 million registered users and has generated 10 million page views in June alone.
In an interview with Fast Company, Stewart discussed her recipe for Web success.
How has Martha Stewart been living on the Web?
At first, our Web site was a program guide for the TV show — and a way to provide the recipes that appear on the show. The recipes stay up for 10 days. We then added our catalog, Martha by Mail. That business is growing. We also have question-and-answer forums. My editors love doing them. It gives them a chance to interact with our audience on an intimate basis.
What's your long-term hope for the Web?
I want to make our site the deepest, most robust content site in terms of the home and living and the other subjects we're interested in: cooking, entertaining, crafts, gardening, collecting, and keeping. I also want it to be the best e-commerce site around. My editors and I have expertise to offer that can help homemakers choose the products they need. That covers a huge range of products. But besides offering suggestions on what to buy, we also offer instructions for using these products — an idea bank. The Web is great for making the concept of "living" tangible for our audience.
What makes it such a good tool?
Everybody I know wants the same thing: more time. The Web helps you create more time. I don't need the Web to make friends. I need the Web to give me information, inspiration, and to provide resources to help me find the things that I need.
Coordinates: email@example.com, www.marthastewart.com
Sidebar: Make Reservations
"What are you making for dinner?" Every so often, even the best cooks like to answer: Reservations! These days, the way to make a reservation is to reserve time on the Web.
If you're craving a one-of-a-kind, hole-in-the-wall experience — the sort of place that only locals know about — visit Eric's Idiosyncratic Restaurant and Food Guide (www.mapville.com/riback/eats.htm). You'll find listings for joints in 22 states. The site has links to Roadway Express (www.roadway.com/offroad/diners.html), which offers listings of diners across the country.
CuisineNet (www.cuisinenet.com) relies on customers to rate eateries in approximately 16 cities. It offers a weekly food magazine called The Café and a monthly chat series.
Other sites are devoted to road warriors or on-the-road food lovers — people who like to end a tough day away from home with a good meal. RestaurantRow (www.restaurantrow.com) contains more than 100,000 restaurant listings in nearly 7,000 cities in 47 different countries. If you see a restaurant you'd like to try, just let RestaurantRow know, and it will make a reservation for you.
SavvyDiner (www.savvydiner.com) provides a selection of restaurants that come highly recommended by the concierge staff of top hotels in many different cities. Savvy Diner will also make reservations for you — and some restaurants will even set aside preferred seating for SavvyDiner devotees.
Sidebar: He Knows His Bites — And Bytes
Bill Wallace certainly knows food. right After attending Brown University, he moved to San Francisco. He didn't start a high-tech company. He opened his first store — a cheese shop that imported fine products from around the world. After he sold his business, he held a number of different food-related jobs, from working as a food writer for The Market Basket, a culinary magazine published by Mark Miller, the famous Santa Fe chef, to running his own farm-based restaurant.
Eventually, Wallace became culinary director for Draeger's, a well-known high-end food chain with many retail outlets throughout the San Francisco area. He also started the company's now-famous cooking-school programs and, until last year, was the director of Draeger's restaurant and largest stores.
These days, Wallace, now 51, is vice president, food at Tavolo (formerly Digital Chef). He still knows food — but he also knows more than he ever thought he would about the Net. Recently, he spoke to Fast Company about what the Web really brings to the table.
How well do food and the Web mix?
Very well. After creating the ultimate brick-and-mortar specialty-food store, it seemed natural for me to move to the Web. The idea of reaching people outside major cities, where specialty food is not so readily available, was extremely exciting. There are no walls, no limits, and no rules. It's virgin territory.
Food is such a sensory thing. It's about seeing, tasting, smelling. Isn't that at odds with a virtual experience?
Part of it has to do with availability. If you live in Laramie, Wyoming, you don't have the opportunity to buy truffle oil at your local store. But in a more romantic — and a more intellectual — sense, it also has to do with information and storytelling. It's been the premise of my entire career that the more people know about food, the more they will explore and the more they will broaden their tastes. If they truly know why an expensive bottle of olive oil is different — the centuries of experimentation that it's taken to find the right patch of ground, how people in certain parts of the world have learned to pick the olives at just the right time — they will try it.
This is something I've been doing all my life, through lectures, writing, and one-on-one interactions with customers. Now we can do that with a wider audience on the Web. When information is presented with romance and passion, it sells products and opens new doors for people. It's part of my mission in life to make sure that as many people as I can come into contact with understand the joy of wonderful food.
In the future, are we going to be buying our lettuce online?
No. But we will buy things that are very hard to find — a really good sherry vinegar or a certain cheese that just isn't available in, say, Omaha. Our goal is to be the premier place in the world to find specialty food, cookware, and cookbooks.
Coordinates: firstname.lastname@example.org, www.tavolo.com
A version of this article appeared in the November 1999 issue of Fast Company magazine.