Since starting this blog project, I have been bowled over by support and helpful suggestions. Being the sole reporter and editor, I’m doing my best to keep up, but I’m more than happy to tell you: there’s a lot of good news out there!
In this chapter — actually, this might even suffice as a Web-sized tome — I introduce to you Michael Boss. Boss is a fellow Web entrepreneur. He started his own Web site:
and his game is all about food. And local restaurants. But, as you will discover, Boss is, well, his own boss, and, like Thoreau once wrote, he’s taken the restaurant review less traveled. Boss’s delightful restaurant revelations fall more into the category of fireside chats with each restaurant owner.
Intrigued, I thought it would be fun to turn the tables on Boss. The result is a comfortable, relaxed conversation. I’ve not yet met Boss in person, but I know when I do, it will be like meeting an old friend. I invite you to pour a cup of coffee (or glass of wine), set out a plate of sweets (or hors d’oeuvres) — and enjoy.
JH: Can you tell us a little about yourself, please? Sort of a mini-bio?
MB: (I was) born and raised in San Francisco between the era of the Beat Generation and the Flower Children (I went to the same junior high as Jerry Garcia, thanks for asking). I credit growing up in The City with one of the things that motivates me to write about food: the recognition that the world is full of a lot of amazing cultures and traditions that all find their way into what we eat.
This conviction was further reinforced by living a number of years in the Middle East, where, at one stage, I taught rotary wing aerodynamics to Irani army cadets in the legendary city of Esfahan. Throughout my world travels I became increasingly fascinated with culinary traditions and with how the subject of food can unlock so many stories about place, tradition, and ethnicity that few other subjects invoke with so little controversy.
Having had my own public relations agency in Boise for ten years, I got to know a number of local restaurant owners through a marketing program sponsored by SYSCO. The program evolved into more of an advertising co-op model, which was a disappointment to me in that my interest was in the multitude of stories behind the menu items of locally owned restaurants.
The conventional media pipeline didn’t allow for those stories to be told, and it took another five+ years for the technology of Web 2.0 and social media to create the kinds of tools and communities to allow for the audacity of creating my own “media source” for local restaurants to tell their stories.
And then, of course, losing my job as the PR Manager and Media Strategist at MPC Computers gave me the perfect excuse to follow my muse. Necessity is, if not the mother of invention, than at least the father of opportunity.
JH: Michael, your Web site “Behind the Menu,” features local restaurants. However, instead of it being a clearinghouse, listing or even a collection of reviews, your Web site is more about taking a look at what goes on behind-the-scenes. Can you tell us a little more about your Web site’s mission statement?
MB: Good insight, Jeanne. You’re right. This is not a directory or site for conventional restaurant reviews. I find both of those to be limited in their story telling potential, and there are already some good sites out there for listings and reviews. My personal favorite is http://www.idahoeats.com. (It’s a ) great concept, and really well executed except for all the Google Sense ads.
If you look at the title on my business card, it’s “Culinary Raconteur.” The mission of Behind The Menu is just what the name suggests: to tell the stories behind the food in local restaurants and businesses that make up the culinary environment in the Boise Valley.
What is the experience that a chef/restaurant owner is trying to create for the customers? What are their inspirations and associations with the foods they serve? What are their relationships with local growers and producers? What are the family and ethnic influences on their cooking? What culinary causes are they passionate about?
You can walk past the double fudge brownies at the Brick Oven Bistro and never know that the recipe came from a legendary culinary diva of Denver who used to hold court with visiting celebrity chefs. If you knew that story, you’d never again think about that brownie in the same way. That’s the story I want to tell — more to the point, that is the story I want people to hear from the restaurant itself through the podcast series (now available on iTunes as “Local Food, Local Voices,” by the way).
JH: How did you get so involved with food? Did you spend time in the kitchen as a child? Fascinated with making mud pies? What’s the story?
MB: I came to the kitchen late in life, but now do most of the cooking at my house. I love to cook.
You also have to go back to the answer to my first question. My very first epiphany around food came during my sophomore year in college, which I spent in the South Indian city of Bangalore. The food was a VERY powerful experience, and I realized that it embodied so many things about the culture that you couldn’t have learned as powerfully in any other way. To this day I believe that you can’t really begin to know a culture until you learn to speak at least some of the language and eat the food.
Those two things will tell you a lot about how other cultures perceive the world. I also discovered along the way that when you ask people about their relationships with food, you’ll learn a lot about them that other questions might not have uncovered. It’s a safer subject than politics and religion, but it can tell you a lot about both of those as well as others.
JH: What’s the funniest story you’ve heard during your interviews?
MB: Funny you should ask! I think it actually came out of this morning’s interview with Chef Lou Aaron (the Behind The Menu blog and podcast will be posted this coming Monday).
MB: Chef Lou earned his chops in the biz by starting in the “dish pit” of the Gamekeeper. He got “promoted” to pantry chef, and one of his duties was to prepare king crab legs. The process resulted in his going home each night with bloody hands. He told me that to this day he still has nightmares involving what many would consider a delicacy!
JH: Most touching story?
MB: Has to be Michael Mohica’s story from Ono Hawaiian Cafe. Michael started his culinary career as a little boy cooking with his grandmother. She died last year, and was never able to visit the restaurant that her grandson created, although she did see photographs. If you read one of the comments to the blog about Ono, you’ll see that one of his family members wrote about how proud their grandmother would have been.
Having that connection with my food as a chef would sure make me put an extra dollop of love into whatever I served. It’s not just food, it’s memories of a much loved grandmother that I’m sharing with the people who come to my restaurant.
That’s powerful stuff. I want people to know about that connection when they eat Michael’s food!
JH: So, Michael, how do you choose your subjects, how do you decide where to go next?
MB: In getting this project off the ground, I’m initially going with places I’m familiar with and recommendations from people whose taste I trust. My rule of thumb is that while I don’t write reviews, I won’t write about any place that I wouldn’t want my family or friends to experience. You know the feeling that you have when you recommend a restaurant to someone you love, and they call you one day and say, “wow, thanks so much for that recommendation — that was one of the best meals I’ve ever had.” That is giving someone you love a special gift.
As time goes on, I’m going to “mine” the Idaho Eats Web site and seek out the places that are getting the best user-generated review buzz. I know it sounds snobbish, but since I don’t take money for content creation, I have the journalistic prerogative of writing about what pleases me or captures my attention based on word-of-mouth (which is what this site is all about to begin with). Over time, I’d like Behind The Menu stories to be associated with recognizing the best restaurants, chefs, and culinary businesses, whether the subject is a steak house or a local winery. Presumptuous, perhaps, but as Robert Burns said, “a man’s reach should exceed his grasp.” I said that in my best brogue, by the way. (Smiles.)
JH: Where will you go next?
MB: Damned glad you asked that question, Jeanne! On Monday my partners (Scott Nicholson, a local commercial real estate agent, and Brian Critchfield, a social media visionary and ace marketing maven) will be hosting a focus group at the BSU Culinary Arts Program. We’ve invited a number of local restaurant owners, who will be attending along with some of the culinary program faculty who are intrigued with the Behind The Menu concept.
During the focus group we’ll be teaching some basic social media skills that a restaurant owner can put to use the minute they get back to their office/kitchen. We are also going to introduce a social media association concept that we hope to refine through restaurant owner feedback, and that will provide ongoing social media marketing services to deliver the content that the site creates around our local food scene.
Ultimately, it will be the association fees along with sponsorship from non-restaurant culinary businesses who want to reach the local foodie audience that will pay the freight for creating the content in an “ad free” environment. We are taking a more innovative approach to the business model that we believe is in keeping with the more innovative nature of social media as a marketing strategy.
I don’t believe in pouring new wine into old skins. We also want to form relationships with other organizations who promote local businesses, which would include the Downtown Boise Association, Think Boise First, Buy Idaho, etc. We share their belief that the high tide floats all boats.
Finally, we want to find ways of using the site and social media model to create interesting synergies between different members of the culinary community. Imagine events, promoted through “Tweet Ups” (Twitter gatherings) that are culinary-themed, such as pairing chocolate and wine, or that tie some of our restaurants to historical subjects (imagine Bar Gernika and the Basque Block history), or that feature “progressive meals” with a particular ethnic theme?
And we haven’t even touched on the content possibilities with creating a YouTube channel for five-minute video vignettes, or guest blogs, or inviting well known community folks to do a podcast interview at a favorite local restaurant to talk about their connection with its menu.
The mind spins…Which also leads to another potential revenue stream: content syndication.
But the journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step, and the first step is simply telling one good story, then the next one.
JH: Wow. That “big-picture” future is, well, I won’t say mind-boggling, but it does offer food for thought. What’s next for you, Michael? A book? Oprah?
MB: I used to do a seminar presentation entitled “Be Your Own Oprah” based on the belief, which is fast coming to be common wisdom, that social media and Web 2.0 tools that I can access by simply opening up my MacBook can make any of us the Oprah of our own community, depending on how we define “our community.”
Right now, I want to be the Oprah (or at least the white, middle-aged, male version) of the local restaurant scene. My community will decide if they want to bestow that honor upon me, and I trust their judgment.
Book? Probably not, but we’ve already talked about rolling the “long form” blog and podcast stories into Web site profile pages for each of the participating restaurants. No reason these profiles couldn’t be packaged as print pieces for the hospitality industry as “Signature Dishes of Boise.” I’m open to whatever digital media opportunities grow organically from the single-minded intention of telling the “tales of culinary adventure from the City of Trees.”
JH: Would you like more input/suggestions from local gastronomes?
MB: Absobloominlutely! I’m a big believer in collaboration, and in taking an idea that you think is a good one, sharing it with people whose creativity you trust without the expectation of any particular outcome, and then seeing what develops organically. I’d hate to be tied to any project that depended on me being the smartest guy in the room! But then, like Groucho Marx, I probably wouldn’t join a club that would have me as a member.
JH: Michael, this has been a great interview. I think what you’re doing for local restaurants, getting their stories out, getting to the heart of the matter, is a great service. Is there anything we’ve left out, anything else you’d like to say?
MB: I’d like to thank the members of the Academy, my mother and father for always believing in me, and of course, Jesus. (Sorry, I’m a bit of an iconoclast, but I also know my priest would think that was funny. He’s an iconoclast too).
JH: Thanks Michael!
MB: Au contraire, Jeanne. Thank YOU!