Dispatching from the Oregon coast…Pulled in 4 Dungeness crabs. @Lucas Sin, seeking your fave crab ideas 2x ways.
The message from Portland culinary producer Liz Calderón popped up on my phone beneath photographic evidence: four hefty crabs on a weathered dock, plus a sunny seascape that set my very cold New-York-in-February soul ablaze with envy. Instantly, my screen lit up with a small riot of flame and crab emojis. Once summoned, Lucas Sin, chef of mini fast casual chains Junzi Kitchen and Nice Day Chinese Takeout, fired back a loose formula for ginger-scallion crab stir-fry. Several hours later a photo arrived: A neat pile of crab legs with aromatic butter, fortified with “1 loose packet of grocery store sushi soy sauce.”
If the state of my phone is any indication, the days of social distancing have sparked a group chat renaissance—but this exuberant WhatsApp chat is something entirely new. The “community” is a prototype from DEMI, a pandemic-era startup that cuts out the middleman (in this case, social media) and helps food professionals grow and connect with audiences directly.
Founded by Ian Moore, the former chief operations officer of Copenhagen-based distillery Empirical Spirits, the app is part of a larger shift from social media to private online communities like Clubhouse and closed Discord servers. Users pay $10 a month per group chat, and for now it all goes straight to the hosts. The growing roster includes Sin, pastry chef Natasha Pickowicz, Italian food writer Katie Parla, APÉRITIF author Rebekah Peppler, and Peoples Wine managing partner Daryl Nuhn. “I want to build a sustainable business within food,” says Moore. “We want to show that chefs deserve to get paid more for their hard work, passion, and knowledge.”
Like Substack, Pateron, and other popular hosting platforms for subscription-based content, DEMI plans to start collecting a yet-to-be-determined percentage of profits with the launch of its app in the next two months—if development stays on schedule. It’ll launch with an ambitious roster of a hundred hosts, from Sean Sherman of The Sioux Chef to Diaspora Co founder Sana Javeri Kadri, with updated features like a section to store shared recipes and a pared-down notification system to lighten the barrage of message alerts.
For DEMI’s food-world hosts, the group chat is another side hustle in a year of reinventions necessitated by COVID-19’s destructive impact on the restaurant industry. According to the National Restaurant Association, over 100,000 eating and drinking establishments closed in 2020, eliminating almost 2.5 million jobs. In response, hospitality professionals—especially those with followings online—are launching recipe newsletters and pop-ups, searching for new ways to connect with their communities and turn a profit in the process.
“Like a lot of restaurant people, I’m cobbling together this freelance life by developing recipes, writing stories, and getting involved with campaigns that fit my perspective,” says Pickowicz, who lost her job as the pastry chef for New York’s acclaimed Café Altro Paradiso and Flora Bar last June. She views DEMI as a way to break free from the “hegemony of social media” with a format that requires less bandwidth than setting up a Patreon. “I don’t want to be in someone’s in-box,” she says. “I like the conversational aspect of the chat. I’m more interested in knowing who Sarah or Sally are, thinking about the people who read it and what their lives are like.”
DEMI’s conversational core provides fertile ground for experimentation. As a reporter I got a free pass for both Pickowicz’s Never Ending Salon and Sin’s Chinese-ish Cooking Club, which immediately felt distinct. Pickowicz conducts weekly recipe exchanges with guest hosts from the wide world of pastry, who often stick around to dispense wisdom. Sin drops niche Youtube links, advice on ordering at Cantonese restaurants, and loose recipes for everything from mapo tofu lasagna to superior broth simmered with chicken bones, pork bones, and jinhua ham. The similarities lie in the collaborative, refreshingly casual chat; a space for everyone to geek out about food without having to worry about likes, perfect lighting, or other measurements of clout.