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Today’s Tech Entrepreneurs: Modern Day Patrons of the Food Arts?

Photo: Wendy Macnaughton

If the current, vibrant food scene in S.F. can be compared to the Renaissance art scene in Florence, are venture capitalist and tech-sector CEOs the modern-day Medicis? Certainly, a food scene with creativity happening at all echelons, from fine-dining to street food, requires a lot of hungry and adventurous customers, and technology is what pays the paychecks of many a Bay Area resident, but can we generalize and say that we have the tech industry to thank for creating what Alan Richman recently called “the city… that chefs have to visit to learn what’s going on in American cooking [right now]”? 7x7 has a recent piece, “From Tech to Table: The Secret Ingredient in SF’s Increasingly Vibrant Food Scene,” which has inspired some healthy debate on the topic. Editor Sara Deseran writes of a venture capitalist friend who’s also a restaurant investor who makes the Medici comparison (about himself), and says it “boils [his] blood… that people in the artist community have never understood the connection between capital and the arts. And they take it massively for granted.”

The above statement sparked a “fuck you” reaction from Mission-centric blog Uptown Almanac, and certainly when it comes to vibrancy of low-end cuisines — the ethnic stuff, pop-ups, food trucks — it’s not the rich kids who are keeping those things popular. But certainly without a booming industry or the large amount of wealth that’s earned here in the tech sector, San Franciscans might not be lucky enough to have as much fine dining — and innovative fine dining — as we have. Still, this has never before been known as a fine dining town, and we’re only recently seeing that innovation at the top, at places like Benu, Saison, Fifth Floor, and at more casual but buzz-worthy spots like Commonwealth and Sons & Daughters.

Furthermore, SF Weekly’s Jonathan Kauffman says that the whole tech-money-fosters-creativity argument is weak primarily because you don’t see much of any great food down on the Peninsula, where most of that money lives, or up in Seattle which is as much a tech center as S.F. is. To wit:

As someone who reviewed restaurants in Seattle – which isn’t hurting for tech money, but whose restaurant scene is smaller and more varied in quality than SF’s – it’s hard to underestimate the effect of something non-monetary: You could call it experience, or perhaps momentum. San Francisco’s 150-year-old food obsession has fostered the training of generations of chefs who have passed along their collective expertise to thousands and thousands of cooks. Our kitchens are now run by the equivalent of Harvard and Cal faculty, and thanks to the Ivy League education they give their staff, food here is exponentially better than it was 20 years ago.

Also, there is way, way more money in New York, especially in the form of expense accounts, and if you believe Richman that hasn’t spawned any great creativity in the last decade.

Deseran stretches her argument to cover the other influences of technology on food — services like Twitter and Yelp, for instance, which were born here and which have both helped and hurt the restaurant industry in various ways. She also quotes Benu chef Corey Lee as saying that Yelp’s lesser reach in New York — with only a fraction of Yelp reviews having been written for his colleague Jonathan Benno’s new restaurant Lincoln compared to the hundreds that have been posted about Benu — is evidence of people here being more eager to talk about food and share their experiences.

Actually, we’d argue that the Yelp thing is just a matter of them having launched here first, and grown a bigger audience around the Bay. In New York, restaurant-goers have far more — and more reliable — sources for restaurant criticism, both from professionals (like NY Mag, to toot our own bosses horns) and from citizen review sources (like MenuPages and Zagat) that have been way more entrenched in the scene for much longer. Yelp just isn’t that big of thing there, and thus you don’t see Yelp Elite members trying to wield their false power to get reservations at Eleven Madison Park.

From Tech to Table: The Secret Ingredient in SF’s Increasingly Vibrant Food Scene
Does San Francisco’s Food Culture Owe Its Richness to Tech Money? [SFoodie]
Hey 7x7 Shut the Fuck Up Part 2 [Uptown Almanac]

Today’s Tech Entrepreneurs: Modern Day Patrons of the Food Arts?