Chicago startup Morsel is building a social network centered on fancy cooking

If you’re a foodie craving more from your food porn than just blurry photos of steamy dishes shot by tipsy diners, then you might want to check out a new social network built by Morsel. The Chicago startup wants to bring cooks, not diners, to the forefront of its network.

Morsel is highlighting the creativity that goes into cooking their dishes, picking their ingredients and planning their menus – and in the process feed the growing cult of the celebrity surrounding chefs today. So instead of tweets, shares or pins, the basic content component of the social network is called the Morsel, an in-depth “story” composed of photos and text designed to feature a particular dish, ingredient, food pairing, foodie travel note or any other form of culinary inspiration a cook might have.

A Morsel posting as seen on the iPhone app (source: Morsel)

A Morsel posting as seen on the iPhone app (source: Morsel)

Those Morsels go into the social network’s general feed and get pushed to people who follow particular chefs, but Morsel is curating the content as well, featuring content from particularly hot chefs – or from trending Morsels – on its home screen.

The network is just getting started in Chicago. The website went live this summer and its iOS mobile app debuted in the iTunes store in September. It’s already attracted interest from some of Chicago’s leading culinary lights, most notably Paul Kahan, who has begun posting his own Morsels on everything from the making tortillas to sourcing oysters.

But Morsel has gotten notice from a major player in the foodtech world as well. Chicago’s Matt Maloney, co-founder and CEO of [company]GrubHub[/company], is one of Morsel’s early backers along with Chicago Ventures, Merrick Ventures and other Chicago and San Francisco angels, who have collectively raised $800,000 in initial funding. Maloney has joined Morsel’s board as chairman and is directly advising founders Ellen Malloy and Kris Petersen.

Matt Maloney

Matt Maloney

Maloney’s GrubHub occupies a much different area of the foodtech world, focusing on online ordering and delivery, and he sees Morsel as a to personally expand his scope in the culinary world with stepping on GrubHub’s expanding business.

“The food space is massive — It’s not just about pickup and delivery, it’s not just about reservations, it’s not just ingredients,” Maloney told me in an interview. While there are plenty of companies helping restaurants book tables and sell online, there are few companies solely focused on helping restaurants and chefs communicate directly their patrons, Maloney said. “Every other food startup I talk to overlaps with GrubHub on the edges,” Maloney said. “That’s not the case here.”

Do we need even more calories in our social media?

There’s certainly no dearth of foodie activity on social media today. Foodspotting launched a fleet of dining-centric social apps and made the smartphone as ubiquitous on restaurant tables as flatware. Startup Chefs Feed is building restaurant recommendation app around the cult of chef celebrity. There’s hardly a chef or restaurant that doesn’t promote themselves on [company]Twitter[/company] or Instagram. Some like Chicago’s Next Restaurant go so far as to announce their reservation openings on [company]Facebook[/company] and film slick videos of every new menu concept.

Foodie apps, however, are centered on people doing the eating rather than the chefs doing the cooking, while Facebook and Twitter are general-purpose social media tools, Petersen told me. Morsel’s cook-centered community gives chefs a venue to focus solely on their art and restaurants a means to promote themselves beyond merely announcing specials and issuing coupons, Pertersen said.

Morsel founders Ellen Malloy and Kris Peterson (Photo: Morsel)

Morsel founders Ellen Malloy and Kris Petersen (Photo: Morsel)

I’ll admit this all sounds a bit pretentious if you’re not the type of person who insists on knowing from which beach your oysters were harvested or who won’t accept chuck roast as substitute for short ribs. But I assure there are a lot of of people who do, and I’ll grudgingly admit I’m one of them (as Buzzfeed was so kind to point out in one of its listicles). Call us foodies, food snobs or whatever, but we want to know the story behind what we eat.

And I should add that Morsel is actually structured in a much more egalitarian way than it initially lets on. Instead of creating a two-tiered network where the elites (i.e. celebrity chefs) create the content and the commons (us eaters) consume it, it’s built a true social network where anyone can post a Morsel.

Feature postings on the Morsel home page

Feature postings on the Morsel home page

So if you’re a home cook perfecting your meatloaf recipe, a food blogger sharing your homemade fudge photos online, or a butcher wanting to highlight your latest German sausage creation, you’re free to detail your process right alongside those fancy pants chefs (I wanted to create my own Morsel to show Gigaom readers last night, but we wound up ordering a pizza instead).

Granted, more prominent culinary figures will likely see their content featured over us amateur cooks, Peterson said, but just as with any social network, good content can go viral elevating it to the same plane as the fanciest 13-course menu concept.