Once upon a time, the term celebrity conjured up visions of movie stars and superstar athletes, but somewhere along the line, the term deteriorated into something much less exclusive. Nowadays, there are celebrity chefs, celebrity doctors, celebrity hair stylists, celebrity houseguests, and celebrity pets. A guy I know has been described as a celebrity real estate developer. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were celebrity plumbers and celebrity gardeners. But the term really reached an extreme when I was labeled a “celebrity diner.”
I’m not the first person to gain attention for restaurant dining. Morgan Spurlock ate every meal at McDonald’s for a month and made a movie about it, and the discredited Jared Fogel became famous for his Subway sandwich weight loss diet. Before I came along, a man went on a campaign to eat at all 415 Chinese restaurants in San Francisco. So how did I earn my “celebrity diner” status?
Clearly, it was a matter of being in the right place at the right time — the right time coinciding with an expansion of public interest in celebrities of all types. Five years ago, I made the acquaintance of food writer Clarissa Wei. I mentioned in passing that I had eaten at over 6,000 Chinese restaurants. Immediately, she jumped on the topic and asked whether anybody had ever written me up. My response was “Why would anybody do that?” In a week’s time, we met for an interview and she wrote an article that was published in L.A. Weekly.
Even after the article was reprinted in the Huffington Post, I didn’t give it much thought. The Huffington Post runs a good number of food-related articles, and I assumed mine would only interest a small group of foodies. However, food columns in the San Francisco Chronicle and New York Times linked to the Huffington article, which was then picked up by websites like Eater and The Daily Meal. I even received a message from the Smithsonian about its Chinese restaurant exhibit and did an interview with National Public Radio. Gee, my 15 seconds of fame had actually come!
Things really got weird when a few days later, I received a message from my cousin Regina that said my story was featured on People.com. Indeed, it was the lead current news item for three hours, until it was bumped by a piece about Britney Spears. I really couldn’t comprehend why People decided to feature the story, not to mention labeling it with a “Celebrity” heading. Things turned immediately from weird to crazy, as the People article went viral. It was picked up by celebrity, news, and food websites all over the world. Interview requests poured in. The Asia Society invited me to write an article on the Top 10 Chinese restaurants in the US, which itself blew up the internet due to some negative comments I made about the quality of Chinese food in New York. Then came an invitation to visit Springfield, Missouri, responding to the part of the People profile when I mentioned my desire to try Springfield-style cashew chicken. The city whisked me there for a weekend of sampling different versions of that signature Chinese American dish. I even received a key to the neighboring city of Branson from Mayor Raeanne Presley, a distant relative of Elvis himself. Then best of all, I got the opportunity to write for Menuism on a variety of Chinese restaurant topics.
I settled into a new normalcy of writing historically-tinged Chinese restaurant articles for Menuism and doing occasional interviews, including the Chinese restaurant documentary film The Search for General Tso. Little did I realize I’d be in for a second 15 seconds of fame the following spring, thanks to Los Angeles Times reporter Frank Shyong. Frank had not seen the initial round of publicity about me, but in searching for Chinese restaurants to take his visiting parents, he kept running across my name in online restaurant message boards. At some point, he started digging and found my earlier interviews and Menuism articles, and was fascinated that my search for Chinese food was in part a related quest for Chinese-American identity. Several interview sessions eventually led to a front-page article in the Times about this dual quest.
Surprisingly, the 2013 Times article created an even bigger ripple effect than the previous year’s People profile. The reaction from Times readers was so great that an online chat session was set up for the next morning, and lasted three times as long as Frank had planned. Meanwhile, ABC News phoned for an interview which turned into the lead headline on both its website as well as Yahoo! News. Good Morning America called to say it was sending a film crew to my office, though that it was eventually scuttled when GMA and the management of my office building couldn’t agree on insurance arrangements. Somebody even posted a professional quality 90-second video on the Times story on YouTube. Meanwhile, hundreds of people from all over the US tracked down my Twitter account and asked me about the best Chinese restaurant in their hometowns. And even more incredibly, newspapers in Canada and Ohio wrote articles based on my responses to those Twitter questions.
A third 15 seconds of fame came with the theatrical release of the Search For General Tso. It premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York in 2014, then had a limited general release in 2015, followed by much broader availability on cable and streaming video. The documentary cracked the top 100 streaming videos and garnered my listing in a number of motion picture databases (described as an actor playing myself). To this day, I still run into people who didn’t know I was in the movie and who tell me how stunned they were when they saw me on screen.
Back in the old days, when celebrities were real celebrities, a common description used for them was “star of stage, screen, radio, and television.” Well, I’ve never done live theater, but I have given auditorium and theater presentations on my dining adventures. I was in the General Tso movie, and have even received feelers from an independent filmmaker to be the subject of a documentary short, though that fell through. I’ve certainly had my share of radio and television appearances. So maybe “Celebrity Diner” isn’t so far-fetched after all.
David R. Chan is a third-generation American who has eaten at 7,000 Chinese restaurants and counting. He maintains a spreadsheet of each of his culinary conquests — a document he began in the early 90s, when he bought his first home computer. "When I entered the workforce in the 1970s, that coincided with the rise of what we think of as authentic Chinese food in North America," Chan told the LA Weekly Squid Ink blog. "As such, my goal was to try every authentic Chinese restaurant in the Los Angeles area at least once." He has extended his list to New York, San Francisco, and thousands of restaurants beyond. Still, Chan admits, he can't use chopsticks.