Dinner at TAO with the "FoodGod" Jonathan Cheban

Sure, you might know him as Kim Kardashian's best friend. But the social media star is quickly conquering new territory—the fertile, foodie world of Snapchat—as the benevolent @FoodGod.

___ On a recent Friday night, Jonathan Cheban, a celebrity, strolled past a statue of a reclining Buddha on his way to the table at TAO Downtown in New York City. Cheban became a name in many households through his frequent appearances on the television program Keeping Up with the Kardashians and other televised Kardashanalia where he appears as the best friend of both protagonist Kim Kardashian West and Khloe Kardashian. But being a best friend is at best derivative fame—penumbral fame—and Cheban is going for the real thing now. He has refashioned himself as a professional tastemaker in the food world.

“I love Tao,” he says, slipping into the large booth that overlooks the room. “I think, it’s like, I love places.“ A waitress approaches our table, offering us leather-bound menus that seem almost talmudic. “They always order for me here so I never look at this menu,” he says, looking at the menu. Quickly scanning the pages, his eyes alight on lobster soup dumplings. “This is what I do. I need to read it and then smell out what’s going to be amazing. It’s a talent. Like I can look at the menu and just look at the ingredients and be like, This will end up being amazing.” He also asks for deep-fried snapper, crispy Bao buns, a Kobe Beef Roll, and Crispy Crab. The waitress asks if he might like greens. “Oh God no,” says Mr. Cheban, “We’d never waste anything on greens.” Mr. Cheban similarly declines rock shrimp in a lettuce cup. He does not like rock shrimp. It embarrasses him.

"I definitely want to be like a Guy Fieri or Anthony Bourdain for the young and hot."

“Rock shrimp is so generic. Anyone I go to Nobu with who gets rock shrimp, I freak out on them. Every novice is like, Can I have the rock shrimp? Then I’m always like, Don’t order rock shrimp with me. It’s such a bad look on the table. It cheapens me. I’m embarrassed about it. That’s the stuff I ordered for the first 10 years eating at Nobu. “
Reader, I ordered the rock shrimp.

Cheban aims to be to food what his friends the Kardashians are to fame. He has a handle—@FoodGod—and a tagline ”Amaaaaazing.” His fans are legion. On Snapchat, his primary mode of communication, each post receives an average of 250,000 views. He also has 1.8 million followers on Instagram. Sometimes he styles himself Foodgōd—“It makes it pop!” he says, “and it looks like a halo!” Sometimes he doesn’t bother with the macron. “I’m a food environmentalist,” he says, “I’m about the food and the ambiance.”

Cheban was born in Russia in 1974 but grew up across the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee, New Jersey. His father, who died in 2011, was a diamond dealer but his mother who works in real estate, Galina, is still alive and his frequent dinner companion (“She’s very classy,” says her son) when he returns to Jersey.

Like Janus, there are two Jonathan Chebans: the Jersey Cheban and the Amazing Cheban. When he’s in Fort Lee, he eats fried hot dogs at Hiram’s Roadside. Sometimes he drives out to Englewood with his mom to eat at Baumgart’s Cafe, a Chinese American cafe. Or the mall. But when he’s in metropolitan cities like New York and Los Angeles, or in the vortices of power and money like Ibiza and Monte Carlo, where he often finds himself, he eats at restaurants like TAO with people like the Kardashian-Wests. These experiences are mostly what he shares as the FoodGod. “I definitely want to be like a Guy Fieri or Anthony Bourdain for the young and hot. That would be amaaazing.”

To peruse Cheban’s recent Snapchat output is to enter the shadowlands of harshly lit desserts, Lucullan spreads, food in profuse and prodigal display, cameos by celebrities, Escalades and other vehicles, yachts in Cap Ferrat, more food, more yachts, donuts. Throughout it all, Mr. Cheban provides color commentary, a sort of friendly Virgil through the netherworld. Often he trains the camera on himself, his ageless face uncreased, his lips delicate and features filigree. Often he wears graphic sweatshirts, gold chains, and appears at least two sheets to the wind. He is very friendly and enthusiastic. “Yo, wassup guys!” he said recently, in a Snapchat from the back of an SUV. “It’s Saturday night. I think it’s Saturday. On our way to Fat Joe’s birthday party. On the boat. It’s gonna be lit.” Later, after we see the boat—which appears to be a booze cruise at Chelsea Piers—and Fat Joe, we find Cheban and his friends at Nobu. “Nobu Nobu Nobu,” says Cheban.

In another randomly selected Snap from a few months ago, Cheban visits Carbone. Over plates of out-of-focus pasta captured in restless roving cinematography, the FoodGod provides narration. Here it is transcribed: “Woooah. Look at this. Really pigging out tonight. We all around. Pasta. Yo, we leave Europe and we’re still eating like fucking pigs.” Same Snapchat story, a few hours later, a shirtless couchant Cheban speaks from his bed: “Mornings to be happy, to be in my own bed today. Wait I just saw the coolest thing from Burger King. It’s like a whopper and burrito together.

"Nobu Nobu Nobu." — Jonathan Cheban

What might be called quality by food critic curmudgeons does not rank highly among Mr. Cheban’s criteria for selection. “No one is just looking for a Michelin star,” he says. He's right. In fact, among his favorite restaurants in New York—TAO and Nobu; a Japanese restaurant called Zuma on 38th street; Vandal, a nightclub downtown which is also part of the TAO Group; and an American restaurant in Midtown, close to Mr. Cheban’s Madison Square apartment, called Hillstone—none of them have a star. He also enjoys JG Mellon for its burger and Chloe for its avocado toast.

Desserts are disproportionately represented in Mr. Cheban’s feed. He recently featured a video of himself eating $100 gold-covered donut filled with a jelly made from 1997 Cristal from Williamsburg’s Manila Social Club on his Instagram account. The post received 178,000 views. “It was amaaaazing,” he notes. But generally he prefers desserts for their photogenic nature. “I don’t eat much of them,” he says, “I wouldn’t be the FoodGod if i was fat.”

Before our dinner together, I was not familiar with Mr. Cheban, his oeuvre, or his fame. I had not watched his television program, Keeping Up With the Kardashians, which puts me in the minority; nor had I caught The Fabulous Life of...; his own short-lived reality show The Spin Crowd (a chronicle of his work as founder of CommandPR); or the most recent season of Celebrity Big Brother UK, which he quit in January after one week, in part because the food was terrible.

Though I now know how famous he is, I was not alone in my ignorance. Recently Mr. Cheban sat next to Martha Stewart at a charity dinner in Cannes. (As one does.) In a very Connecticut but also cut-a-bitch way, Ms. Stewart tweeted a picture of Cheban’s face, writing: “#SeriouslyPopular Do you know who this guy is? He says he is seriously popular.” The answers to Ms. Stewart’s shade-producing inquiry came fast and furious. Yes, he is known, and yes, he is seriously popular. (Reached via email Cheban claims, “We did it as a joke. I think it was the most retweets she's ever gotten.”)

To many civilians, myself, and perhaps even Martha Stewart, celebrity at Cheban’s level seems like a parallel universe of dark matter. It is The Upside Down of the IRL, a pod of humpback whales swimming deep underneath the daily water, gliding and near, massive, and ponderous. That it exists is indisputable, and yet, it still feels incredible. This feeling intensifies as one approaches the famous, as I did, for dinner at TAO.

Snapchat offers fleeting intimacy from afar and for many. Conversely, those like Cheban, who are primarily known through the medium, seem increasingly alien the closer one gets. Sitting beside him, both he and his fame seem like a put-on. Could someone really be embarrassed about rock shrimp? Is that a thing? Do 250,000 people peer into their phones to peer into his face every time he posts something?

As he was with Mrs. Stewart, at TAO, Mr. Cheban seems intent to prove his bona fides. “I’m like a few points away from people going nuts,” he tells me. To prove his point, Mr. Cheban takes out his phone and navigates to the Snapchat application. He points his phone towards the table, narrating as he records: “So we just got to TAO and we’re staying slow but we will end with a Peking Duck. This is FoodGod. Food Vibes. This place is slammed.” He stops recording. “My Snapchat and my Instagram probably get more views than every magazine out there.”
Eighteen minutes later, 7,500 people have watched the vignette. Thirty minutes after that, that number increased to 12,500. Add another five thousand in the next ten minutes. By the time dinner was done, the number hovered around 50,000 and it would grow all night long. “See,” says Cheban, “I own my own TV station. I own my own magazine.”

By the end of the meal, the rock shrimp have been eaten in their lettuce cups. The snapper has been Snapped and devoured. The lobster dumplings are, as Cheban initially posited, refreshingly amaaaaazing. The FoodGod is full but his night is young, and besides, there are new friends to be made. From the bowels of TAO come a trio of glittering women, tottering up the steps past our table. One of the sylphs stops at our booth. “Oh my god!” she says, “Can I take a picture of you?” “Sure,” he says. “I could just die,” she replies, “I love you so much.” The FoodGod smiles benevolently. “I love you too. I don’t know you but I love you.”