Is Your Food Photogenic Enough?
By Erin Ji In Lee, English Columnist
Rainbow milkshakes, aesthetically topped avocado toasts, and unrealistically tall burgers stuffed with thick patties and dripping cheese.
Millennials never forget to snap photos of their food before putting their hands on it. It is not an exaggeration to say that young people today pay more attention to the lighting that affects the photo of their food over its actual taste. Food trends have been changing noticeably to prioritize our aesthetic desires over our taste buds.
Behind this recent shift in food culture lies the social media platform Instagram. Ten years ago, looking for decent eateries nearby was easy. We could search for reviews on the internet or ask for recommendations from a friend. Today, it is an understatement to say that Instagram has the most influence on the popularity and reputation of a restaurant. I myself enjoy taking pictures of my meals and desserts when I eat outside. However, some individuals have started to question the implications of #instafood. An increasing number of restaurants are regarding Instagram as harmful to the food we eat. Given how efficient Instagram is in terms of publicizing a restaurant, why are some chefs going as far against it as banning diners from photographing their food?
With 600 million monthly users, Instagram is one of the most used social media networks worldwide. It is a popular platform for sharing bits of one’s everyday life including where they go, what they wear, and last but not least, what they eat. Instagram posts and stories are full of colorful, vibrant photos of unique food and dessert places. With countless food-related hashtags such as #AvocadoLife and #DoughnutsForDays, as well as Instagram accounts devoted just for food known as “foodstagrams”, Instagram has a phenomenal influence on food culture.
Yet as people start paying more attention to how their food appears on the screen of a mobile device, they start caring less about how it actually tastes. Take soup as an example. Soup is not considered very photogenic. Therefore an extremely delicious soup at one restaurant could easily become less popular than an ordinary tasting yet aesthetic salad bowl next door. As the emphasis on aesthetics grows, Instagram has been changing the food we eat. For instance, the type of food we thought of as “breakfast” before the age of Instagram includes cereal and toast with jam. Now, the most popular form of breakfast has become avocado toasts and smoothie bowls, which are definitely much more visually colorful and vibrant. In fact, Instagram currently has nearly 250,000 photos hashtagged #avocadotoast.
How restaurants are responding
“Dining in an Igloo” at Coppa Club
Restaurants are quite aware of the huge influence of Instagram on their reputation and popularity. Many encourage customers to share images of their food, enjoying it as a form of marketing. A large number of restaurants have actually made an effort to adjust their menus to appear nicely on a smartphone camera. For instance, Teddy Robinson, a creative director for the London café-bar chain Grind, spent five years making his place look as "Instagramable" as possible. He pointed out in an interview with the BBC: "the most interesting thing is that people are just more aware than ever of what the food looks like.”
Restaurants are not only adjusting their menus but also redesigning their interiors to be more original and unique than other places on Instagram. For instance, one restaurant made a huge investment just in their tables: “Last year we replaced every table in the company with white marble, just because it looks good on Instagram." Angie Silver, a popular lifestyle blogger, commented on this trend, saying “nowadays, dishes are created especially for Instagram.” An eye-catching example of a unique interior popular on Instagram is the Tower Bridge restaurant Coppa Club, which had phenomenal success with its "dine in an igloo" concept.
Although Instagram is praised for encouraging restaurants and cafes to be more original, fine dining and Michelin starred restaurants are heavily resisting the trend. Instagram has not only been emphasizing the aesthetics of food to the customers but also to the chefs. James Lowe, head chef and owner of the restaurant Lyle's in east London, said that chefs have been pressured to “'cook for pictures' - which is where someone will put a dish together without any concern for whether or not it actually tastes good, as long as the aesthetic is right.” Lowe also commented, "There is a growing number of people who will judge food based solely on a photo, which is a little crazy.”
Many other chefs agree with Lowe. Portuguese chef Leandro Carreira completely rejected the concept of “instagrammable food”, claiming he never considered social media as an important factor in his menus or eating space. In an interview with the Independent, he said, “We'd never put style before substance.” Another chef named Darren Yates, who is the owner of a Japanese deli called Auradaz in Leamington Spa, banned the use of mobile phones entirely from his restaurant. He said, “When people come out to eat these days, they put phones or tablets on the table, and it's rude. If you're coming out to eat it's about conversation and breaking bread, not about social media."
Chef James Lowe
These are just a few of the many chefs and restaurants resisting the Instagram food trend. Their interviews with the BBC and the Insider reflect growing concerns about chefs diverting their attention from making food that is delicious to food that only looks good on a smartphone camera. They regard the obsession over how food appears in a photo as a distraction from focusing on how high the quality of the food actually is. Even though they do not intend for this to happen, more and more restaurant owners are claiming that photogenic dishes become compromising on flavor.
Is #instafood worth it?
I myself am an active user of Instagram and an enthusiast of delicious restaurants. Yet realizing some restaurant owners’ concerns about the quality of food in existing restaurants made me take a step back and think about the implications of the appearance of food on Instagram. It is great that restaurants are using popular social media platforms as a way to publicize and advertise themselves. However, focusing on how food looks should not distract neither the chef’s nor the customers’ attention from its quality. After all, it is how delicious our meal is that really matters in the end.