Without a doubt, if you haven't been part of this similar scene first-hand, you've definitely seen it play out around you. Of Instagram's billion plus monthly users, food and drinks are top interests, coming in only after travel and music. Some foods even seem to be crafted specifically with the platform in mind: would the unicorn food trend of 2017 even have existed if it wasn't for people obsessively taking—and sharing—photos of their food?
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If you spend half an hour making your toast look like this, you better believe it's going on Insta.
To be clear, I have no problem with the convergence of the food world with Instagram. I believe food is meant to be fun, and finding new ways to beautify it (even if it's for the 'gram) is a way to celebrate it and be creative. But I've often wondered what chefs think about how the rise of Instagram has affected how chefs approach their menus and their cooking. So I decided to ask a few to find out.
Photos set the expectation
If one particular food could be crowned the Ruler of Foodstagram, avocado would certainly be a contender—particularly avocado toast, which has 1.4 million posts to date on Instagram. The healthy green fruit has continual star power—and no one has capitalized on this more than Francesco Brachetti, CEO, co-founder, and executive chef of Avocaderia, located in Brooklyn, New York. (Hell, he made an entire restaurant centered around the avocado.)
Brachetti says that to him, quality and taste are what's most important, but how each dish looks when it's plated matters, too. "The eating experience starts with your eyes and someone prefers a dish that's beautiful and colorful," he says, adding that this plays a role whether someone ends up snapping a photo of their food or not.
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Avocado buns make no sense to eat, but are fun to Instagram.
While plating food is a chance for chefs to get creative, Brachetti knows that many customers come in expecting a dish to look a certain way, based on what they saw on social media. Also, their menu has photos of all their dishes, which also sets an expectation. Because of this, all their dishes are plated the way they're depicted in the photos.
They've also mastered their avocado purchasing, ensuring every avocado they use is bright green and not yellow or brown. (Good for flavor and aesthetics.) "It was a learning experience and took time for us to figure out, but now we have a system in place where the avocados come in four days before they're actually used; it takes four days sitting out at 65°F to reach that perfect brightness," Brachetti says. Never let anyone tell you that ripening avocados isn't an art form.
Brachetti says when he looks around Avocaderia and sees people taking photos, it makes him happy. "Our customers are the only reason the restaurant exists, so making them happy is what's most important," he says. "The customer is our first ambassador. The more they share the experience, whether it's with pictures of food or telling their friends, the more the word is spread." And for many people, that all-important first impression happens on Instagram, not IRL.
"Instagram is amazing for small businesses"
Camilla Guevara, the co-owner and executive chef of Juicebox Cafe in Seattle, Washington, says seeing customers take photos of their food makes her happy, too. "Some fine dining restaurants may not like people taking photos, but we're a casual place and very community-focused," she says. "If someone wants to take a photo as a way to say, 'look at this amazing meal I ate' and a way to start a conversation in the community, we're fine with that." She also says, as a chef, it gives her a sense of accomplishment. "I'm typically tired at the end of the day and it's cool to see somebody posting a photo of the food, writing something nice about it. I love that!" she says.
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While, like Brachetti, Guevara says quality and taste are of upmost importance, she says that sometimes an ingredient's beauty will inspire her to think of ways to use on the menu. "Using natural dyes, like beet juice or turmeric, is a way to use an ingredient that tastes good and also give a vibrant color," she says. "We've found more ways to use beet juice or pickled beets because of the pink color. Spirulina is another ingredient we started using more in our smoothies because it's such a rich green that people are attracted to," she says.
For a small restaurant like hers, Instagram photos serve as a marketing tool that Guevara says helps get people in the door. "Instagram is amazing for small businesses in a sense of helping to get the word out about what's on the menu," she says.
Resisting the lure of a photo op
Of course some foods are inherently more photo-friendly than others. While healthy fast-casual places may be outfitted with patterned wallpaper, neon signs, and marble tables, most sports bars and pubs have resisted the pressure to play along.
Mark O'Connor, the managing partner at Irish Pub Philly, does not feel the need to turn standard pub fare, like burgers, Caesar salads, and hummus platters, into photo ops. "Our food is not—nor has it ever been—trendy," he says. "We have served comfort style food at a reasonable price. People are eating healthier so we are following that trend while at the same time keeping our timeless favorites. Appearance of the food is important to every restaurant but we are less inclined to post food photos." That said, if O'Connor sees people in the pub taking photos of their food, he has no problem with it; his main goal is that customers have a good time.
On their own Instagram, Irish Pub Philly focuses more on projecting their vibe, using humor instead of food photos. "We want to show folks having fun. That's been our focus for almost four decades," O'Connor says.
In general, plating and food presentation has always been part of the dining experience; wanting to serve up food that looks pretty is nothing new. But knowing that one's creation might end up plastered on social media—and could be used as a way to get more people in the door—seems to be something very much on chefs' minds.
So go ahead and take your food photos, friends. With the necessary tagging, of course.
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