The age of Instagram: The triumph of style over substance?
I refer not to the salacious shenanigans of the frisky cucumber and horny carrot when nobody's in the kitchen but to the odious and now apparently pervasive habit of letting your eyes (and phone camera) feast before your mouth even gets a bite. Don't get me wrong. I'm as guilty as the next person of snapping pictures of my food, but in my defence, I do it because it's actually my job and I have a civic duty to inform my followers what to eat and what to eschew.
Moreover, I make it an absolute point to take the photo within five seconds. Nothing is more unsupportable than dining with a large group of people and watching as a steaming hot plate of food is passed from person to person like a newborn baby over whom one has to offer the obligatory simpering compliments, so that by the time you are actually allowed to consume the food it's already tepid (if you're lucky) and disgustingly coagulated. As Nordic Food Lab alumni chef Benedict Reade unceremoniously says, "When I...put a beautiful hot plate on the table but they are so concerned to post and food gets cold because they are trying to find the perfect caption before they eat the f***ing food. Do you know how much I sweated to make the food the right temperature for you? Are you here to show off to your friends?"
I make it an absolute point to take the photo within five seconds.
And yet, despite the reasonable protestations of self-respecting chefs everywhere, #foodporn is now as integral to the dining experience as the food itself. Consider this: more than 178 million photos on Instagram are tagged #food while there are 56 million tagged #foodporn alone. You don't need to be a math genius to deduce that that's a lot of hashtags dedicated to food (and we haven't even factored in #foodgasm, #whatieat and #instafood yet!). Forget the pamphlet drops of yore: in this era of digital ubiquity, social media is today's word-of-mouth marketing tool of choice, and-increasingly aware of its capacity to put bums on seats in their restaurants-many chefs are now harnessing the power of photographs to promote their food (Jamie Oliver alone has 2.8 million followers).
Chefs routinely post photos of everything from inspirational quotes to dishes-in-progress, thus affording followers-and fellow chefs-an insight into their creative process, and in the process, build momentum for reservations/sales when a new menu/restaurant/TV programme/cookbook is launched. Interestingly, Instagram, beyond being a food voyeur's wet dream, is now morphing into a tool in the kitchen. Where, erstwhile, chefs had to dine at rival restaurants to discern the latest developments in that kitchen, now all you needed was an Instagram account. "I like to check...what is Rene Redzepi doing...If I like the colour scheme, technique, plate...I can duplicate it in my own kitchen. It's about sharing ideas," says Jair Tellez from Mexico's MeroToro.
Interestingly, Instagram, beyond being a food voyeur's wet dream, is now morphing into a tool in the kitchen.
But when it comes to serving food in the Instagram era, is taste regularly forfeited in favour of visual aesthetics? Because let's face it, it's no secret that some of the best tasting food isn't the most prepossessing. Ergo, is the dastardly crime of style triumphing over substance being regularly perpetrated at restaurants just to ensure that their food has the best chance of going viral? I'm sure I'm not alone when I say that I've regularly been deceived by sexy looking food only to discover, upon eating it, that it's all artifice. In an extreme example of pandering to Instagramming diners, Tel Aviv's Catit even boasts crockery that's specially designed for food photographers, with iPhone stands and 360˚ spinning capabilities to theoretically enable shutterbugs to capture distinctive shots at any angle. And in order to forestall accusations of flavour being sacrificed for visual acrobatics, Catit purportedly uses ingredients like flowers, dust, cream and drizzled sauces to prevent food from getting congealed even as they are being manipulated and photographed.
It would be fanciful, and foolish, to dismiss this phenomenon as being merely a transient fad, saying that "this too shall pass". But perhaps it's high time rules of dining etiquette are imposed to ensure that good food isn't routinely squandered so that aspiring photographers can get the money shot, if they get it at all. Because-correct me if I'm wrong-aren't restaurants places you visit to actually dine in?
Follow Fay on Twitter and Instagram at @misskhoo.