I have a confession to make: my name is Melissa Leong and I am a former food blogger. I briefly had one during my years working in digital advertising as part of a work project; to explore and explain how consumers and brands could better work together in this new era of social media. I chose food as a subject because I was always ‘that friend’ being asked about where to eat (hey, I’m Singaporean, we’re born that way!), and somewhere along the line, my blog became an online CV and I made the transition to professional food writing.
That was 2006. Now in 2018, we are armed with Instagram accounts for ourselves, our kids and even our pets (good Lord). From parents giving their children hashtags along with birth names, to parents discovering it's the only way their millennial children will interact with them, we all have some handle on how it works. For the most part, we’ve moved past the awkward-for-everyone period of food bloggers toting giant DSLR cameras and flash kits in restaurants, but that’s been replaced by almost everyone armed with a phone stopping to immortalise their breakfast. This consumer behaviour is literally changing the way some restaurants, cafes and eateries approach their business, with many placing an overemphasis on style over substance. It begs the question, is Instagram killing food?
While researching a newly opened cafe for a story, I trawled through the venue’s website only to find the sentence “Every dish and corner of [cafe name] is Instagram-worthy.” After the initial wave of nausea wore off, I thought, you have to hand it to them, they know the climate they’re operating in. And while it’s pretty crass to just put it that blatantly, the truth is that almost every food lover looks for that perfect shot when they go out to eat.
I backed it up and visited the cafe. I had to know if their Instagrammable dishes were also edible. Turns out, not so much. Sure, the visual composition was colourful, textural and thoughtfully plated (just as marketed), but that’s just about where the good stuff stopped. The food was undeniably some of the worst I’d consumed in a while. And that’s saying something as a food writer – we eat a lot of crap to get to the gold.
I had to know if their Instagrammable dishes were also edible. Turns out, not so much … The food was undeniably some of the worst I’d consumed in a while.
It illustrates the point that while we do eat with our eyes, we still taste with our mouths (although I’m with Nigella on this one, some of the ugliest food in the world is the best and tastiest). In the same week, I interviewed a restaurateur known for creating a menu of Frankenfoods (freakshakes, brontosaurus-sized menu items), who admitted to me that he didn’t expect diners to consume the food, it was just a marketing stunt to get people through the door and posting pictures on their social media.
My job involves sharing food and the stories behind the plate, in part, via social media. This absolutely makes me part of the machine, yet it remains that there’s something unsettling about living in a time where millions continue to starve, while others are ordering food to photograph and not consume, and businesses are creating food spectacles they don’t expect customers to eat. To be fair, restaurant culture has always been about bragging rights – such is the elitist nature of food. It’s just that social media makes it that much easier for everyone to play the game. But shouldn’t it always be about truly good food?
It’s the ouroboros of counter-productive food culture. Restaurants and cafes build social-media shareability into their business with flattering lighting and sassy quotes wall-mounted in pink neon, to focusing more on food style over substance – and customers literally snap it up. How did we get so far away from the reasonably tame act of wanting to tell people about a great place or dish we think others will love for its deliciousness? A drunk PR floozy once tried to convince me that lending diners a clip-on ring light for taking phone photos while dining at dimly lit restaurants was a good idea, because the photos shared on social media would be better quality. Somehow she didn’t quite grasp that distracting customers with bright lights from adjacent tables might be a turn-off for those who like to eat their food hot.
It’s not wrong for venues to be hip to evolving consumer behaviour, but in my opinion, it shouldn’t come at the expense of good food. By all means, take the photo opportunity when it’s not invasive to others – but if that isn’t possible, it’s probably good to remember that the world isn’t powered by likes and comments. After all, a picture might give you bragging rights with strangers, but a full stomach – and memories shared with people you can actually touch – leave a more genuine impression.