Instagram is ruining food, and I might be the only one who cares
Pity the stew. It is delicious, it is deeply flavored, and it improves with age. It is also mushy, uniform, and monochromatic. In short: not photogenic.
Stew, my friends, is toast.
Toast, on the other hand, is doing just fine, particularly when topped with avocado. Also fine: ice cream cones held in front of brick walls, pizza, anything with sparkles, anything that is rainbow, anything that is the kind of deep jet black that only comes from squid ink or charcoal or sorcery or poison, anything that is a baked good with a hole in the middle, elaborately topped acai bowls (a.k.a. smoothies, but in a different vessel), insanely topped milkshakes, anything that is an icon of Americana, anything that contains lobster if in New England.
Instagram has stolen our taste buds, and I want them back.
In the world of food, there may currently be no greater influence than the photo-sharing application. Launched in 2010, it now has more than 700 million monthly users. Most of them, at some point, post images of what they are eating and where they are eating it. And some of them have a whole lot of followers — for instance, the Boston Foodies account, run by Tiffany Lopinsky, at the moment has 105,000. This would make her, in Instagram parlance, an “influencer.” It’s no wonder restaurants and their PR firms court these individuals. At the end of last year, the Globe’s circulation for digital and print was about 223,000 on Wednesdays, when the Food section comes out. Excuse me while I fashion today’s paper into an attractive wrapping for fish I’ll photograph and post later, filtered and cleverly hashtagged.
Lopinsky is an OG of the Boston food space, which is to say she started her account in 2014, when she was a junior at Harvard. (She now works at an advertising agency, where she specializes in business strategy and analytics.) She isn’t in it just for the “likes”; she has a curatorial vision. “The things that go over in terms of engagement are the things you would expect: doughnuts, pizza, crazy desserts with cotton-candy cones,” she says. “But for me, the most fun and interesting stuff to photograph is the stuff that’s most interesting to eat, but doesn’t get as much attention.”
This is part of what’s so compelling about the platform, says Barbara Bickart, associate professor of marketing at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business. “It’s a very authentic, real way for an influencer to talk about a restaurant they’ve been to. If people are looking for information that’s more authentic and real, if they trust that person, even if it’s a paid promotion, people are willing to take that influencer’s word.” (What the technology needs next, Bickart says, is a way for Instagram to monetize the food space — for instance, a reservations system, a la OpenTable, to which users can click through after viewing a restaurant’s image. Instagram doesn’t comment on future plans, but dollars to camera-ready doughnuts something like this has been discussed.)
Loco Taqueria & Oyster Bar general manager Rachel Titcomb is the person behind the South Boston restaurant’s eye-candy Instagram feed, which will make you want tacos, tequila, and a new dog to pose adorably alongside them. As she puts it: “Instagram is by far more popular than Facebook or Twitter. It’s the king of marketing.”
And so it increasingly sucks up time and resources that used to go elsewhere. “Overall my opinion about social media is that it’s awesome,” says chef Matt Jennings of Townsman. Instagram only takes up 20 to 30 minutes of his day, he says. “But that’s 20 to 30 minutes a day that I’m not in the kitchen or talking to a customer.”
The reach of real life is just so comparably small.
The Instagram effect doesn’t stop with what’s being served. It is changing the way restaurants look. They need to have the right lighting, for food, for selfies. They need to have surfaces that serve as appealing photo backdrops. They need to have “Instagrammable moments” — little touches people want to photograph, settings they want to photograph themselves in — like the “library” and the curved chartreuse banquette at Yvonne’s, or the Voodoo Lounge at Buttermilk & Bourbon. Designers now take all of this into account from a project’s inception: Next time you notice a striking or befuddling element in a new restaurant, that’s why it’s there. Erica Diskin, of Assembly Design Studio, is behind Buttermilk & Bourbon, with its much-Instagrammed neon sign and voodoo dolls that come with the check. “You think about the customer and what is going to excite them to post about,” she says. Instagram even literally shapes her thinking. “When you get toward the end of the build, when you go through to do your photos, you’re thinking about what’s going to fit on the square Instagram. You’re thinking in a square mind-set.”
Chef Chris Coombs will soon open a second branch of his South End steakhouse, Boston Chops, in Downtown Crossing, in the former Mantra space. It will have an Instagrammers’ table with its own special lighting system, for food photography. Designer Stephen Martyak of studioTYAK is creating different layers of lighting for different functions within the dining room. And there will be quirky, meat-themed tableaux for customers to pose in front of.
“Instagram has really changed the thought process as a whole as a restaurateur,” Coombs says. “There are nights when more than half the people in the dining room are taking pictures.”
But what makes a good picture does not always taste good, and what tastes good does not always make a good picture.
“There is that saying that we taste with our eyes first, but I’m not sure that goes beyond the first bite,” says Rebecca Roth Gullo, who runs the eminently Instagrammable Blackbird Doughnuts. “We don’t create food for Instagram, but I know many chefs who do. Nor do I think it is wrong. I don’t know if eating is necessarily about taste anymore.”
And here’s chef Andy Husbands (the Smoke Shop, Tremont 647): “I like to remind people that you can’t taste things on Instagram. People seem to forget that. . . . I know of people who have 50,000 or 80,000 followers, and I’ve had their food, and I will tell you their food is pretty, and that is all I’ll tell you.”
I thought chefs would be as cynical about the Instagram trajectory as I am. I was wrong. This is what everyone I talked to had to say: They genuinely love Instagram. It is an invaluable marketing tool. It is an incredible way to connect with customers, other chefs, and potential employees. When people appreciate their food enough to photograph it, they feel honored. They don’t feel pressured to create dishes specifically geared toward Instagram, although they all know people who do, and that food is not always the better for it. No one will name names, because Boston chefs are gallant like that.
So I won’t name names either. What I will say is this: I don’t always want to eat cute. And food now skews cute. Instagram is feel-good technology. (This is another reason chefs like it: Goodbye, uninformed and nasty Yelp! review; hello, pretty picture of a sandwich.) Like all forms of social media, it is, in part, fantasy. Wouldn’t it be nice if that Unicorn Frappuccino Starbucks released in April had tasted every bit as magical as it looked? Oh, but it didn’t. Stephen Colbert sampled it on his show: “I wish I was dead,” he said after the first sip. “Tastes like I French kissed Tinkerbell.” (I’d weigh in, but honestly I couldn’t bring myself to try this pastel-sugar nightmare. I breakfast on black coffee and foraged henbane.)
It was here to look pretty. What we want from food is now what the world wants from little girls. In both cases, it is reductive and simplistic and it fails to ask enough. Of course, little girls have souls to be crushed, whereas food is at best soul’s expression. But the emphasis on appearance in our culture — in any arena, in every arena — never serves real little girls (or anyone else) particularly well.
I am not immune to Instagram’s power and pleasure. All those images of vegetable fresh rolls, vibrant slices of watermelon radishes peeping through the translucent rice paper, took my breath away — and then I made some. But going to dinner with a group of food writers has turned into an exercise in good lighting and delayed gratification, as everyone moves around plates and finds different angles and lets the food grow cold. This is not why we got into this business. But it is now part of it.
It is part of the entire eating experience — another layer into which chefs and restaurateurs need to put thought. And money. Which means, in a business where the right level of investment can be the difference between success and failure, just another card in the deck stacked against those with fewer resources who want to get into the game.
I want to eat real food, not food that’s pretty as a picture. To quote Juan Pedrosa, executive chef at Yvonne’s: “That cupcake looks amazing, but it also just came out of the oven. Tomorrow it’s going to be stale.”
Not stew, good old stew. Don’t look at it, if you don’t want to, but tomorrow it will be better than ever.