Instagram food: how Hong Kong restaurants are making dishes more photogenic
Some chefs are biting the bullet and designing their dishes to make an impact on social media sites
There is no stopping the phenomenon of sharing food photos on social media. According to a recent report in The Guardian, the influence of social media photos is being taken so seriously by some restaurants that it's influencing what goes on the menu. The newspaper cites the example of a restaurant chain in the US that hired a consultant (at a cost of US$750,000) to come up with ideas on how to make its dishes more photogenic and increase the likelihood of the photos being shared.
In Hong Kong and Macau, posting photos of meals on Instagram and other social media sites has become a craze. In response, some restaurants are making it a priority to have their dishes Instagram-ready, while others still have mixed feelings about the trend.
One restaurant catering to the social media crowd is the recently opened Tycoon Tann. Its modern Chinese menu was developed jointly by its marketing and kitchen teams.
"With more and more people engaging in social media platforms, it has become an integral tool to include in the marketing communications mix. With eye-catching visual images shared on these platforms, it helps attract people to come and try those dishes for themselves," says Cherry Lo, Tycoon Tann's catering management director.
Blogger Ale Wilkinson of Dim Sum Diaries says restaurants are definitely taking advantage of the sharing of food photos, getting free PR, but that the extra emphasis on presentation could be a boon for diners, with nice plating now extending beyond fine-dining venues.
There are places, however, that go overboard.
"Some places make their dishes overly photogenic, such as Social Place with its little piggy dumplings, or Mrs Pound, which serves rendang bao in a bamboo steamer with their logo stamped over it," she says.
Social Place even has a photo gallery on its website in place of a conventional menu.
Executive chef Guillaume Galliot of one-Michelin star The Tasting Room by Galliot, is highly creative when it comes to plate choices and presentation, using everything from rocks to hollow glass bowls containing fresh flowers. However, he does not do this with the social media crowd in mind.
"Firstly, a dish with good presentation should photograph well in any circumstances, whether taken by a professional or on a smartphone. Even before social media, it was important for a dish to be a visual treat before it hit the olfactory senses," he says, adding that he doesn't care for social media.
The Verandah at The Repulse Bay is sticking to the traditional approach. However, it has a number of dishes with a visual "wow factor", especially those that are finished at the table, which diners would find appealing to photograph.
With new chef de cuisine Matthieu Bonnier onboard, there are plans to introduce the use of slate and wood for some dishes. But Bonnier claims the changes are not driven by social media.
"We definitely want the diner to be impressed visually by a dish, and, for me, a visually impressive element is important. But a chef needs to remain authentic, and that starts with using the best produce and highlighting it by using the best techniques," he says.
But there is no denying that social media is a key influencer.
"We enjoy surprising our guests," says Lo. "Having something we know they will take pictures of is always a plus."
She cites Tycoon Tann's barbecue pork as an example. It's presented on a plate that sits over a warmer, which keeps the food hot while diners are busy snapping and posting. Another dish, a giant sesame rice ball dubbed the "The Pearl of the Dragon", was created for visual impact - and it's one of the most photographed dishes on the menu.
Galliot takes a different view and feels that social media is changing the way food is enjoyed, preferring a time when dining out was focused on conversations, taking in every bite and soaking in the restaurant experience. He says that food photography by diners, sometimes taking 10 minutes or more, interrupts the rhythm of courses, and in some cases proteins might end up becoming overdone because of the time spent taking photos.
"When I hear a complaint about an overcooked dish, or lukewarm soup, it begs the question if it was something to do with the cooking or because the guest took time before eating the dish. This is an impossible situation to work around," he says. "Because of all these factors, we have no control over a guests' reaction to a dish, which in turn may have an impact on credibility. A dish may look amazing and have great social media clout, but as a chef, I am more concerned about how it tasted. Was it a gourmet experience?"
He continues: "I would rather someone enjoy the meal, being present in the moment and talking about it, than to take amazing photos of it and miss out on the exact way it was supposed to taste when served."
Wilkinson also says taste is more important than appearance. "As long as it tastes as good as it looks, I don't mind it too much. But when it looks incredible and then it's really disappointing to taste, that I find really annoying."