Is Instagram Ruining the Restaurant Experience?

ANA AREVALO/AFP/Getty Images

Ana Arevalo/AFP/Getty Images

In the age of over-sharing on social media, few things are sacred anymore. Instead, photos and posts about anything and everything find their way on to Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram feeds. In some cases, you might be embarrassed about that one photo of you from fourth grade when your hair hadn’t seen a brush in days and your braces still weren’t making your teeth straight. But personal posts aside, social media is becoming a source of information for far more than keeping up with your college roommate. In some cases, it’s changing the fundamentals of how certain industries operate.

One of those shifts is happening in the restaurant industry, as more and more people are posting photos of their dinner plates before digging in. This might not have much of an affect on a chain like Applebee’s, where the dishes will look pretty much the same no matter which restaurant you visit. But it is a big deal for chefs who operate out of a single kitchen, whose personal reputation is the driving force behind customers reserving tables and paying top dollar for an experience.

The consensus is clear among top chefs that Instagram, in particular, impacts their industry in huge ways. Wired reports that more than 178 million photos are tagged with #food on Instagram alone, and another 56 million are tagged #foodporn. Chefs’ opinions on whether this is a good or bad thing differ, however. Some choose to focus on the fact that more posted pictures can mean more exposure. Others lament the fact that amateur photographers might not represent the design of the food in the right ways, thus broadcasting an image that isn’t what the chef had in mind for the presentation. Either way, chefs are starting to make decisions within their restaurants about how to deal with the constant photo-snapping.

A photo posted by Jamie Oliver (@jamieoliver) on

In some cases, as with chef Jamie Oliver, the only way to beat ‘em is to join ‘em. Along with the occasional travel or family photo, Oliver posts beautifully plated dishes on his Instagram page, directing followers to his website for recipes and more. Oliver has more than 2.8 million followers, so he must be doing something right. For chef Dominique Crenn, the first woman in the United States, Instagram is a portal for greater exposure. “Instagram came to give a voice to chefs and to the food they serve,” she told Wired. The purpose might not be to create “viral dishes,” but it certainly can’t hurt your reputation when photos of beautiful dishes from your restaurant hit the Internet. 

The downside of that exposure, however, is the production some restaurant-goers put on to try to get the perfect shot of their meal. In some cases, that means kitchens are rearranging their spaces for less cooking areas and more room for plating, to give themselves the best shot of placing photo-worthy dishes in front of patrons. In others, it means frustration for chefs who worked to get the food to the right temperature, only to watch it go cold as the customers fuss with getting a good picture.

“What really annoys me is when people Instagram live,” chef Benedict Reade told Wired. “When I’m serving someone’s food and 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?”

Whether it’s to ward off their own frustration or simply to encourage guests to enjoy their meal, some chefs have gone so far as to openly discourage cameras in their dining rooms. French chef Alexandre Gauthier uses images of a camera with a line through it on the menus at his restaurant, La Grenouillère in France. He hasn’t outright banned the use of cameras, but is hoping patrons will look to spend time with the people at their table, enjoying the food, rather than trying to take a picture. “I’m just suggesting diners disconnect and live for now. At least just the time it takes to enjoy dinner,” he told The Guardian

It might be true that customers have a systemic problem putting their phones down. But for now, many chefs are using Instagram to their advantage. Many admit to following other chefs for inspiration or ideas. Chef Jair Tellez, who works out of MeroToro in Mexico City, openly admitted this to Wired. “I like to check from time to time,” he said. “What is Rene Redzepi doing at Noma or Inaki Aizpitarte from Le Chateaubriand? If I like the color scheme, technique, plate or combination of ingredients, I can duplicate it in my own kitchen. It’s about sharing ideas. Before there were cookbooks, now it’s more accessible.” 

Chefs can control their image

Chefs like Jamie Bissonnette, who works in New York City, told Eli Feldman of The Industry Press that the ready accessibility to other chefs and their work can be both a good and bad thing. “He summarized by saying that the Internet on whole has made ‘learning easier and maintaining relevancy harder,'” Feldman wrote. The learning is accessible: There are blogs about how to improve your Instagram game, and articles that summarize some of the best chef accounts to follow

One of the biggest fears chefs expressed to Wired and others is that in a darkened dining room, patrons might not get the best shot of the food in front of them. “It affects me when I see a bad review,” said chef Ned Bell of the Four Seasons Hotel in Vancouver. “But it affects me more when someone takes a bad photo of my food. I worry about what my food looks like on the social media world.” Instead of worrying too much about that, however, the National Restaurant Association suggests that having a professional account takes back that control over the image. “Instead of potential customers seeing photos from fellow diners, they get to see the dish how you imagine it – you control the lighting, plating and colors,” wrote Ann Tauzin, the association’s manager of digital innovation. It might not be a perfect solution, but as with food, perhaps everything is okay in moderation. 

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