“Never judge a book by its cover.” This old adage is just that: old. In today’s world, diners enjoy their meals as much with their eyes as they do with their mouths. And more importantly still, these same diners judge a restaurant by the images it presents on a variety of social media platforms of the dishes it serves.
With the ever growing importance of social media in influencing dining decisions, dishes must captivate an online audience for restaurants to remain competitive. The importance of plating and presentation is thus incredibly essential for chefs and restaurant owners to consider when designing dishes to feature on their menus.
Considering the iPhone Wielding Diner
When crafting a dish, chefs must consider a number of elements—most importantly, flavor profile, but additionally the seasonality and availability of ingredients, the food cost involved in preparing said dish, and how each particular dish melds into the overall restaurant concept. It can thus seem like an additional burden for chefs to also focus their time and energy on perfecting how each dish appears as well. Yet chefs must also remember that each restaurant diner could potentially be wielding an iPhone and could snap a photo of that dish that will live forever on the internet.
Executive Chef Jeffrey Paul Lewis of Alexandria’s The Chart House explains that “In today’s world, where nearly everyone has a device connected to a social media platform and where we share our most memorable and enriching experiences, chefs now realize that our plating techniques must translate through a photo.”
So how are restaurant owners and chefs to respond?
For starters, a simple issue of lighting can make or break an Instagram shot. While many restaurants are quick to want to preserve a dimly lit, romantic ambience for their diners, by offering a slightly brighter atmosphere, those diners taking photos of their dishes are able to best capture the essence of each dish without resorting to using a flash that can disrupt other diners.
For chefs, simply being aware of how their dishes come across to their diners can be key. They need not change ingredients or recipes, however how they are plating each dish should be considered. Before deciding to tweak any dish presentation, take a look at websites that diners have been posting on such as Yelp, Facebook, and Instagram and see how photos of these dishes are coming across to the online community.
Chef Lewis further explains that he and his own staff use diner photos as a glimpse inside what these diners may be most excited about on their menu. “These photos have helped us work with our staff to see the dining experience through the guests’ eyes. Chart House continues to improve plating styles, which in turn gives the guests the opportunity to enjoy something new and beautiful, thereby giving positive exposure when posted on their personal social media channels.”
For chefs who are looking to change the plating or presentation of their dishes, consider offering interesting and unique presentations, which go a long way at making a restaurant a “must-visit” for these Insta-foodies. Adding a theatrical element, such as a cocktail topped with smoke from liquid nitrogen, or a human element, such as a tableside preparation, makes for the ideal social media posting.
All Show and No Substance
With the overwhelming push towards crafting the “picture-perfect” dish, chefs risk venturing into a danger zone where the presentation of a dish trumps the actual quality. San Francisco chef and culinary consultant Jeffrey Weiss explains “In the modern online gastronomic world, it’s a fact of life that chefs are gauged less on their knife skills and more on their Instagram following. And that’s why a beautiful plate of food that’s tagged and hashtagged has become more valuable than whether that same plate of food was crafted with care and tastes delicious (a sad truth for the chef in me and many of my peers).”
So how are chefs expected to maintain authenticity when crafting their online social media presence? Honesty and transparency are key. Chef Phillip Frankland Lee of Los Angeles’ Scratch Kitchen explains that at his own restaurant, “we make sure that when we post images of our dishes to social media, we don’t use any filters. We want to guarantee that what diners see is what they get—an authentic experience to the one they see online.”
”Good photos may entice guests,” Lee furthers. “But if it doesn’t deliver on taste, they won’t be back.”
Thus, quality and taste should still be the primary focus for chefs when crafting their dishes. And while presentation should be considered, it should not be at the expense of the dish.
“So much of a restaurant’s business is driven by social media posts,” Lee continues. “If a dish looks good, it gets diners through the door [but] we also feel that if something looks beautiful, it has to taste even better.”