During his first week as executive chef at Evo Kitchen + Bar in Portland, Matt Ginn fed an old high school buddy, who scolded him for ignoring social media.
“He said ‘Dude, you’re not on Instagram? What’s wrong with you?’ ” Ginn recalled.
The friend explained how showing off his food would benefit his business, but Ginn balked, arguing that if diners really care about the food, they’ll come in and check it out for themselves.
“He was adamant that that was the stupidest idea ever,” Ginn said, laughing. “And I found that he’s absolutely right.”
Three years later, Ginn regularly photographs Evo’s food, uses words like “instafamous,” and follows other chefs on social media to learn new plating techniques. If a dish tastes great but looks bad, it’s not going up on his account.
“Do we conceptualize a dish around looks? No,” he said. “But when we have the time to make it absolutely stellar, we’re going to take that time. On a slower night, are we going to do a few more garnishes, or a few more touches? Yes.”
Chefs have always considered the eye appeal of the food they serve – nearly every chef interviewed for this story repeated the old saying “you eat with your eyes first” – but social media has turned up the heat on the visual aspect of their dishes. From bistros and burger joints to higher-end Portland restaurants, chefs say they are thinking more visually in the kitchen. They are doing so to satisfy both their online followers and the customers who insist on photographing their meals to, as chef-turned-food photographer Derek Bissonnette puts it, “convey certain bragging rights: ‘I was here. Look at what I’m doing.’ ”
“It’s a free marketing tool,” said Bissonnette, the former executive chef at the White Barn Inn in Kennebunk. “I think in this day and age it’s even more imperative that the food looks stimulating because you can’t portray the flavors through a picture. That’s becoming a very important interaction with the guest, that they can share that” dining experience.
And chefs have more “tools” than ever to brighten plates and make dishes look more attractive, notes Nick Verdisco, the executive chef at Bolster, Snow & Co. in Portland.
“Baby carrots are multicolored now,” he said. “Baby beets are multicolored now. Herbs are grown in a rainbow of colors and flavors.”
THINK ‘VISUAL RESUMÉ’
Making food beautiful – turning it into a piece of art – was once solely the concern of fine-dining restaurants, where customers who were paying a lot of money for their dinner expected it to look stunning as well as taste good. But with the advent of social media, this idea has trickled down to all kitchens.
Cowbell Burger Bar in Biddeford brands its burgers with its logo, knowing the visual joke will make the burger more photographable. Little Giant in Portland serves food on “branded” plates that carry the name of the restaurant, where customers call the burgers one of the “more Instagrammable” items on the menu.
Briana and Andrew Volk, co-owners of Little Giant and the Portland Hunt & Alpine Club, enjoy having a little visual fun with their customers. The Late Night at Old Orchard Beach, a tiki-style cocktail made with “pineapple, other things, shame,” comes with a cocktail umbrella that’s been pushed up too far, as if blown inside out by the wind. Who could resist snapping a photo of that?
“We try to do fun little tweaks like that,” Briana Volk said. “With plating, we don’t like gimmicks. …We really skew for clean and classic.”
The Volks are searching for a new chef for the Portland Hunt & Alpine Club, and consider job candidates’ Instagram accounts a “really great visual resumé.”
Social media has challenged chefs to improve their plating skills. Many chefs say they follow other chefs, on sites such as Chefs of Instagram and Art of Plating, to keep on top of trends, whether it’s that big swoosh of sauce across a plate, dots of different sizes scattered all over a plate, or the placing of the components of a dish in a crescent shape at the edge of a plate.
The crescent plate “trickles directly from fine dining,” said Frederic Eliot, executive chef at Scales in Portland. “There are a lot of things that don’t make a lot of sense, like putting food on the lip of the plate. A swoosh of sauce on the lip of the plate is not user friendly, but it looks cool.”
Eliot says he thinks about what a dish will taste like first, then tries to plate it in an interesting way. But he admits that at times visual comes first.
“When spring comes around, we’re dying to see color on the plate because in the winter you’re using root vegetables and everything is kind of brown or off-white,” he said. “When spring comes around you want green, you want pink, you want red.”
Ginn said if he has a dish that looks monochromatic – a braised piece of meat with turnips and a garlic puree, for example – he embraces it.
“Rather than adding color to it, what we try to do is look at the dish and say how can be make this look better?” he said. “What plate are we going to put this on? Let’s not put it on a white or a gray plate. Let’s put it on a black plate to make that dish pop.”
SEE FOOD DIET
Making something look delicious is no substitute for actual flavor. When a customer says a dish “looks too good to eat,” it’s like throwing down a gauntlet, Bissonnette said.
“Once somebody says that,” he said, “then you’ve really set a bar that the flavor has to be even more exciting than the presentation, or it can be a letdown.”
“Photo food” created for social media can be different from “eating food,” says Ginn, who notes that plates that are fussed over too much for the camera are not practical for service on a busy Saturday night. What the customer sees on Instagram, in those cases, may not be what’s placed in front of them. Bissonnette calls it “a fine line of honesty with your guests.” He says he has changed dishes to make them look better, “but my personal philosophy is nothing should be on the dish that doesn’t belong there.”
“If you want to get a little more pepper in there,” he said, “add a microgreen that adds a little bit more color but has a purpose on the dish.”
Some chefs say they have always photographed their work; before smartphones and digital cameras, there were Polaroids.
“What you see and what the camera sees are two different things,” said Bissonnette, who used to take Polaroids of all his food. “Once you bring that three-dimensional item to two dimensional, you can pick out every single imperfection.”
Eliot carries his dishes around the dining room at Scales, searching for just the right lighting for a photo.
Verdisco says he has taken photos of his dishes for years, “just to come back to them. I think for me, the biggest thing is I’ll look at something days later for a fresh approach.”
Verdisco is not on Facebook or Twitter, and joined Instagram only a couple of years ago so he could share his photos with customers, family and other chefs. Sometimes the evolution of a dish is evident on his Instagram account. He also occasionally posts his failures.
Joshua Berry, executive chef at Union Restaurant in Portland, says he and his staff strive to create food that “seems visually stunning yet very approachable.”
“We wouldn’t change the dish to make it more visually appealing, yet how the dish is photographed may impact the viewer and how it makes them feel,” he said. “We may take a photo of a dish from overhead, which will show the dish from a diner’s point of view – what you see right before you take your first bite. The same dish, however, when shot at an angle, with some raw ingredients that are used in the dish as a prop, will create a different feeling.”
That feeling, chefs hope, will be one too enticing for a customer to resist.
Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at: