It’s hard to remember a time when people simply went to a restaurant looking for good food to share with good company, a time when diners didn’t give a second thought to the restaurant’s lighting or what the food looked like.
Sharing pictures of what we eat on social media has become such a cultural phenomenon that chefs around the world are constantly looking for new ways to wow their guests. Across the UAE, we’re watching chefs push boundaries, with food covered in gold; dishes delivered to the table “smoking” under a cloud of dry ice; supersized burgers loaded with calorie-packed toppings; monster-sized milkshakes stuffed with entire slices of cake or pie.
Despite this, there are plenty of chefs around the world that are resisting the trend, admitting that they are annoyed by people taking pictures of their food, citing that the habit puts too much importance on presentation and not enough on the taste.
Earlier this month, Alain Roux’s three Michelin-starred restaurant Waterside Inn in Berkshire banned diners from taking pictures of his food. The move was labelled “pompous” by Gordon Ramsay who tweeted: “It’s a compliment to the chef the fact that customers want to take a picture of dishes they’ve paid for. It’s 2017.”
Love it or hate it, most people in the culinary world acknowledge that they simply need to accept – and adapt to – society’s love of sharing food pictures on social media sites such as Instagram and Twitter.
Read more: 15 fabulous UAE dishes destined for social media stardom
Taking pictures of food is considered such an important part of dining out now that culinary schools have started devoting entire classes to it.
The Culinary Institute of America is introducing two new elective courses to its 2018 curriculum – one on how to style food and one on food photography, while the Institute of Culinary Education in Manhattan also offers courses in food photography and styling.
Chefs here in the UAE are quickly learning what works and what doesn’t, and dishes on their menus reflect that.
“We have to move with the times and be updated with what’s trending in social media,” says Reif Othman, executive chef at Play Restaurant and Lounge in Dubai.
“Social media helps keep the hype and buzz of what is happening in our restaurants and it is the quickest and easiest way to reach the masses.”
Othman has several “Instagram-worthy” dishes on his menu. His dessert called “Potted” is shaped like a plant, complete with meringue buds and a chocolate apple crumble that resembles mud.
It’s aptly served in a pot with a miniature shovel. Othman says dishes like Potted are simply “a way to get more diners into the restaurant”.
“It does prove to be effective. Social media is a way to be seen,” he says.
Having a strong presence on social media may be even more important in Abu Dhabi and Dubai than in other cities, if the statistics are anything to go by.
Last year, research from Kantar TNS, a global consultancy, showed 60 per cent of people in the UAE use Instagram, compared to the global average usage of 42 per cent.
Jimmy De Almeida, chef de cuisine at the French fine dining restaurant Bord Eau at the Shangri-La Hotel, Qaryat Al Beri, Abu Dhabi, knows social media can play a big role in the success of a restaurant in the Emirates. “Nowadays, people don’t come for food only,” he says. “They come for an overall experience. From the moment the food is served to the guests, they take approximately five to seven minutes before actually eating anything to get a ‘perfect’ food shot.
“The more out-of-the-box or out of the ordinary a dish is, the more popular it gets. We are in a virtual world where people scroll through social media and like content purely based on what they see.”
Bord Eau serves up several photo-worthy dishes, including De Almeida’s Chocolate Extravaganza, a Valrhona chocolate sphere topped with seasonal fruit. When the sphere arrives at the table, a waiter pours hot chocolate sauce over the top which melts the sphere in Instagram-worthy fashion.
“It proves to be a constant favourite,” says De Almeida.
It’s moments like these that keep people talking – and sharing. A 2016 Zagat survey on dining trends illustrates just how important photo-sharing is for a restaurant.
Of those surveyed, 60 per cent of diners said they browsed food photos on social media, and 75 per cent said they chose a place to eat based solely on those photos. Once they were in the restaurant, 60 per cent of diners said they had stopped dining partners from eating so they could first take photos of the food. Half said they took pictures of every dish at the table.
“We were intrigued to try something different and innovative with Indian cuisine,” says Bhupender Nath, CEO of Passion F&B, the company behind Carnival by Tresind. “We wanted each of our dishes to stand out. Presentation plays a huge part in creating that ‘wow’ factor.”
The chefs at Carnival make even the simplest dishes unique. In their garden salad, says Nath, “the chef brings a small garden to the guest. The salad is prepared tableside using fresh vegetables and herbs from the kitchen garden. We have a miniature landscape of a garden with lush, green surroundings and mountains on a trolley.”
The restaurant also serves up an innovative Vada Pav – a popular street food snack in Mumbai. A chef comes to the table wearing a hard hat and builds the Vada Pav on the spot with ingredients he pulls out of a real tabletop toolbox.
“We have taken the presentation to a whole new level by depicting a scene of a construction site in Mumbai. This is as you would find it in the streets of Mumbai,” says Nath.
The rise in the number of social media apps has given weight to the trend towards sharing food photos.
Love them or loathe them, a photo post from food bloggers and social media superstars can influence thousands of followers to try a restaurant. The prettier the picture, the more likes it will get – which equates to more followers. It’s a win-win for the blogger and for the restaurant.
Ishita Saha, the social media guru behind @IshitaUnblogged, acknowledges the value of a great photo, but says taste should be the most important part of any dish.
“Drama and gimmicks are being used, sometimes in overdose,” says Saha.
“Competition is extreme and the presence of a visually stunning dish on social media is becoming more and more important for marketers. This is reflected in these crazy dishes. But we shouldn’t forget the essence of it all – a dish has to be tasty, delicious, above all else. One cannot cover up a below-average dish with dramatic presentation.”
She says it is important for restaurants to keep up with ever-changing social media trends, but they shouldn’t fall into the habit of creating dishes solely for likes on
“Word of mouth has always been very important in the food industry,” says Saha.
“And unfortunately, in today’s age of social media, the visual allure is the ‘word of mouth’, rather than the actual taste. But this lasts for a very short time.
“If restaurants want to last in the memory of a diner, they have to resort to the age-old strategy of selling good food at attractive prices.
“Visual allure helps initially, but not permanently. It’s like dating. The initial connection could be because of the “wow” factor, but there has to be more to a dish for a long-lasting relationship.”
“Presentation does play a huge part in this social media age, but if the taste does not complement the presentation, the expectations of the diner will not be met,” says Nath, in agreement.
While sharing pictures of what we eat on any given day may be one of the millennium’s most absurd pastimes, don’t expect the trend to die anytime soon.
“These days, sharing on social media works for any venture,” says Nath.
“Dishes like these encourage diners to post and talk on social media. And when the diners become your brand ambassadors, it is the best kind of marketing one can ask for.”