When was the last time you went out for a meal and did not see someone take a picture of their food — or take a picture yourself? The internet has enabled us to fetishize many things, and food is near the top of that list.
From a chef’s perspective, the best dishes have balance on the palate (sweet, sour, salty, bitter, umami) as well as contrasting textures and complementary flavors. The best bite of a dish is when all of these concerns are experienced at the same time.
Those objectives are not always articulated in an Instagram post.
Searching hashtags like #gsofoodie, #foodporn, #foodstagram, #foodphotography or @chefsteps will reveal astounding, jaw dropping, amazingly beautiful photographs of food. That doesn’t mean they taste great — or even that they’re the easiest to eat. A massive burger with countless toppings and a fried egg skewered with a steak knife will garner a lot of “likes,” but it won’t fit in your mouth, and you don’t get a taste of each ingredient in every bite.
There are plenty of articles online offering tips and techniques to get the best pictures of food. Considerations include the angle, the framing, the lighting, the language to describe it, and even the hashtags. The cook might also manipulate the plating or the ingredients to achieve that optimal image.
Chefs and home cooks alike stage their photographs to make them look more delectable. The common refrain in professional kitchens is “people eat with their eyes first.” This can lead to silly, incongruous garnishes to inject color to an otherwise delicious dish, or crisscross grill marks on a beefsteak or chicken breast from a gas-fueled chargrill. Those touches may look provocative in Technicolor, but they’re unnecessary. And in the case of the meat, you get thin strips of flavor instead of the mouthful of flavor that comes from a fully browned surface, which results from cooking in a skillet or on a plancha.
Whenever one facet of something is emphasized, another attribute tends to be deficient. Those beautiful, shelf-stable, consistently shaped tomatoes usually don’t have as much flavor as the ugly, blemished lumps that you nurture in your own garden. Often, food that’s crafted to be seen or photographed doesn’t have as much attention paid to its other sensory attributes: smell, texture, balance, or flavor.
I once menued exquisite tuna tostadas with curtido (cabbage salad), an orange-chipotle glaze, and garnet-hued slices of yellowfin tuna that folks in the dining room oohed and aahed over, and loved to take pictures of, but most were confused as to how they should eat it. One bite, and the tostadas would shatter. Layering the same ingredients atop tortilla chips or strips, like nachos, would provide all of the same taste sensations and be easier to eat, but with less visual appeal (and less balance, due to excess tortillas). I opted for the photogenic dish.
The most delicious food is often the ugliest. Applying heat to colorful vegetables causes the colors to fade, and with the right amount of heat, most ingredients will caramelize or undergo a Maillard reaction, resulting in a browned crust. Without proper lighting, shades of brown are some of the more difficult colors to capture on film.
I’ve been criticized by professional photographers for my food being “too brown.” But brown food tastes better. Likewise, some chefs like to plate their creations in myriad small pieces artfully arranged on the plate to achieve numerable “best bites” per dish. Pictures of these dishes can make it difficult to determine which ingredients play which roles, so those dishes are best experienced firsthand.
Architecturally majestic dishes make for great social media posts, but the “best bite” may prove to be more elusive to cameras. Put your phone down, and remember why you eat food in the first place: to sustain yourself, to experience new things, to learn about other cultures, and to have fellowship with friends.
Go for substance over sizzle, and flavor over flash. Just don’t let your eyes deceive you.