A shift, ever so gradual, in the way young diners are treating an evening out, has chefs keeping an eye on the camera
BY RUKMA SALUJA
Eating is a multi-sensory experience that bears no repeating. We eat with our eyes, our nose, before the taste buds get into the act. Chefs were wise to it as was the good hostess who knew how to set a good table. And we nibbled happily along, liking the look of what we ate before we actually ate it. Food pictures in magazines tempted us to try out recipes or check out the latest restaurant. So, what’s changed? It started with a chance remark by Pooja Sahu who owns Pot Belly (now more than a decade old), a restaurant serving Bihari cuisine, and does the catering at Bihar Bhawan in Delhi. Pot Belly took birth when her friends who’d eat the food prepared by her mum encouraged her to make it commercial. The menu, therefore, is largely the brainchild of her mother. About the menu being revamped periodically as is the norm with most eateries, Sahu said: We can’t put some items on the menu because they don’t photograph well.
That took a minute to sink in. Are we then losing out (in the commercial space) to ‘good-looking’ food? Is the Insta generation forcing chefs to consider beauteous plating over other aspects of a dish?
On the extreme end of this is Delhi-based Saumya Yadav, a young woman in her early thirties, who said: “I have friends who tell me, let’s go to X place. The food there looks delicious.” What happened to ‘the food there is great’? Google it and you will find any number of Most Instagrammable restaurants / food from around the world. There are compilations and listicles. Photos matter to a certain demographic, certainly not the older diner more conversant with the process of cooking and its nuances. Disclaimer: That’s not to say the young consumer isn’t an informed eater.
This appears to be a phenomenon among younger diners who must constantly update their Insta feeds. The chefs are divided on this. Chef Vanshika Bhatia, founder, Petite Pie Shop, Gurugram, says, “How it should look on the plate definitely defines how we process the individual ingredients and how it all comes together at the end. In that way, it also pushes us to think up creative ways of reworking the techniques and ideas to bring about an amazing final product.”
Other chefs tend to go with strong visual appeal presentation for the camera. While it is not the only thing that matters, it is certainly not something that cannot be ignored. Chef Rohan D’Souza, Mumbai (Montagne, Leh; Pisco by the Beach, Goa; Silver Beach Cafe, Mumbai; Chop at the Urban Eatery, Nairobi), says, “While planning a menu dish, visual appeal is important for the dish to stand out and at the same time do justice to its flavour profile. That gives rise to smart presentation which in turn makes social media appealing.”
For Mumbai-based Chef Vinayak Patil, corporate chef of the Shiv Sagar Group and executive chef at Butterfly High, there’s no question about it. He’s very clear about his plans for the table. “When I am planning a menu, I keep in mind that one of my first priorities with the dish is the presentation. It should be appealing to the eye, as you see your dish before you taste it. That is what attracts a diner to the food you serve them, and the second most important thing is the taste of food,” he says.
Did chefs like Manish Mehrotra who were among the forerunners of beautifully presented Indian food imagine the trickledown effect of their efforts? That every other hangout would take care about presentation? Social and Farzi Cafe took the idea to gimmicky tableware for a funky feel where the focus of the evening is the alcohol and fun with friends.
That better looking food moves faster is a sort of given. Since she offers pies at her outlet, Chef Bhatia admits, “The sweet pies that we have on display, some of them do move better because of the way they look, combined with the flavours that are in that particular pie, example, trio of chocolate.”
Chef D’Souza weighs in with his observations, “Plating brings out more elements than serving in a pot. Pot cooking is mainly dishes that have been cooked in a pot or using slow cooking methods but plating is more varied for grills, BBQ, smaller cuts of meat and vegetables. Hence, serving it on a plate is preferable for a deeper visual approach.”
Older diners used to family-style outings ordered in a certain way, perhaps a familiar dish that was shared by the table. For the young diner, the exposure to international cuisine has made them more open to experimenting with flavours. The presentation then takes precedence. The unfamiliar must first look beautiful.
Chef Patil has also noticed a slight shift in the food ordered by the older and the younger diner. “I believe young people order presentable dishes and a variety of food because they want to upload pictures and videos and share it in their social media. They prefer all types of food like continental, Indian, Chinese, fusion, etc. Older people also do the same on occasion, but mainly they focus on taste rather than the presentation or show of the food. They look for tried and trusted dishes and want their comfort food, no matter the looks.”
For the young diner, taking pictures is perhaps the start of the experience. “100 percent! How can you not?” says Mumbaibased Yamini Bhagchandani. “Clicking pictures of food makes me happy. I obviously don’t click pictures of every dish but my favourite dishes and the dishes that are visually appealing.”
Zainab Nasir, also a resident of Mumbai, is equally emphatic. “Visual appeal is certainly as important as the tasting experience of the food. Before I even take that first bite, I have already judged the meal in front of me so it has to look appetising and appealing.” All is not lost in the look versus taste discussion; the look matters for the first visit. She says, “I personally feel there has to be a balance of both. Merely a good-looking plate with average taste would spoil the dining experience for me. So I would visit the place once for the look and feel but for me to revisit a place, the taste of the food is of utmost importance compared to the plating.”
One might argue that a beautiful table has always been a given. But the desire to make every dish picture-worthy for a place in that endless gallery on the world wide web is indeed slowly, infinitesimally influencing the way menus are being planned and food being served.