Photography, like cooking, are art forms that go hand in hand in the Insta-age we live in.
Research by Italian restaurant chain Zizzi found that Millennials (18–35 year olds) spend about five whole days a year just scrolling through at pictures of food , and it’s been reported that 66 per cent of frequent diners want to visit restaurants after seeing photo or video posts from their friends on Instagram.
The proliferation of smartphones and social media has basically turned everyone into an aspiring food photographer, and so plating and presentation have come to play just as important a role as the taste and flavour of the food you serve up. How many times have you been inspired to order a dish at a restaurant because it looked incredible when they brought it out of the kitchen to someone at the next table?
How many times have you seen someone snapping a photo of their plate before digging in?
How many times have you been that person?
The saying ‘we eat with our eyes’ rings truer than ever today
Eating itself, is an experience that uses at least four out of your five senses (although the satisfying crunch of a chip is crucial for most). And when it comes to mindful eating – say with a seasonal degustation menu – much of one’s appreciation will stem from visually “dissecting” the various ingredients, techniques and other elements that make up each course. In most cases, a beautiful and creatively-presented dish is much easier to appreciate at first glance than one that’s sloppily put together.
It goes without saying that photography has an important role to play in most, if not all, hospitality businesses. Whether it’s to help guide guests at your venue to order certain dishes or on your website as mouth-wateringly good marketing material, it’s not always easy to get the right combination of lighting and focus.
Melanie Gregg, an artist of many hats, is a pro with 20 years experience and the go-to photographer for many chefs and food journals in Southern California and beyond. She offers a little advice for those do-it-yourselfers out there who want to visually bring out the best in your cuisine.
Make the dish the star and avoid ‘noisy’ backgrounds
Always “make the food the star, versus competing with the atmosphere,” says Gregg. To accomplish this, she generally favours an aerial view of the food – shooting from above and straight down. Shooting at food level brings distracting elements from the surroundings into the picture, even if they’re blurred backgrounds meant to highlight what’s on the plate.
Gregg recalls her work with Chef Brendy Monsada of Left Bank Brasserie in Menlo Park, CA as an example of why she favours this approach.
“He brought this beautiful Asian flair to a classic French restaurant and produced edible works of art,” said Gregg.
“Shooting from above mimics the view of the person who’s just been served, the view Monsada plates for to begin with. Even if you’re not at Chef de Cuisine level with your food, this is still how your customers are going to see it when they dine with you. If you can’t make it look good this way, the problem might not be the photograph,” she said.
Of course, sometimes making the food the star means getting in really close.
Pit barbecue is the perfect example of this. Slow cooked meat might be one of those foods that looks less appetising the further you pull away from it. Also, if you’re serving authentic barbecue, a top-down view of the plate is going to include things like baked beans and coleslaw, maybe some cornbread – that’s a plate that just can’t help but look tacky no matter how good the food is.
For chefs like Monsada, the art is in the full presentation. For skilled smokers, though, the art is in the meat itself.
To get this shot of pulled pork, Gregg zoomed way in. “Pull back and you just see a slab of torn meat,” she said. “Those gradations of colour, from the meat to the perfectly red spice crust and crispy bits of bark, are the hallmarks of a skilled smoker. Get close and you can see the details that the smoker produced, giving glory to the chef.”
Tell stories with your ingredients
Sometimes photos of the finished product are not the main focus. Many restaurants are now just as much about the story behind their ingredients as they are of the meal itself.
Hospitality businesses that practice Farm-to-Table or grow their own produce on site have a distinct opportunity to showcase their commitment to sourcing locally-grown ingredients, and there’s no better way to get the message across than by telling visual stories.
Research has shown that people tend to remember 65 per cent of some information they receive if it’s accompanied by a relevant image, compared to 10 per cent if they’ve only heard the same information.
“By showcasing your raw ingredients, you’re giving your guests a look at the ‘building blocks’ that form the meal they eat,” says Gregg.
“It reminds them that the meal they’re about to enjoy did not come together by magic – before the dish ends up on the table it was part of the earth. It reinforces the connection diners have with what they consume, satiates those that want to know the origins of their food, and helps restaurants carry across their message in a way that’s received exceptionally well,” she said.
Highlighting your raw ingredients also contributes to the anticipation of the meal, and this is kind of important – you want to have your audience excited about what you’re about to serve.
Although you can’t actually recreate the experience of eating one of your dishes with a picture, artfully taken photographs can compel new customers to visit your establishment, convince your diners to order premium menu items, and help foster a stronger connection with your hospitality brand.
A picture is worth a thousand words as they say, and if you can deliver meals that taste as good as you’ve made them look, then you’d have given your food the right exposure any way you look at it.