Social media and the smartphone may be creating havoc not only in how we experience a restaurant but also in how chefs approach food and how they innovate.
People are busy looking at their phones wherever I look. I am interested not only in what they are doing but also in how they are using their phones. Some have their earphones on and are listening to music or their latest favourite podcast. Most are using social media from Instagram to Facebook. There is also a lot of Messaging going on whether its through SMS, WhatsApp or Snapchat. It is difficult to keep up amid this ‘noise’.
I am writing this piece from a cafe and while I have my laptop which keeps me focused on writing, it takes an effort to not pick up my phone and ‘follow the crowd’.
On the way to the place where I decided to write this piece, I lost count of the number of people that were playing with their phones while driving, walking or even riding their bicycles. It seems like no place is safe from the greatest addiction of our times.
We live in an ‘always on’ society and we are constantly bombarded by information on a continuous basis, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We can choose to fight it or we can choose to embrace the changes that are happening around us and try to make sense of this noise.
Whenever I have interviewed chefs over the past few years, I’ve posed the question as to what they think of social media, how they approach it in their restaurant, whether they think it impacts innovation and what they think of photos of their dishes. Is it leading us to be superficial when we look at a dish and food?
Gone are the days when the preparing for the journey was as important if not more interesting than the destination. Today, with a smartphone in hand you can be experiencing what someone is eating thousands of kilometres away from you. It is like you have been transported to another place. Can this replace the real experience? And what happens when the real experience tends to be disappointing because the surprise factor is gone or detracts you from understanding the subtleties that have gone into a particular dish or idea.
Is social media polluting our experience?
What impact is all this having on creativity? And where will it all lead?
We need to first understand the impact that this is having on chefs and also the impact on customers. Does social media ruin our restaurant experience? Is chef David Kinch right to say that an image on social media is like pollution?
These are all legitimate questions we need to ask and try to answer if we are to understand what is happening today and how we can brace ourselves for what is coming next.
Ultimately, social media, when used properly has the power and potential to leave a lasting impact because chefs and their teams can spread their message and tell their story in a way that compels people to make the time and effort to visit the restaurant. Social media can be a powerful research tool to learn about products and about people but it also distracts us from developing our own likes and tastes. For chefs, it can also have the impact of stopping them from developing their style and voice.
Today we are bombarded with creations from chefs who use social media to showcase their latest creations and also to ‘claim’ any innovation that they have created. It is not the first time that a chef has stopped working on a dish after seeing that someone else had beaten him to that dish or idea. So what is the world losing in terms of innovation when a chef stops working on an idea or flavour or ingredient combination because he has seen it elsewhere?
Is it that bad to ‘copy’ an idea, revisit it and maybe make it better?
Is there for example a better way to make Massimo Bottura’s five ages of Parmesan? Should someone try to build on what Massimo has created or should that idea be forgotten because he beat someone else to it?
This is not the first time that we are facing this issue of copying. In the past, someone on the other side of the globe could reinterpret a recipe he read in a book even if he had the liberty to imagine how it looked like because there was no photo. In many cases, he would have got away with it. There was no social media, fewer people travelled and few knew what was happening outside their own region or country.
Today the opposite is happening. A chef may look at the dish and try to recreate it without necessarily knowing the techniques or effort that has gone into creating that dish. Does that mean that we are moving from depth in re-interpretation to shallowness?
We have heard of the story of Italian chef Fulvio Pierangelini, who, fed up with the debate about ‘copying’ and ‘copyrighting’ ideas called his friends on stage at a food festival in San Sebastien. He took the contrarian view and instead of giving a live demonstration he asked his chef friends Luis Aduriz Andoni, Heston Blumenthal, Massimo Bottura, Thierry Marx, Petter Nilsson to go on stage with him and reinterpret his iconic dish of scallops and mortardella. They all came up with a different way of looking at the dish. Gelinaz! the collective of chefs was born soon after.
Gelinaz! today has shown that collaboration and a clever use of social media can create buzz. But this is not necessarily about the food but rather about creating an ‘esprit des corps’ where chefs share not only their stories but also their creations and experiences.
Will this come to be seen as the age of superficiality?
It is possible that we are living in what can be termed ‘peak food’. Chefs are today household names. They are the new artists and rockstars and interest in food is at an all time high. All you need to do is switch on your TV, computer or social media stream to see yet more information of food. But is this a golden age or will we come to see it as the age of superficiality?
In a world that is truly a global village (where travel has never been easier) we sometimes prefer to stay in the comfort of our own homes and take the trip through our TV (Netflix) or the latest review by our favourite blogger or Instagrammer.
We’ve seen many times how certain influences have become mainstream and how cuisine has become more ‘global’ meaning we are losing some of what could be termed as national, regional or even local cuisine. When someone like Jeremiah Tower tells you that today you can be eating in a restaurant in Europe, Hong Kong and the United States and not know where you are he is not exaggerating.
Can you go to some of the best restaurants in the world today and distinguish their cuisine on the basis on their locality? Is plating so similar today as to make it unrecognisable?
There is clearly value in a chef documenting his progress over the years. Some recipes that may have been created a few years ago could have evolved beyond recognition as the chef and his team mature and new techniques are developed. In the past, recipes used to be documented using recipe books or notebooks and they were not necessarily photographed. That left everything to the imagination of those reading the books.
Today, the chef can take photos not only for himself but also for his team and followers on social media. While that is a good thing and chefs can be in control, we also have foodies who are busily posting photos of their latest meals and discoveries (some paid for, others clearly sponsored or else given for free) either on social media or their blogs or websites. And on top of that, there are hundreds of thousands of users who leave comments on the likes of TripAdvisor or Yelp, or Facebook to just mention a few examples.
So what happens to us when we head to a restaurant with very high expectations after having seen photos of all the dishes that we are expected to eat? What happens when we have read many blog posts and reviews with descriptions of the things we are about to eat? How does that impact our experience?
We are influenced by the photos we have seen, our expectations are changed by the descriptions of the food we have read. Is this a bad thing? What are the implications for restaurants and chefs?
How important is the element of surprise? Does it enhance or detract our experience?
How important is the element of surprise? Does it enhance or detract from an experience? Some of the most memorable meals are those that take you completely by surprise because you were not expecting them. And these are normally not the meals or the restaurants that you have researched.
There is a new phenomenon which we will need to study in more detail in the coming months and years. The advent of live filming on social media sites like Facebook, Instagram could turn out to be a game changer. In a restaurant it might be considered a step to far. What happens if there are people in a restaurant who do not want to make their presence known. It might only be a matter of time before restaurants and other public spaces ban phones and cameras from that space.
Who is going to take the first step?