Photogenic food: Would you pay more for dressed up dishes?
While purist decry jaw droppingly pretty food, chefs say that it’s important to make food Instragram-worthy; that is what pleases guests.
How do you react when the food served to you in a restaurant looks less like food, and more like an art installation? Photogenic food has been trending ever since it became de rigueur to post a picture of the good looking food on Instagram. You can’t eat something that’s jaw-droppingly pretty unless you have posted a picture. The trend of beautifying food has also led to restaurants quietly replacing your places with quirky bric-à-brac. Burgers served on a rubix cube, spaghetti served inside coconut shells, golgappa paani served in plastic syringes, baturas and kulchas hanging from laundry hangers —food is increasingly being served on kitschy objects instead of plates.
Some purists believe say that it is often the chef’s way of making up for less than perfect food. “This is a classic scenario of style taking over substance. Presenting food in unusual objects instead of plates is like a SOS call…it’s like screaming for attention. I hope this is just a passing phase and the plates return soon. Chefs who are so keen on presentation rather than focusing on food think they are magicians, but they are not,” says Michelin-starred chef Sriram Aylur, who heads London’s famed Quilon restaurant.
Food historian Pushpesh Pant says that paying too much emphasis on presentation is vain and vague. It takes away from the true essence of food. Dramatic, out-of-the-box presentation doesn’t really mean that food that’ll be remembered for its taste. “ What makes food memorable is the uniqueness and authenticity of taste. It is far more important than quirky presentation,” he says.
Restaurateurs also often put a lot of pressure on chefs to create something stunning , because that is what they believe is sellable. “It’s not always the chef’s call. Creativity takes a back seat under such pressure and what happens is mindless copying and random mixing of elements. There is no connect between the elements. There’s no story to tell,” says chef Sabyasachi Gorai.
“If you are making a steak, do you really need to make it look like something else and not steak? What will really matter is the aroma, the juices and the texture of meat, and not looks. Of course you can add colorful vegetables but to deliberately create a stunning dish is needless. It’s distracting and it impacts the quality of food. It’s like paying table on a bar stool,” he says.
A dish can’t survive merely on looks
While it could be true to an extent that we eat with our eyes first, when it comes to choosing between taste and the visual attractiveness of a cuisine, taste will always be the king. A dish can’t survive merely on great looks. Taste is what will bring you back to a restaurant again and again. “Presentation does leave a strong impression, but what makes the real impact is taste. Taste gives us food memories. There has to be fine balance,” says chef Prem K Pogakula- executive chef, The Imperial. Achieving this fine balance between visual appeal and taste of food, is only possible when chefs give equal respect to ingredients, preparation and then finally presentation. But with increasing pressure to create marvels, such stability is often missing.
Why make food social media worthy?
Restaurateurs say that a number of guests, specially young people visit with the purpose of clicking drool worthy pictures. “It’s sad that it’s more important for them to click pictures and post on social media than to enjoy a soulful meal. Chefs are asked to put together something enticing and picture-worthy,” says chef Gorai.
Experts dismiss the need for creating social media worthy food. “I’ll always have a problem with such kind of food. Beauty is only skin deep. Beautiful food would mean appetizing, flavourful, fragrant food and not just visually attractive food. Dressing up food distracts from all this. How much makeup can you apply to food to beautify it?,” says Pant. He also believes that copying international presentation trends and making Indian food look like French food is illiteracy. “Such things violate the aesthetic unity of the cuisine. A bed of rice paired with molecular daal foam burns a hole in your pocket as well as stomach. Indian chefs, specially the younger generation would do well by staying true to their own culinary traditions ,” he says.
However, Manish Sharma from Molecule says that unless food entices enough, it won’t be in demand. “We have popular dishes which look completely different from what their name appears to be. Their imaginative presentation motivates customers to try them. We have a dish called Edible Bhel, which is a modern style of bhel presented in edible plastic sheet. Similarly, edible coal is our version of dahi kebab coated with activated charcoal. The idea is to present a surprise,” says Sharma.
With a growing number of eateries focusing in gorgeous looking food, the trend is unlikely to fizzle out soon. Not a bad idea for those ceremonial occasions when a bit of drama and fanfare can enhance your experience. But for other days, good old un flambéd gulam jamun kept in a mitti ki haandi is prefect to turn around a grim day.