On this week’s episode of Top Chef, the surprise judge was, surprisingly, Instagram. The show challenged its contestants—cheftestants, in Bravo parlance—to create dishes, using an array of junk foods (Oreos, Easy Cheese), that would be worthy of being photographed. Winning the challenge didn’t require a dish to be tasty or innovative or displaying of technical skill; it required only the creation of a pretty-looking plate. With the prettiness judged by the public: To win the challenge, the cheftestants simply had create the dish whose photo got the most likes on Instagram.
It was a weird challenge (“this is not Top Food Stylist,” you could almost hear the cheftestants muttering to themselves), but also a fitting one for a time when imagery is playing an increasing role in the way people consume food. And not always, of course, literally. Diners are finding out about new restaurants via geotags on Instagram, seduced or repelled by way of the photos their friends post of fried chicken, or ice cream, or tacos. They’re making decisions about where to have that anniversary dinner based on customer photos on Yelp. They’re pausing before their meals—using the time that, in some previous eras, might have been taken up with the saying of grace—to take pictures of plates.
Which leads to that other outcome of the digital age: debate. Today, Christopher Mims, the technology columnist for the Wall Street Journal, wondered aloud—which is to say, to his 48,000 followers on Twitter—why people photograph their food.
Why do people photograph food?— Christopher Mims (@mims) January 29, 2016
Is it because they can't bear to be parted from the food?— Christopher Mims (@mims) January 29, 2016
Seriously what is going on here. Consumption of the food is being documented one bite at a time. pic.twitter.com/nLZpzWtLNG— Christopher Mims (@mims) January 29, 2016
Mims is, of course, not the only one to question the practice. Your mom might have. You might have. If so, you’d be in good company. Pete Wells, the chief restaurant critic for The New York Times and a person who, when it comes to food culture, knows of what he speaks, has gone on the record decrying what he dubbed “camera cuisine”: food, that is, essentially, doing it for the ‘gram. Food that is the direct result of Instagram and Twitter and the age that turns any random diner into an amateur food photographer—and food marketer. “Any dish,” Wells had it, “that was inspired by a picture or aspires to be one.” Camera cuisine leads in turn, he argued, to food that cares more about being pretty than being tasty—to food that may double as art, but that can end up, in the process, tasting not much better than acrylic paint.
Some restaurants, too, have jumped on the anti-’gram bandwagon. In France, chefs have begun banning smartphones from their establishments. “There is a time and a place for everything,” Alexandre Gauthier, chef at the Grenouillère restaurant near Calais, explained to The Telegraph. “Our aim is to create a special moment in time for our clients. And for that, you have to switch off your phone.” So have restaurants in New York City. (Jo-Ann Makovitzky, owner of Tocqueville in Union Square: “People are there for their own dining experience and anything you do to infringe on that experience, we frown on.”) Komi, one of the consistently highest-rated restaurants in Washington, D.C., had adopted a principled no-picture policy. As its co-owner Anne Marler told me in an email, “Call us old-fashioned, but we love it when our guests are able to soak in the food and wine and company; to savor each dish in real time without the distraction of attempting to document the meal simultaneously.”
These are all understandable objections, and understandable stipulations. Food photography can be obnoxious. And even if documenting food weren’t a compromise to being “present,” as it goes, the practice can lead, as Pete Wells pointed out, to that biggest of food-borne bummers: meals that are meant to be hot, eaten only once they’re cold. Doing it for the ‘gram often doubles as ruining it for the ‘gram.
And yet! Despite all this! There’s a good chance, still, that the tides of history are stacked in favor of amateur food photography. That Top Chef’s tribute to Instagram, this week, represents a kind of normalization of the relationship between food and social media.
And there’s a good chance, too, that there is nothing at all wrong with that.
Seen most optimistically, the age of Instagram is bringing Americans back to an older age of food consumption—a time before industrialization and mass-production, and a time before a general cultural bias toward efficiency made eating an often very solitary affair. Instagram—and, with it, the rise of food blogs and Top Chef-style cooking shows and food-focused verticals at BuzzFeed—ultimately highlights the gorgeous communality of that oldest of things: the meal. Food may be, to an extent, cultured, and class-inscribed, and gendered. (The ladysalad! The manly t-bone!) It can be expensive; it can be egregious; it can appropriate; it can offend.
For all that, though, food is universal in a way that few things are, or have ever been. The bright bite of lemon juice; the earthy umami of an oil-roasted mushroom; the sour-sweet of dark chocolate—these are experiences that people across cultures and races and genders and generations can understand. They are relatively apolitical; they are relatively transcendent. Eating is biologically banal, but dining—the ritual, the event—is deep and social and shared.
The food-based Instagram taps into all that. It reflects a very human thing, a thing that has been part of culture, and for that matter of religion, for millennia: the desire to share our meals with other people. To break bread together. To take a picture of a meal, and to share that picture with friends and family with the help of the World Wide Web … that may be an act of performance, but it’s also an act of invitation. It’s extending, basically, the number of people at one’s table.
This week’s Top Chef challenge celebrates all of that. (It also takes a subtle victory lap, since Top Chef has—along with Chopped and Iron Chef and Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives—helped to turn images of food into their own forms of celebrity.) Yes, it makes jokes about #foodporn. Yes, it uses the episode to reveal the identity of the Instagrammer @chefjacqueslamerde, overuser of the phrase “soigné” and poster of satirically beautiful plates. On the whole, though, it emphasizes how cool it is that food—that most intimate and physical and transient of things—can now be captured, and remembered, and shared. That food can become media. And, with it, art. Chefs are fond of remarking that people “eat, first, with their eyes”; Instagram is simply bringing more truth to that truism.