In last month’s issue of The Industry Press I interviewed Tony Maws about how restaurants mature. We spoke for almost an hour on the topic and covered a lot of ground, some of which did not make it to the published piece. I was curious to explore one topic that Tony felt was impacting what it means to be a chef, to create dishes and lead a kitchen: Instagram.
“The amount of information that I can get is so vast; I know that’s an old topic at this point… Here I am on Instagram (pulls out his phone) and I can see what Bill Telepan is doing right now. This is awesome, Bill is a great guy and that’s why I follow him. Oh, and here’s Marc Vetri, I can see what he’s doing, I get all of this information. People can see this and start doing their own takes on what they see so trends move so fast. There’s a part of you- human nature or something in the brain- but you start feeling like you’re behind if you’re not doing some of the things that some of these people are doing.” – Tony Maws
In 2013 Bon Appetit featured a short piece on the ‘brave’ few chefs who had adopted and posted regularly on Instagram. The article featured chefs like Matt Jennings, April Bloomfield, and Chris Cosentino. Fast forward two years and not only are most chefs of note on Instagram, so are most of their cooks. The trend is in line with societies greater interest in restaurants, and chefs in particular. What Maws suggested though, was that Instagram is not just showcasing chef’s dishes, it’s influencing how and what they cook, and even how they lead.
Chefs are like other creative people in that they are borrowing and riffing off one another all the time- knowingly or not. I had a conversation with Jamie Bissonnette (Toro, Coppa, Toro NYC) about what this used to look like. “If I wanted to know what was happening in Chicago, I either had to go to Chicago or maybe wait for the next issue of Art Culinaire…now I can know everything happening with friends and even people I don’t know.” He said that he could talk for hours arguing both sides of whether this is a good or bad thing. He summarized by saying that the Internet on whole has made “learning easier and maintaining relevancy harder”.
Internet and social media changed the formula; see what anyone is doing at anytime and generally for free. Instagram was the first social media platform to really make the most of the higher quality cameras in phones. Instagram was attractive to chefs as a way to capture creativity in a way Facebook was not. Cooking is a sensory experience with visual and textural elements. Instagram tapped into that and started to see wider adoption within the industry.
Chefs are now immersed in the work of one another all the time. Instagram offers a relentless stream of ‘new’ but also dramatically shortens the lifespan of ‘new’. This is most evident in plating technique, maybe because it can be changed in the moment without disrupting prep. Over the last 3 years swooshes, smears, and massively asymmetrical plating are everywhere. Instagram has been a big part of accelerating these trends. One outcome is that many plates, in an effort to highlight uniqueness and relevance, end up looking very similar.
Instagram is having a potentially greater impact on young cooks. Creativity in technique, flavors, texture, and plating are a huge part of cooking. Mastery though, comes more through the mindful repetition of prepping, cooking, and plating the same dishes or techniques over time. I don’t envy the young cook who is inundated with the most fascinating food and technique from around the world at any given moment, who must then focus themselves on cooking and plating the duck entree for the 400th time.
No prior generation of cooks has had this challenge nor have chefs had the challenge of leading in this environment. ‘Today’s cooks are different’ is an increasingly common refrain and it’s hard to see how they couldn’t be. Jamie notes that the immediacy and constancy of ‘new’ is impacting tenures for cooks. He said that he used to view having a cook work with him for 1.5-2 years as the norm. Now he is lucky to keep them for a year. He says cooks ‘feel less of a need to stay somewhere’ for that long.
Rather than get frustrated, Bissonnette has changed the way he teaches, and his expectations overall. He tries to capitalize on the positive aspects of Instagram, and other social tools, through collaboration and networking. He sends a weekly email to his cooks that points them towards interesting content or details of a technique. He’ll sometimes have a guest contributor to that email who might write a paragraph about a specific topic. He brings in more guest chefs than in the past as a way to broaden the experience of his line cooks. Instagram has allowed him to broaden his relationships with other chefs. He told a story of being at Yardbird in Hong Kong and being recognized by the chef because of Instagram. He’s going to cook with that chef in Australia this spring.
Instagram was started by Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger in October 2010. Like many start-ups, they didn’t set out to create Instagram. It started out as a location based app, like Foursquare, call Burbn. Apparently Systrom really liked whiskey – between Burbn and Instagram, the founders worked on something called Scotch. People didn’t love Burbn, no one ever checked in anywhere, but they seemed to love posting and sharing photos. Instagram is impacting chefs and the kitchens they run and it’s not going anywhere; Systrom sold it to Facebook for $1B in 2012 and Instagram now has over 300 million users monthly.