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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 October 2018

Is Instagram ruining food? We talk to some of Dubai's top chefs  

We ask UAE chefs where they sit on the social media fence, and what diners stand to gain and lose from photographing rather than eating their food  

Seafire_Savory Short Rib Donuts
Seafire_Savory Short Rib Donuts

Chef Uwe Micheel is fierce in his ­critique of Instagram, and thinks it has become a chef’s worst ­nemesis. But before you dismiss him as antiquated, consider these excerpts from our conversation.

Excerpt one: “For me, this is Dubai,” says the award- ­winning chef and author, who has lived in the UAE for 25 years, gesticulating both to the wide expanse of the Boulevard at the Radisson Blu hotel and, by extension, to the bustling vibe of Deira that lies beyond. “I don’t want to live or work anywhere else; I do not like high-rises. That ‘other’ side is not my Dubai. When I open the window in my home, in nearby Rashidiya, I can hear birdsong and see greenery. This slow pace is very important to me.”

So it’s not that Micheel is out of touch or eschewing the benefits of technology; he just recognises the positives of a slower, more mindful existence that is the antithesis of the frenzied pace of social media.

Excerpt two: “When I was a young chef, the general manager of the restaurant I was working with would ask permission before he entered the kitchen from the head chef, whom I consider my mentor,” says Micheel. “That chef taught me to always respect the white jacket, to not behave in a way that would take away from the uniform.”

Chef Uwe Micheel 
Chef Uwe Micheel 

In his eyes, Instagram is eroding some of that respect, which brings us to excerpt three, where the stew thickens: “When a chef sends food out to the table, and everybody starts taking multiple pictures to post on Instagram, the food becomes cold – it becomes something that’s not the way the chef had intended it to be. To me, that’s disrespect for the food and disrespect for the chef,” he says. “And for you, the diner, it’s not about the meal anymore, which you should enjoy the flavours of, instead of clicking and posting away.

“And one more thing,” he continues, with a look that’s at once wistful and vehement. “These days, when guests come into a restaurant, they don’t flick through the menu to spot the flavours and dishes that appeal to their personal tastes, but rather, blindly order what they’ve seen on Instagram. I bet if you ask 100 chefs, 95 of them would agree with me that Instagram is a big challenge,” he says.

That last statement is exactly what I set out to verify after my meeting with Micheel, and he might be surprised to learn that the odds are not stacked quite that high. Most chefs are pro-Instagram, which they look upon as the most effective and profitable marketing tool of this generation.

John Martho C Buenaventura, CEO and culinary director at Cuisinero Uno, says: “I personally love Instagram; it has helped to boost our business. It has levelled the playing field, and gives us direct access to our customers and their feedback. It’s also a great way to keep up with industry trends.

“I believe that we put in a lot of effort to prepare the dishes and ensure that our customers do not leave unsatisfied, but Instagram does the job for us – by generating genuine reviews and creating awareness.”

Rather than lamenting the loss of taste, the chef says that when people post their food images on Instagram prior to consuming their meal, it “is a great way for them to remember the dishes they were served later on”. While Buenaventura is pointed in his praise, others have their own sets of compliments and clauses.

For Raymond Wong, chef de cuisine at Seafire Steakhouse, taste trumps presentation. “I don’t think Instagram takes away from a chef’s efforts, rather it gives them a platform to express themselves, and display their creativity and the produce they work with. But I believe you should create a dish based on how it tastes before the way it looks. If you create a dish based only on its appearance and the taste is not there, then it is a fail for me.”

Wong says that the “highly ­Instagrammable dishes” at Seafire are what ultimately bring people into the restaurant. “We serve our savoury short-rib doughnuts with a dusting of Parmesan charcoal; and the chocolate fondant oozes hot chocolate when pulled apart. The response this visually appealing imagery receives, thanks to the ­stunning textures and colours, is brilliant.”

However, Micheel points out that some of this tinkering, which is done only to make a dish look better, is what may compromise its taste in the first place. “Over-garnishing or putting the food in props such as baskets … it’s ridiculous. The food gets cold and, worse, it gets handled far too much.”

This is not to say that presentation gets no points in his book. “Of course presentation is important, because you eat with your eyes first. But consider, if you go to a restaurant and have an amazing-looking dish that does not taste good, you will not talk about it or recommend it again; but if an average-looking dish tastes spectacular, you’ll come back for it. The key is to make sure the food looks good, as well as to cook and consume it in the proper way.”

For Izu Ani, the chef behind Izu Bakery, Carine and La Serre, it’s the point behind the communication that counts. “Personally, I am not a big fan of Instagram, but if there is a story behind what you are posting, and the message is portrayed in the right way, Instagram can bring great value to the restaurant ­business. It’s just another marketing tool that can be effective when you post a [­relevant] message. The downside, of course, is that people end up posting everything under the sun,” notes Ani. Micheel says one of the ­reasons some chefs won’t agree with his anti-Instagram tirade may be because of the other, more deadly power ­social media wields. “People are afraid of social media’s power to destroy [reputations], of the negative feedback they may get.”

Of course, it’s not just diners who are doing the posting; chefs are party to it, too. Some of them enforce their own etiquette and guidelines. Often diners get fooled into visiting a restaurant that posts one thing, but serves quite another. “I think that Instagram and other social media platforms are great for exposure. However, I have a line of conduct when posting, regarding the feasibility of the dish. This means that the dish has to be consumed and real,” says Gregoire Berger, chef de ­cuisine at Ossiano, Atlantis, The Palm. “Anything you see on my social media has been eaten and will probably go on the menu. In my opinion, any dishes posted must be edible and not just a visual to attract, as this is not reality.”

When Colin Clague was working at Jean-Georges, he was specifically asked by management to create his own Instagram account. “I hadn’t bothered until that point,” says Clague, who is now the executive chef at Ruya. Speaking about his own ­dealings with the app, he admits: “I really sit on the fence with this. On the one hand, it’s a good way to advertise yourself and the restaurant, and put up the dishes that you may want your guests to try. Also, you get some lovely ­comments from guests whom you probably wouldn’t have time to communicate with otherwise. However, most chefs aren’t professional photographers, so sometimes the picture does not do the dish justice. Taste is, after all, the most important thing.”

And perhaps that’s what this issue boils down to in the end – a matter of taste.

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