Against my better judgement, I tapped the button to start the video. Immediately from out of frame a beef tenderloin comes flying, slamming down onto a large, filthy grill. Then, as the camera phone pans left, our “hero” is revealed. It’s Salt Bae. And he’s got a knife.
What happens next should be against the laws of God and man alike. The internet-famous butcher and chef Nusret Gökçe butterflies a perfectly good slab of meat, manhandles it some more and fills it with slices of cheap cheddar and asparagus. The video cuts to him planting mini-flags in his beef roulade, slicing it and then inexplicably squeezing the life out of it for the camera, looking quite pleased with himself the whole time. It ends with his trademark salt sprinkle cascading sodium down his forearm onto Frankenstein’s monster. To date, the video has been watched 8.2 million times since it posted in January 2018. And in the two intervening years, his follower count has nearly doubled to 24 million, despite the fact that, by most accounts, his restaurants are as bad as his cheesy asparagus beef roll looks.
Meanwhile, a few days after Salt Bae posted that video, Daniel Riesenberger, a.k.a. @danthebaker, uploaded his own clip. Off a tiny road outside of downtown Columbus, Ohio, in a black corrugated metal building that also houses the Sbarro Culinary Innovation Center, Riesenberger bakes bread. On Instagram we can follow the journey. His video was nothing flashy, just Riesenberger excited that he had a little mill now in his production kitchen where he could grind his own rye fresh for his breads. That video is flanked by other posts showing dough proofing, videos of him shaping loaves, shots of crumb (holes in a loaf) and pastry experiments he’s working on. The chronicling of his work has brought Dan the Baker more than 40,000 followers. And it led me to visit his storefront earlier this year.
In the past, Riesenberger may have toiled in obscurity and anonymity. And I, a person living in Los Angeles, probably would have never heard of him. But just how Instagram introduced me to Salt Bae, the platform also led me to discover Dan the Baker. To my delight, when I sought him out, I found Riesenberger wasn’t just showing off pretty pictures. His bakes were the genuine article. The texture and crumb of his oat porridge bread were some of the best I’d had and the laminated dough in his croissants and cruffins rivaled the quality of big-city patisseries. Social media had not steered me wrong.
The Salt Bae-Dan the Baker dichotomy exemplifies the food world’s love-hate affair with Instagram in its first decade of existence. There was a kind of Newton’s Law to the platform, where every action appeared to have an equal and opposite reaction—each positive effect seemed to carry an annoying inverse. Yet, no matter how restaurants or diners feel about it, Instagram has become a necessity that has reshaped how we eat, how chefs run their business and how we decide where to dine.
Instagram Rewarded Spectacle, but Also Substance
Instagram has let us indulge our most superficial tendencies, allowing whole empires to be built on the dumbest possible things. This decade a class of food emerged with the express purpose of getting us to pull out our phones and take a picture. “There’s plenty of excitement about extremely superficial stuff that makes no sense to me,” says Christian Puglisi of Relae in Copenhagen. “But we need to live in an Instagrammable world for anybody to care, so unfortunately that appeals to doing some things that just look good on camera but do not really make a lot of sense if you think it through.”
The camera-friendly ploys worked. People lined up around blocks for Cronuts, rainbow bagels, unicorn Frappuccinos, ramen burgers and, of course, Black Tap CrazyShakes.
Black Tap, the New York burger joint, rose to fame with a made-for-Instagram concoction that featured whole other desserts perched atop a shake. Accessing the frosty treat required digging through slices of cheesecake or perhaps a Choco Taco. It’s like the restaurant version of the horror film The Ring, where anyone who watches the haunted tape dies. Except every person who sees a photo of a Black Tap shake gets type 2 diabetes. And if you bought it just so you could post it to Instagram and throw it away before eating, it didn’t matter to them. The bank deposited the money either way.
And yet, not everyone was so cynical with how they used Instagram. A person or restaurant’s posts could give the public a glimpse into the creative process, and bring to attention people who wouldn’t have otherwise received it—like Dan the Baker. Or like a young chef in Australia who has become known around the world because of his social media use.
From his little restaurant in Sydney, Josh Niland got creative with seafood. Through his posts he showed off butchery skills that had greats from Dan Barber to Grant Achatz requesting an audience when he finally came stateside this year. And his work came in service of something noble—a more eco-conscious way of preparing fish that cuts down on food waste. “Gaining Instagram followers showed me ‘Oh, wow, people like this,” Niland says. “People message me to ask what to do with the fish they’ve got, and I love the interaction. It helps me be in front of more people to talk about what I’m doing. It puts my work to good use.”
People Were Brought Together—to Look at Their Phones
Chef Magnus Nilsson likes to tell a story that’s not directly about dining, but speaks to what he sees at restaurants now. He recently found himself at a small party where John Legend just happened to sit down at the piano and play three songs for the gathered revelers. “I sat very very close because although I’m not a John Legend fan, this was a beautiful moment—how often do you get to hear an artist of that caliber playing piano and singing a few meters away?” Nilsson says. “And I turned around and looking back it was a wall of cell phones. Everyone was experiencing the moment through their phones. None of them were having the experience—I don’t think that they were even listening. It was just sad.”
It’s not that different at restaurants this decade. Diners have turned into food paparazzi, swarming dishes with cameras the moment they land on the table. “I think there’s a really positive aspect to Instagram, but it’s also a little annoying to see people take pictures of their food for 20 minutes before they even touch it,” says Gio Osso of Virtu in Scottsdale, Ariz. “It’s getting cold, what are you doing? Or for a dessert course you want to say, ‘Your ice cream is melting, you don’t need 15 pictures of it.” That constant urge to document the meal also means they’re disconnected from the people right in front of them—diners are mediating the restaurant experience through an LED screen.
“I think the phone has decreased the interaction of human beings,” says Matthew Accarrino of SPQR in San Francisco. That sentiment may not just be alarmism. A 2017 study that appeared in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, showed a significant association between social media use and increased depression, as people who spent more time on it reported increased feelings of social isolation. Social media may show you the whole world, but it may also make you feel alienated from it, as you see all these other people living their best lives.
And yet, it does have the power to connect communities of people who love food as well as bring diners closer to chefs and restaurateurs than in the past, like how I found Dan the Baker. “It has been great for us, because another level of interaction with people who want to talk to you,” says Jessica Koslow of Sqirl in Los Angeles.
“It can help you get your message across to people,” says Michael Tusk of Quince in San Francisco. “And it doesn’t have to just be pictures of food, you can use it for positive change by connecting for education purposes or showing people what’s going on in your community.”
That ambivalence is baked in to social media for Nilsson. “Being part of this world is enables me to actually do something with my creative expression,” he says. “I mean, people wouldn’t be coming to Fäviken if it wasn’t for a certain amount of interest in my person and a certain amount of hype, so it’s very complex.”
There Was More Innovation—and More Copycats
Back when Matthew Accarrino was coming up as a young cook in New York in the pre-social media era, it was harder to know what food looked like inside the city’s best restaurants. If he wanted to see Le Bernardin dishes, he might as well just go press his face up against the glass to see what the people were eating inside. “But now I can type Le Bernardin into Instagram and see anything anyone’s ever taken a picture of,” he says. “The information is there, and it speeds the flow of that information to anyone.”
The way starving chefs used to find out about the heights of fine dining was by waiting for cookbooks to be published. “I came from a town of 3000 people. I thought you had to be from France to be a chef. I didn’t know that was anything that I could ever even aspire to be,” says Josh Habiger of Bastion in Nashville. “My first job was in a diner. I remember seeing the Charlie Trotter cookbook and being like ‘Whoa, this is food? This is more like art.'”
Now chefs don’t have to wait for a long publishing cycle to see the coolest new thing. “We get ideas all the time from Instagram all the time. Probably every single day one of the cooks will show us something on Instagram to say, ‘Look what these guys are doing,'” says Alexander Hong of Sorrel in San Francisco. “We get to see different flavor combinations or techniques, it’s a great great tool.”
And yet, there’s a downside. Scrolling through Instagram can reveal a lot of conformity because people are able to see and then quickly mimic the leaders like René Redzepi. “I think there’s a unifying thread through modern cuisine and I don’t know if it’s a good thing or a bad thing. But food being produced in Copenhagen shouldn’t look like food in Los Angeles, San Francisco or Tokyo,” says Michael Cimarusti of Providence in Los Angeles. “There should definitely be differences there, but I think that’s part of the modern world that we live in, where everything is accessible within seconds from all the way around the world due to social media. I think it occurs at the detriment of your own creativity.”
But even if there’s some level of conformity, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Just this fall, persimmons hanging from strings inside restaurants flooded certain corners of Instagram. Chefs were drying the fruit to make the traditional Japanese delicacy hoshigaki. “I’d see pictures of Josh Skenes or Inua in Japan posting pictures and I’m like, ‘That’s so cool,'” says Andy Doubrava of Rustic Canyon in Santa Monica, Calif. He’s not exactly sure what he’ll do with them, but Instagram allowed this Michelin-starred chef to find inspiration, guidance and the confidence to try something he hadn’t before. And when it’s done right, the delicious results are passed along to us the diners. It’s the best we can hope for from Instagram.