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Art on a plate
PRESENTATION is everything, and in the Instagram world, a beautifully plated salmon confit glistening in a pool of herb oil and creamy potato puree can earn you an instant following and for the chef that served it to you, fantastic exposure that doesn't cost him a cent.
Such is the appeal of Instagram food photos that chefs who once banned cameras in their restaurants are now feeding the frenzy, and even giving it a boost by making their food as photogenic as possible.
This global phenomenon is already fully entrenched here, but what is still growing is the number of chefs in Singapore who are actively thinking about lighting, angles and colour even as they focus on the humdrum of well, making the food tasty.
Daniel Sia, chef/owner of The Disgruntled Chef says that making food appealing to the eye is an art that has been practised since the 1700s or even earlier.
"Customers now are armed with the latest technology that captures the look of a dish, which can be shared with their friends and like-minded people on social media instantly," he says. "So plating the dish beautifully adds to the overall experience."
Antoinette's chef Pang Kok Keong adds that the stakes of beautiful plating have gone up. "With the exposure of the Internet and increasing competition, chefs tend to get influenced easily. To stay competitive, everyone has to move upwards, whether it is to plate better or to use better ingredients," he says.
One chef who says he doesn't plate with the consideration of social media is Jason Tan from Corner House. "Before this question, I have never really taken into consideration photo-taking when plating. I plate more for my own enjoyment and satisfaction," he says. He takes pictures of the food himself in the kitchen when he creates a dish, but that is for his own records - to document the evolution of a dish.
Tippling Club's chef/owner Ryan Clift says that everything from technology to chefs' creativity in the kitchen has evolved, so has food presentation. "It is a natural progression."
So instead of getting annoyed with diners, chefs now say they don't mind them taking pictures, so long as they don't disturb other diners with flash photography.
Chef de cusine Kirk Westaway from Jaan goes so far as to 'direct' the photography, gently suggesting different angles to "capture every aspect of their experience at Jaan as a wonderful photographed memory".
Dessert place Karafuru's pastry chef Michael Liu quips that sometimes he wants to confiscate a diner's smartphone, only because his carefully made parfaits end up sitting on the table for too long as people fiddle with their shots. "But on hindsight, with the shift towards social media, we do need these pictures to help bring attention to our wares," he says.
Les Amis executive chef Sebastien Lepinoy calls it "an honour when people snap and post photos of their food and experiences to share on social media".
The Raffles Grill's executive sous chef Michael Le Calvez sums up what most chefs feel about social media. "Social media is a new tool for the public to find out more about restaurants, and for us, it is another way to get more exposure."
For restaurants which don't have a big marketing budget, Instagram popularity is like manna from heaven, according to an article in the British newspaper, The Telegraph. Social media strategists even advise their restaurant clients to make not just their food Instagrammable, but other parts of the restaurant from menus to even the rest rooms. As an indication of just how pervasive Instagram is - there are almost 150 million posts with the hashtag #food, followed by about 68 million for #foodporn. Even the Singapore equivalent #sgfood accounts for around 795,000 posts.
So is it any wonder that Chef Westaway visually arranges all the items in his head when plating a dish, calculating the location of each and every item before touching any of the ingredients. Using the curvature of the plate to guide him, he lays on puree as a base upon which he builds the rest of the ingredients. "This particular way of plating enhances the visibility and visual appeal of each and every item."
The meat or fish comes next, vegetables and then a powder of crunchy chip for texture. "I enjoy putting the final touch at the guests' table for maximum warmth and freshness, such as when pouring the sauce or jus over the meat, or topping off a dessert with a squirt from an espuma canister. This is also an opportunity to interact with our diners," he says.
Chef Liu from Karafuru's rule of thumb is to stick to odd numbers. "I try to express as many forms on the plate as possible, so garnishes such as peels, herbs and droplets are often placed last, allowing them to be prominent."
The trick to a dish that will garner many 'likes' on Instagram is not to fill the plate up entirely. Chef Sia, who picked up photography when he was younger, creates an interesting 'frame' with negative space. "In this case, the empty spaces around the dish allow the diner's eyes to focus on the dish itself," he says.
To get the dish to look just right, having the right tools does help. "We use plenty of tools depending on the dish, such as brushes, tweezers, stencils, squeeze bottles, and even hairdryers," quips chef Le Calvez. He tries not to showcase more than three key ingredients in a dish, and most of his dishes are garnished with colourful, finely sliced vegetables, microgreens, edible flowers, herbs and fruits.
Chef Westaway relies on mini spatulas, and spoons of different shapes and sizes, plus some which he specially drills holes in to act as mini strainers for glazed vegetables.
The choice of plates also matter. Chef Clift unabashedly declares that he is a plate buying addict. The restaurant spends up to S$40,000 annually on plates, because he wants to make sure that the tableware is unique to the restaurant. He travels to Bali four times a year to meet with a designer who customises plates for Tippling Club.
There are no hard and fast rules on what colour plates should be, but most chefs agree that a large, white plate is preferred. "A white plate is the perfect canvas that works with all kinds of colours and textures," says Stephan Zoisl, owner/chef of Chef's Table.
Chef Lepinoy says that for hot dishes, he prefers using round plates as they take longer to lose its heat compared to a rectangular plate. "It is also important to plate a hot dish in the centre of the plate. The centre portion takes the longest to lose its heat," he says.
Just like how a plain plate is preferred, chefs say tablecloths are kept to a neutral colour so that food remains the highlight.
At Labyrinth, there are no tablecloths. Chef/owner Han Liguang uses only black tables in his restaurant. "The black tables act as a canvas for our dishes and they provide a good background for photo taking," he says.
To deal with the tricky issue of lighting - the bane of Instagrammers - lights are installed at an angle above the table to provide adequate illumination. At Jaan, the spotlight above every table is adjusted before every dinner service to ensure it is in the right direction to enhance every element of the dish.
At Karafuru, the interiors are all-white, so as not to detract from its colourful eclairs and parfaits. Joseph Koh, one of the founders of Karafuru, says that the cafe was designed to have as much natural lighting as possible, and direct overhead placement of lights was avoided so that no harsh shadows would be cast on the dishes. "With all these steps in place, you can get a good shot of the desserts from any spot in the cafe," says Mr Koh.
Chefs have also seen their fair share of diners going to all lengths to get a good shot of the food.
"I've seen guests kneeling down to get a good angle. Some will move the dish around the table for a couple of minutes to capture it in the best light," says Jaan's chef Westaway.
Chef Sia has seen a few diners briefly stand on chairs, after removing their shoes to "catch the light" and for the top down shot. His service staff have also been asked to hold onto plates where the light is better and also to hold the plate at different angles.
"Some also use our linen napkins as a backdrop, and borrowing another flower bowl from the next empty table is common too," he says.
But ultimately, it all boils down to taste, regardless of how many likes a photo gets.
"For a chef, taste is 100 per cent important. My guests are not paying for a picture, they are paying for the food, and they want the food to be tasty. If the food tastes great and looks good, it is a plus point," says chef Zoisl.