Chefs urged not to sacrifice taste for pretty pictures

Straits Times Life! editor Tan Hsueh Yun discussed how how the potential virality of photos on social media - and hence the potential business - pressures chefs into making their dishes pleasing to the eye.
Straits Times Life! editor Tan Hsueh Yun discussed how how the potential virality of photos on social media - and hence the potential business - pressures chefs into making their dishes pleasing to the eye.PHOTO: KELVIN CHNG

From home cooks to milkshake shops to 65-year-old Cantonese restaurant chefs, everyone in the food industry has had to adapt to the ubiquity of social media.

But chefs must not sacrifice the taste of their food for Instagram-worthy shots, stressed Straits Times Life! editor Tan Hsueh Yun at her AskST@NLB talk - organised by ST and the National Library Board - yesterday at the Central Public Library.

Showing the 215-strong audience several "food porn" pictures, Ms Tan discussed how the potential virality of photos on social media - and hence the potential business - pressures chefs into making their dishes pleasing to the eye.

She highlighted examples of restaurants consulting lighting experts to ensure patrons would have optimal conditions for photos, and the "over-the-top" milkshake trend that was not necessarily tasty or healthy but drew in crowds for their eye-popping presentations.

"We all eat with our eyes," she admitted, adding that food choices are often led by great pictures.

However, she argued that "sometimes good food doesn't have to look good", such as "gritty" hawker food, and appealed to the audience to be mindful of how their actions on social media shape the industry, lest the diners lose out if "the people making the food choose looks over taste every time".

"If we are going to get to a different level from just prettiness, then we really need to think more deeply about what we post on social media and how that affects the way food is created for us."

In lieu of meticulous preprandial shots, she suggested posting more "real" pictures instead. With more acceptance of imperfection, she said, "chefs might feel that they can actually be creative and come up with good-tasting food without resorting to plating or other tricks to make ugly food look good".

After the talk, Ms Tan signed copies of her book, Hunger Management, for audience members and continued chatting with them about their gustatory experiences.

One attendee, Mr Peter Chan, a chef of 45 years, agreed that taste cannot be sacrificed for aesthetics. "Social media brings more business in, but as long as you always prepare good food, customers will come back. If there is no taste but the presentation is nice, it defeats the purpose of having the food."

The 68-year-old added that he came to the session to hear the public views on the topic, and enjoyed how the subject and talk could "draw the customer out to speak more on food".

Ms Tan's talk was streamed on the Rings.TV platform, and can be viewed at rings.tv/s/10016642/ v75359.

The next AskST@NLB talk, on May 25, will have academic and diplomat Tommy Koh sharing insights on the shifting balance of power in the region in a conversation moderated by opinion editor Chua Mui Hoong. Sign up for it at http://str.sg/askTommyKoh.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 28, 2018, with the headline 'Chefs urged not to sacrifice taste for pretty pictures'. Print Edition | Subscribe