Diners will lose out if chefs choose to make food for the eyes over the tastebuds: ST Life editor

Straits Times Life editor Tan Hsueh Yun at her AskST@NLB talk on How Social Media has Changed the Way Chefs Create Dishes at the National Library on April 27, 2018.
Straits Times Life editor Tan Hsueh Yun at her AskST@NLB talk on How Social Media has Changed the Way Chefs Create Dishes at the National Library on April 27, 2018.ST PHOTO: KEVIN CHNG

SINGAPORE - From home cooks to milkshake shops and 65-year-old Cantonese restaurant chefs, every member of 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 on Friday (April 27) at the National Library, on How Social Media has Changed the Way Chefs Create Dishes.

Starting off by showing the audience of 215 people a series of Instagram 'food porn' photographs, some of which were her own, Ms Tan delved into the topic of how the potential virality of good photographs - 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 their patrons would have optimal light conditions for photographs, 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, saying that taste has often become secondary to getting a good picture.

However, she argued that "sometimes good food doesn't have to look good", citing excellent but "gritty" hawker food as an example, and appealed to the audience to be mindful of how their actions on social media shape the industry, lest 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," she said.

In lieu of time-consuming and meticulous preprandial shots, she suggested posting more "real" pictures instead. "Then maybe there might be more acceptance that not everything needs to be perfect," 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 of them, Mr Peter Chan, a chef of 45 years who now cooks for a hotel, 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," he said.

The 68-year-old added that he came to the session to hear 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 live on the Rings.TV app platform, and can be watched at https://rings.tv/s/10016642/v75359.

The next AskST@NLB talk will be on May 25, and will have academic and diplomat Professor Tommy Koh sharing insights on the shifting balance of power in the region, in a conversation moderated by Opinion Editor Chua Mui Hoong.

Those interested can sign up at http://str.sg/askTommyKoh.