HYDE PARK, NY — Check out the tray liners at Martina, Danny Meyer’s new pizzeria in the East Village, which were designed as branded Instagram bait. Each has what the executive chef, Nick Anderer, calls “a frenetic doodle” of contemporary Roman slang phrases, images of wineglasses and pizza, and at the bottom left, the restaurant’s name.
And if you wonder why your Instagram shots of Martina’s pies look so good, credit the lighting system, which allows the staff to adjust bulbs individually, with “a warmer hue in the dining room than in the kitchen,” Mr. Anderer said, “so it doesn’t cast too much shade against the pizza.”
Almost two miles and a degree of insecurity to the south, the chef Gerardo Gonzalez relies on Instagram to sustain his first restaurant, Lalito, which he opened 10 months ago in Chinatown. He said a lunch special sells out immediately if he posts an Instagram photo of the new dish.
Seven years after its founding, Instagram announced last week that it has 800 million monthly users, and the camera-ready restaurant dish has become a cultural commonplace. High-quality images are as essential to a chef’s success these days as knife skills.
The people who teach those knife skills know it — which is why the venerable Culinary Institute of America will introduce two new elective courses in May, one in food photography and the other in food styling, to help students develop sophisticated skills not only for the plate but also for the app.
The classes will teach students how to work with digital cameras and lighting, how to compose and edit a shot, and how to cook for the still camera, “with the same values as if you were eating it, evoking the feeling that it’s going to be luscious,” said Kersti Bowser, a food stylist and institute alumna who is working to develop the courses with Phil Mansfield, a staff photographer at the school.
They hope to replace the excess they see on social media, with photos that communicate flavor. Ms. Bowser thinks people are becoming “numb to the shock value” of much of what they see. “It seems so fabulous, much of it,” she said. “I want food to keep its integrity.”
Students may start out with the same raw ingredients they use in cooking class, but the rules are different in the photo class: They may want to undercook chicken or fish to keep the skin from looking tired, and vegetables may be burned on purpose to better convey texture.
The students see proof every day of how important visuals have become. Jason Potanovich, an assistant professor and the executive chef at the institute’s showcase Bocuse Restaurant, monitors diners’ reactions from his glass-walled kitchen, as do the students who work there. Bocuse serves steak tartare on a small plate over a moat of herb tea, fresh herbs and dry ice, and the swirling cloud that surrounds the dish inspires many customers to reach for their phones before they reach for their forks.
A photogenic dish, Mr. Potanovich said, is “absolutely” likelier to stay on the menu.
But there’s another reason for the new classes: The goal of becoming a restaurant chef and owner is increasingly elusive, thanks to competition for top jobs and a stagnant restaurant market. So schools like the culinary institute hope to prepare their students for a broader range of careers. In the current job market, an expanded skill set can make the difference between being employed and still looking.
“We see a small but steady increased interest in careers specifically in beverages and wine, food education, nutrition and wellness, food media,” said Denise Bauer, dean of the institute’s three-year-old School of Liberal Arts and Food Studies. Students “want to prepare for a food career that might not focus on food service alone,” she said, but could also involve the creation of photos for a variety of businesses, from restaurants to media outlets to cookbooks.
Mr. Mansfield stressed that the photo and styling classes would not be Instagram-for-credit; real food photography requires many more skills and thoughtful judgment calls. The photographer has to decide how to position a pot of ratatouille in a shot, what bowls and utensils to use and which napkin evokes a rustic feel.
In one recent class-development session in the school’s photography studio, Mr. Mansfield tried a test shot, checked his computer monitor, adjusted the lighting equipment, tried again and still wasn’t satisfied. Ms. Bowser moved in with tweezers to rearrange some of the vegetables — which she had cooked one ingredient at a time, rather than as a stew, to get them ready for their close-up.
The institute is not the only culinary school thinking visually. At Johnson & Wales University’s main campus in Providence, RI, about 70 culinary arts students belong to a faculty-advised food photography club, and many keep digital portfolios during their four years at school.
“Our students have coined the term ‘plate-y,’ as in, ‘I’m taking a plate-y,’” said Susan Marshall, interim dean of the university’s College of Culinary Arts. “They’re proud of their work and want to share it,” which they do on the school’s multiple Instagram and Facebook accounts. Students can take an elective food-photography course through three other colleges within the university.
The Institute of Culinary Education, in Lower Manhattan, offers food photography and styling electives, said Michael Laiskonis, the school’s creative director and a former pastry chef at Le Bernardin. He estimates that “maybe only half” of the students he encounters aspire to a career in restaurant kitchens, and he anticipates more curriculum changes in the next five to 10 years to reflect that.
But for the die-hards who intend to open restaurants, mastering images is imperative — even if the definition of mastery is a moving target.
Mr. Gonzalez admits to being tired of the Instagram photo feed because, he said, “just food can get boring.” He thinks that the key to his restaurant’s survival is the Instagram Story, either photo or video, that disappears after 24 hours and encourages people to take a look more often.
He uses the feed like a bulletin board, to announce daily specials and events, but he also relies on the stories to provide a “visual cue” about Lalito’s personality by showing the scene inside the restaurant.
“The stories are not ‘here’s how to plate a dish,’ but ‘the people here are amazing,’” he said. “I understand that photography drives traffic, but I’m interested in having people feel part of something. I want to build regulars.”
(The New York Times)