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ARE LA RESTAURANTS CREATING FOOD SPECTACLES JUST FOR INSTAGRAM?

LOS ANGELES
JENSEN/THRILLIST
By DANNY JENSEN

Like it or not, having a photo shoot with your meal before you eat is pretty much par for the course these days. And while sharing your bologna sandwich on Instagram is one thing (and probably one thing you shouldn’t do), some restaurants around LA (and beyond) are creating elaborate, colorful, and, at times, gimmicky creations that seem specifically designed for social media. From a rainbow-striped grilled cheese to a crystal-clear cake, these sideshow oddities are hard to miss. But are these trendy spectacles a smart business move for restaurants or just a flash in the pan? And more importantly, do they actually taste good? We put down our phone (and bologna sandwich) for a minute to find out.
Well, How Did We Get Here?
Of course, intricate and colorful plating has been something that chefs were doing long before we all started ‘Gramming. But with the eyes of so many potential customers glued to their screens, it’s hard to ignore that there has been a recently increased focus on the visual experience of eating. One eye-popping creation that’s flooded LA feeds lately is a rainbow-hued grilled cheese known as the Unicorn Melt from Chomp Eatery & Juice Station in Santa Monica. No stranger to the power of Instagram, Chomp has showed up on Instagram before with mouthwatering — if unorthodox — sights like its pumpkin-spice-donut-fried-chicken-sandwich (!), red velvet waffles with Sriracha fried chicken and even pressed juice in a lightbulb. Its latest creation has elicited heart-eyed emojis from some, while others live in fear of the multi-colored, admittedly unnatural-looking meal. But for anyone, it’s certainly hard to resist taking a picture.

“For things to sell these days, it has to be Instagrammable,” explains Rolan Pongpuntara, Chomp Eatery’s co-owner, who, not surprisingly, has a background in marketing. “Color is the main thing now. That’s what people want, for it to taste good and be very Instagrammable, that’s what makes it [sell] for this generation.”
“It’s almost like dinner and a show. These plates are a performance now.”
Kevin Nguyen of GD Bro Burger, known for its bright-red, raspberry-tinged buns, echoes the sentiment. “It’s our generation and our day and age: If you didn’t Snap it or put it on Instagram, it didn’t happen. We thought, this is something we can do and utilize social media to spread the word.” Along with partner Mark Cruz, Nguyen leveraged the spot’s visually stunning buns and food-world connections to go from college-dropouts working at Disney to appearing on the Food Network’s The Great Food Truck Race and opening brick-and-mortars in Signal Hill and Santa Ana.
Even long-standing LA institutions like 34-year-old California Donuts are purposefully getting in on the Instagram action now. Steppie Kuoch, who inherited the Koreatown mom-and-pop shop from her, ahem, mom-and-pop, explains that they’ve expanded from traditional donut offerings in recent years to eclectic and photogenic toppings ranging from Oreo panda bears to Froot Loops and beyond. “In the last few years, there was a sudden boom in the donut and dessert trend and it opened up the opportunity to experiment, have fun with our products, and help us reach a community outside of Los Angeles. Instagram really became that vehicle, and it’s been our constant connection and communication with our growing customer base.”

But, Does It Taste Good?
Pretty pictures are all well and fine, but when chefs start experimenting with crazy flavors and otherworldly designs, you start to wonder: am I actually going to be able to keep this down? “I think many chefs are prioritizing presentation before taste now,” says Chef Michael Fiorelli, of Love & Salt in Manhattan Beach. “A picture might say a thousand words, but a bite says one that’s more important than all of them.” No stranger to a drool-worthy, Instagrammable dish (take, for instance his fierce whole roasted pig head) Fiorelli emphasizes how important it is for the food to actually deliver, or otherwise the whole plan backfires. “Ultimately, you’re trying to draw people into the restaurant. If a certain dish catches fire on Instagram, people are going to want to eat it, but if it doesn’t deliver [taste-wise] then it’s the worst advertisement you can put out there.”
“It’s like diversifying stocks: if you focus too much on one item, eventually you’ll run out of people who want to try it.”

And while the colorful look of the Unicorn Melt may not be everyone’s cup of tea cheese, we found it to actually be quite the tasty blend of fontina, asiago, provolone, and Parmesan. “We tested it for days to make sure that it tasted good as well,” says Pongpuntara. He experimented with different cheese blends to get the right taste, texture, and coloring, and — for those familiar with rainbow bagels and lattes — they even considered other rainbow foods, but found the grilled cheese to be the “prettiest, most Instagrammable one.” But she says taste was just as important in the design, “It’s kind of like having a girlfriend: you have the personality and you have the looks. That’s what people want nowadays. Food has to look good for it to be popular.” And it’s not like Chomp is stopping at the grilled cheese — it also has a “Galaxy” burger in the works, which will be abetted (seriously) with a pink and purple glittered bun.
Another spectacle that’s been burning up IG feeds in New York, and will likely do the same in Los Angeles now that it’s arrived at Smorgasburg LA, is the Raindrop Cake from Darren Wong. This cake looks like a giant, jiggling droplet and is made from spring water and shapeable algae-derived agar. Wong himself first spotted the blob-like dessert (known as mizu shingen mochi in Japan) on social media and had eaten similar jelly desserts growing up, so was inspired to create his own version. “What struck me the most is the surprise that people have. People go into this thinking that because it looks like a giant drop of water that it’s not going to be flavorful, but when they do try it they’re often surprised and really enjoy it.” It’s definitely a delicate and subtle flavor, accented by the toppings like sugar cane syrup and roasted soybean flour, but it’s pretty refreshing nonetheless. Wong is also experimenting with new flavors, including a s’mores Raindrop Cake, to keep things interesting.

“It’s almost like dinner and a show,” Wong says of the growing trend of Instagram-focused foods. “These plates are a performance now. The plate doesn’t just come to your table, there has to be some sort of interaction with it.”

So, Is Cooking for Instagram a Smart Move for Restaurants?
While the buzz created by a wild-looking dish can definitely be a big win for a restaurant or food truck, especially for newcomers, there are also potential downsides to the ‘Gram game. “It depends on what type of food business that you want to start,” Wong explains. For a spot like Raindrop Cake, which specializes in one or two dishes, tapping into the power of viral visuals can really help. Restaurants with an extensive and diverse menu, on the other hand, may get pigeonholed if they’re only recognized for a singular, Instagram-worthy dish.

Whether it’s the eatery’s one and only offering, or a new dish aimed at bringing in new customers, there’s also the risk of Instagram fatigue. After all, there’s only so many times you can double-tap on that crazy new creation, before you get bored of seeing it in your feed. “People do get tired of them,” Wong continues. “I think there’s a limited shelf life if you focus on one item. It’s like diversifying stocks: if you focus too much on one item, eventually you’ll run out of people who want to try it. And then you need another hit item, and that becomes a very difficult model to sustain if you’re just trying to turn out one hit after another.”
At the same time, cooking for Instagram can provide a huge boost for long-established spots, just as much as it can for trendy pop-ups. “Let’s be honest… people love their #foodporn on Instagram,” says Kuoch of California Donuts. “So, when your products photograph well, make people hungry, and tell customers a little bit about your brand without you ever having to say anything… that’s magic right there.” California Donuts has seen the positive effects of Instagram in real-time, evolving from a small, family-run shop to a much larger team. They’re now constantly developing new designs and running a 24-hour kitchen to keep up with demand thanks to their popularity on IG.

It seems that with a smart marketing strategy, and dishes that not only look good, but taste good, chefs can use IG to consistently drive new business. “I think that we first eat with our eyes, then our nose and then our mouths,” says Aliza J. Sokolow, a former food stylist and founder of Poppyseed Agency, which handles the social media of some of LA’s biggest chefs. She sums it up: “The taste is always the end goal, but having a beautifully plated dish is always a plus. The chefs that I work with all create a dish for flavor first and take the opportunity from there to create a beautiful plate. Social media provides a free outlet of exposure to potential and regular patrons. It’s the best way to interact with potentially thousands of diners with just a push of a button.”

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9 Instagram-Worthy Food-Styling Tips From a Pro

5.25.2016

In the era of Instagram, food photography has reached an apex with restaurants, chefs, bloggers, influencers, and foodies utilizing the platform to share photos of their meals. Anyone with a smartphone can take an overhead image of perfectly manicured hands reaching for slices of pizza, but there’s a reason why we gravitate toward some photos over others. What moves us to follow a user so we don’t miss a single post?

In my experience shooting and styling food for some of the top chefs around the world, I’ve found a few key points to be the most important. Read on for nine tips to know before posting your next brunch shot on Instagram.

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2.12.16

BURNT SUGAR, BABY: THIS CHIC GRAPEFRUIT RECIPE IS EVERYTHING

We’re heating up the simplest breakfast ever. With a blowtorch. Try this simple kitchen trick for ultimate citrus satisfaction…

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Suzanne Hall, Photo credit: Yayo Ahumada

Food + Nutrition, Gluten Free, Healthy RecipesVegan

WE’RE NEVER NOT GOING to eat cremé brulee – but every weekend is a little much, don’t you think? We’re getting that same burnt sugar rush from this simple and chic breakfast (or dessert) idea from our gal, Aliza Sokolow. Aliza runs Poppyseed, the social media agency half of LA’s top restaurants turn to for well-styled social media feeds. We love picking Aliza’s brain for the best new food trends she’s loving. At the moment, she’s turning local farm, J.J.’s Lone Daughter Ranch’s top crop – these giant grapefruits – into a glamorous, caramelized treat (just one more reason why we love her!). We may have just found our next big farmer’s market addiction…

BRULEED GRAPEFRUIT WITH CARDAMOM

INGREDIENTS:

1 grapefruit

2 Tbsp brown sugar

sprinkle of cardamom

Supplies: a culinary blowtorch!

DIRECTIONS:

Slice the grapefruit in half and remove all the seeds. Cut a thin slice from the bottom to help stabilize the grapefruit. Cut around the perimeter to free up the segments.

Generously and evenly sprinkle brown sugar on top. Light handheld blow torch and with the tip of the flame held a couple inches from the grapefruit, move flame over the brown sugar until caramelized.

Sprinkle with cardamom powder and enjoy!

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MAY 15, 2015

Follow These Instagramers for the Best Farmers’ Market Photos Need to know what’s in season before you hit the market? A quick look at these accounts will tell you what to look for –

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Aliza J. Sokolow, founder Poppyseed Agency @alizajsokolow and @poppyseedagency Aliza is a former food stylist turned social media manager for chefs and restaurants. Every Wednesday you can find her, phone in hand, snapping overhead shots of a table of cherries or a sea of asparagus. She has a great eye and cheeky comments like #turnthatcherryout. – See more at: 

http://www.lamag.com/digestblog/follow-these-instagramers-for-the-best-farmers-market-photos/

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Aliza J Sokolow, 

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Taking her love for food styling and digital media, Aliza lauched her company Poppyseed Agency, as a way to provide chefs and restaurateurs with a platform to enhance their brand while  cooking. We’re lucky to call Aliza a close friend and excited to share her insight and expertise as our next Guest Editor!

What inspired you to start Poppyseed Agency?

I founded Poppyseed Agency almost 3 year ago after working in television as a food stylist. At that time, social media had just become something that chefs and restaurants were exploring as part of running their businesses. It was perfect timing and fulfills the passion I have for the food industry.

What’s the day-to-day life for a food stylist? What’s your favorite thing you’ve had a chance to style?

Every day is different. I am lucky enough to experience different facets of the restaurant and food industry- from front of the house to the farthest corner of the kitchen. I run social media, food style and do photography. You can often find me in the back of the house taking photos and getting yelled at on the line. I love to learn from the chefs that I work with. I am quite spoiled to learn from them.

My favorite food styling adventure is my work for McConnell’s Fine Ice Creams in Santa Barbara, CA. We are constantly creating new flavors and topping combos. It’s very colorful! I studied architecture & industrial engineering at UC Berkeley…I’ve chosen to use my design degree on the smallest scale.

I also loved my work on Jamie Oliver’s Emmy winning show Food Revolution, as well as Emmy Nominated Recipe Rehab.

 

It’s March! What are some of your favorite seasonal ingredients and preparations?

I am beyond excited for strawberries!!! I am going to make strawberry balsamic jam, roast them for pies and just eat them plain until I’m red in the face.

 

What’s the most important thing to throw a perfect dinner party?

I am a huge snacker and picker. Having a solid crudité platter and plenty of appetizers when I throw a dinner party is the key to success. I find it important to do a lot of prep so that I’m not feeling stressed to fire dishes while spending time with my guests. I always order flowers from Glasswing Floral in Downtown LA to set my table.  Simple and elegant presentations of fresh and simple dishes make for the best evening.

 

Aliza J Sokolow

What are some simple social tips and tricks food lovers could use? What restaurants or chefs get it right?

Chef Michael Fiorelli from Love & Salt in Manhattan Beach hits on the head – his dishes are each layered with elements that compliment the next course. At his restaurant I can make a sandwich out of the homemade English Muffins with the second course salad and then dip the remaining parts and my pizza crust into the in the house made salsa verde from the roasted cauliflower dish. It turns each meal into a true family meal. It’s a soulful experience that I haven’t felt anywhere else.

 

It’s Happy Hour. What’s your drink of choice?

Whiskey, rocks after work, margarita if I’m going out and Hitching Post 2 highliner if I’m at home.

 

Do you have a favorite local artisanal treat?

I love Compartes Chocolate American Dream bar. It is dark chocolate with rice crispies in it. The perfect amount of crunch. I always have to purchase a few bars when I go in to buy gifts, because I end up eating one the second I leave the shop. (Don’t judge me.)

 

If you could choose one of March’s featured ingredients to cook with, what would you choose and what would you make?

I would pour Bang Candy Co’s Strawberry Rhubarb Syrup on a stack of pancakes that I make on the weekends or pour some on a bowl of McConnell’s Fine Ice Creams w some Harry’s Berries strawberries. Now I am drooling, can I please have a spoon?

 

Aliza J Sokolow

Midnight snack of choice?

You assume I stay up that late… I always have a loaf of Suzanne Goin’s Larder Baking Company bread at home. I like to soak a slice in olive oil, grill it in the skilled and smother a heaping scoop of Vermont Creamery salted butter on top. I also love Peacock Family Farms fancy trailmix. I buy it every Wednesday at the Santa Monica Farmer’s Market. There is an amazing variety of mixed raisins, walnuts, pecans, dried peaches, and dried persimmons. It is the perfect balance of savory and not too sweet.

 

What social food trends do you think will be huge in 2015? What current trend are you over?

I love the cardamom trend that’s appeared in the last few months. I find the flavor intriguing and sultry.. I think that wine flavored desserts will pop up this year.

 

What’s up next for you? Any exciting culinary travels or ventures to share?

I’m shooting some more videos with my friends at leaf.tv, which i am excited about. There web series includes living, eating and fashion and I help with cooking skills videos. Here is the link to some fun videos I’ve filmed

I’m excited to be running the social media for LA Love’s Alex’s Lemonade for the 4th year. Mark your calendar for September 12th! 

 

Stay in touch with Aliza!

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