We eat with our eyes. Visually captivating dishes build anticipation for diners and make them share-worthy on social media.  What’s on the table is what’s going to end up on Instagram, so for chefs and restaurant owners hoping to harness the power of social media, tabletop presentation is key to attracting new customers.

The so-called ‘Instagram effect’ is changing the way restaurateurs look at design. The shift to social media as the main communication channel instead of traditional advertising has created a new need to keep tabletops looking fresh to stay atop of emerging trends.

Restaurateurs have to think visually to create appealing tables. Even lighting becomes a consideration in the world of food photography: the romantic dim-lit ambiance is now sometimes replaced with brighter lights that enable diners to photograph their food easily.

Food trends reflect the online hunger for bright contrasts, from charcoal activated ice cream and ‘unicorn’ rainbow doughnuts, to monochromatic dishes with pops of colour. Whilst colour is one consideration for chefs, the visual flow of a dish can be influenced by everything from the texture to the size of the ingredients.

We spoke to some of Vancouver’s top chefs and photographers to find out how they approach the art of plating to create attractive dishes. Felix Zhou, chef and co-owner of Vancouver’s Heritage Asian Eatery, considers visuals when making his menu. “Instagram and the rise of food photography is something I keep in mind when designing my dishes,” says Chef Zhou. “There is so much information being shared every day and social media is a great tool for chefs to not only show off their work to a larger audience but also see how others are approaching food in restaurants around the world.”

Chef Zhou takes a methodical approach to placement of parts of the dish. “When plating a dish, I start by focusing on the main component,” he says. “If it’s a salmon dish, for example, I want the fish to be the first thing that catches your eye. From there, I’ll lay out the remaining ingredients, keeping in mind the importance of texture and height to create visual interest and flow. Finally, I always want there to be a strong element of colour to keep the plate looking vibrant and interesting.”  

Chef David Hawksworth, of Vancouver’s Hawksworth Restaurant, Nightingale, and Bel Cafe, is renowned for his immaculate plating and attention to detail (pictured above). For him, when it comes to food photography, it’s important to consider which ingredients will work on camera.  “As far as plate composition goes, if you are taking pictures of the food, then I prefer to go with fish or vegetables,” says Chef Hawksworth. “The vibrancy of the vegetables seems to work out well but meat never seems to look good. Also keeping it simple is best. Less is more.”

Vancouver-based freelance food-and-lifestyle photographer, branding specialist, and visual storyteller, Leila Kwok, agrees that less is more when it comes to food styling: “An appealing dish is when the simplicity of it shines, with the ingredients being showcased on carefully selected dishware. The contrast of colour, the textures, and the organic flow of each ingredient is what makes a visually attractive plate. It is like art but at the same time, it also needs to be relatable to its audience.”

Mijune Pak is an international food personality and creator of FollowMeFoodie.com. She was featured as one of “The World’s Most Extreme Foodies” in The Sunday Times and named “Must Follow” by The Social Media Awards, she is also a resident judge on Food Network Canada’s Top Chef Canada. “Plating can be tricky, and as cliche as it is, ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’.  A lot of family-style ethnic food or one-pot wonders may not look appetizing to one person, but look delicious to another,” says Mijune Pak. “However,  in terms of ‘fine dining’ plating, it depends because plating is like fashion, trends go in and out of style and while classic is classic, it can get dated and boring.”

“Traditionally people love seeing colour, but a couple years ago we saw the ‘monochromatic colour scheme’ in food plating. Currently, it’s all about precision and ‘scaling’ (where ingredients are layered on top one another),” she says. “Plating isn’t just about throwing things on a plate, there’s technique and it needs to be practiced. I’m okay with any plating trend, as long as it makes sense on the palate as well. Food should be plated in a way it’s also expected to be eaten. Don’t plate purely for aesthetic, unless you’re doing a showpiece.”

Colour is an essential element of tabletop design for social media. Whilst food needs to be colourful to catch the eye, this means that plain white plates are making a comeback as they make it easier for the food to ‘pop’. Off-white, grey and taupe plates are back in vogue again as they showcase plated food well. Second-hand or vintage plates are a ‘hipster’ aesthetic that also works as a way of encouraging photography of food.

Cutlery is another consideration for restauranteurs — it’s often bought in bulk so opportunities for individualism are limited but using locally sourced materials or local artisans to create cutlery can turn it into a focal point of the table. This is especially true for restaurants specializing in local food as it ties in nicely with the food philosophy.

Pretty Bird Cocktail

Photo by Luis Valdizon

Getting the right glassware can also attract social media attention — vintage cocktail glasses are making a comeback, with the mismatched aesthetic proving popular in Vancouver’s cocktail bars from Mamie Taylor’s in Chinatown to Gastown’ L’Abattoir. High-end cocktails bring a theatrical element to tabletops and creative concoctions can create a cult following. The Botanist Cocktail Lab in the Fairmont Pacific Rim hotel in Vancouver presents shared cocktails in quirky glassware, from the Pretty Bird cocktail of gin, berries, seeds and bubbles on a bird nest (above) to the Deep Cove, which comes in a beautiful glass on local driftwood and features Island Gin, sea buckthorn and green algae.

Presentation and plating are essential ways of capturing the eyes of potential customers via social media. With attention to detail — from colours of ingredients to choice of dishware  — you can help your customers eat with their eyes, and with their Smartphones, so they want to share the experience on social media.

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Plating trends for 2018

Olive oil poached halibut

Photo by Luis Valzidon

What are the latest trends for plating this year? We take a look at major food trends and the art of designing dishes…

Looking for Instagram-worthy tableware? Foodservice & Hospitality looks at the latest trends in everything from plates to glasses.

Bright colours can make or break a dish, here Foodable takes a look at the importance of plating and presentation in a social-media-driven world.

Precision plating is the new way to give Insta-friendly composition to dishes, according to the Art of Plating —  scale effects, layers, molds spirals and fan shapes are all new techniques for 2018.

How do you make your food go viral? Eater takes an in-depth look at how restauranters create food that becomes an Instagram sensation.

Author Trish Hudson

Trish is the owner and principal at Holistic Hospitality Solutions. She aims to help assess her clients operations from top to bottom in order to gain efficiencies, save money, and increase their bottom line.

More posts by Trish Hudson