My Rouses Everyday, May & June 2018
It’s long been said that anyone sitting down to dinner (or breakfast, or a midnight snack) “eats with their eyes” before even a morsel of food touches the lips — a testament to the importance of tantalizing the visual sense before satiating the palate.
Never before, though, has this adage been more relevant than in today’s world of food-loving social media. Sharing selfies on Facebook while whipping up a meal or snapping jealousy-inspiring shots from the latest restaurant opening on Snapchat has become de rigueur, and an integral part of everyday life for culinary enthusiasts. After all, if you eat a gorgeous steak dinner and don’t Instagram about it, did it really even happen?
But the rise of social media dominance hasn’t just changed how people cook at home or enjoy a night out. The influence of these online platforms has also dramatically impacted chefs, who now must create delicious, stunning meals while operating the ins and outs of running a restaurant — all while keeping up with a public social media presence.
“As a chef, the key to success in social media — like with anything — is dialogue,” says Chef Sean “Poochie” Rivera of GastreauxNomica in Baton Rouge, whose “gorilla-heart-gorilla” emoji combination has become something of an online signature. “You start off by commenting on posts from chefs you admire, and see how their audience responds to them, and then figure out what your audience likes. Sometimes, it’s almost easier to build a relationship via social media than person-to-person.”
Chef Jay Ducote of Baton Rouge, who finished as runner-up on Food Network Star in 2015, agrees.
“Social media has given every chef the ability to reach an audience and share their passion. It allows chefs out there to really expose themselves and get [their food] out there other than just through word-of-mouth and traditional media,” Ducote notes. “It also allows followers and foodies to interact with chefs in a way they never could before at more traditional places. Now, even on a local level, you can have ‘celebrity chefs’ that people follow, and through social media they can understand where the chef and their passion are coming from. I think we’re going to see it increase more and more.”
For restaurateur Larry Miller — who co-owns New Orleans’ Compère Lapin and Bywater American Bistro with his wife, Chef Nina Compton — social media is a “therapeutic” way to explore and capture the beauty of the city’s culinary traditions.
“Using social media is really just a way for me to experience the town and show off all the amazing food we have here,” says Miller, who often snaps hilarious photos of himself with legendary chef Frank Brigtsen of Brigtsen’s Restaurant. “Whether it’s a super high-end meal, or the crummiest late-night po-boy that is still completely delicious, I’ll post a picture of it all.”
But even culinary pros occasionally play favorites with the foods they want to make social media darlings. For Miller, crawfish and shrimp take top billing as the favorite-to-photograph ingredient because of the inherent pop of color they add to a dish. Ducote, on the other hand, has an affection for tacos.
“The way that tacos are built when you make them open-faced can be beautiful to photograph,” says Ducote. “If you garnish them right, you can make sure that texture, height and flavors are evident even in the picture.”
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And in this era when everyone — from chefs to dining enthusiasts — is continuously posting photos of their latest cheese plate or over-the-top dessert to social media channels, what advice do professional food photographers have for snap-happy amateurs?
“It’s important to consider the context of the food you’re photographing,” says Rush Jagoe, a photographer based in New Orleans. “You have to think about the inspiration for it: the chef and the story that they’re trying to tell with the food. If possible, it makes a big impact to try and incorporate the things that were important to the chef in making the dish into the photo. It helps tell that story.”
A seasoned culinary photographer, Jagoe’s captured everything from plate lunches to oyster shucking, and served as the photographer for James Beard Award-winner Alon Shaya’s recently released cookbook, Shaya.
“When you’re photographing food, some things are easy and beautiful, especially if there’s this incredible sculptural plate of food that a chef spent years understanding how to make. But sometimes, it’s just red beans and rice. Some people scoff at that and say, ‘You can’t take a pretty picture of beans!’ That’s not true. It’s all about the textures on the plate and how they interact to make a pretty composition.”
For Lafayette’s Denny Culbert — a culinary photographer with an equally illustrious resume — the importance of getting the correct lighting can’t be overstated.
“The most important tip from a technical standpoint for taking food photographs is to not mix light sources. For example, if you’re using window light as your primary light source (which I recommend), try to block out the light from the restaurant with a menu or a napkin.”
One of Culbert’s latest ventures has been working on Chef Isaac Toups’ new book, Chasing the Gator: Isaac Toups and the New Cajun Cooking, which will be released this October.
“Honestly, though, my best advice is to work quickly, so that you can still enjoy your food in the state that the chef intended it to be eaten. As a food photographer, I don’t get that luxury, so I end up seeing a lot more beautiful food than I ever get to actually taste!”
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Then, there are the trailblazers. Back when the all-consuming impact of social media — threaded tweets, Snapchat stories and all — was just a twinkle in the eye of a budding online influencer, a first-generation wave of food bloggers were already laying the groundwork for new ways of sparking discussion, sharing recipes and conjuring up serious mealtime envy for anyone with a mouse and keyboard.
“My whole life I’ve been obsessed with food,” says Amanda Gibson, owner of Lemon Baby, a blog that helps readers tackle even the trickiest of recipes with confidence. “When I was a child, my parents once came home to find me wrapping shrimp in snow peas because I had seen it in a Martha Stewart cookbook. I was obsessed with Martha Stewart. I poured over pictures of canapés — which I guess 7-year-olds shouldn’t be doing — but I was enamored with how beautiful food can be.”
The Mobile-based blogger, who launched her first blog, Mixing in Mobile, in 2009, created her current online outpost in 2016, and has since become a go-to resource for all things local and seasonal along the Gulf Coast.
“I tend to take things that intimidate people and show them that it’s not that scary. For example, French macarons. They can be so finicky! But with practice, you can definitely make them. You just have to have a little bit of confidence.”
Similar to social media, blogs that follow the tenets of high-quality online content — gorgeous photos, personality-driven prose, a unique voice — tend to gain legions of loyal readers and fans, each hungrier than the last for the next post.
“Like a lot of bloggers who have been in [the business] for eight years or more, I actually started with coupons,” says Rachel Mouton of Acadiana Thrifty Mom in Lafayette. “Extreme couponing was popular then, and I ran the website for a small group of coupon people. One day, the local news station called, and after I went on there, then I ended up being the ‘Coupon Lady’ on Good Morning Acadiana. It kind of snowballed.”
Today, the Acadiana Thrifty Mom blog — which offers everything from meal-planning tips and budget-friendly culinary crafts, to Instant Pot recipes and weekly roundups of grocery store sale items — boasts a whopping 88,000 Facebook fans (and counting).
“I try to help people learn how to shop for what’s inexpensive based on what’s in season and what to stock up on right now,” explains Mouton. “I also share a lot of recipes created on a budget that cater to working moms. I have two full-time jobs, so I understand what it’s like to be in that position. You want your family to have a good, home-cooked meal, but you also want to save money. In a lot of ways, [the blog] just came out of necessity.”
And while Rachel’s passion focuses on bettering the culinary financial health of families, Emilie Hebert of Emilie Eats in Baton Rouge is dedicated to educating her readers through recipes that promote a healthier nutritional lifestyle.
“Emilie Eats came about because of my passion for promoting a plant-based diet and healthy living,” explains Hebert, a 21-year-old student and aspiring dietitian with 62,000 Instagram followers. “The recipes on the blog are vegan, but they’re definitely accessible to everyone.”
And even though Hebert lives in a city and region better associated with meat- and seafood-heavy dishes than veggie burgers, she contends that there’s an elegant way to fuse together classic Cajun dishes with vegan ingredients.
“A favorite recipe of mine on the blog is when I took my grandpa’s jambalaya and made it vegan. All it really took was substituting in some vegan sausage — the rest of the ingredients already worked!”
And if you’re feeling inspired to gather up your cherished family recipes and launch a blog after reading this — or step up your dinnertime photography game to Instagram-star status — the people who have been there, done that have a bit of advice.
“I get questions all the time where people say, ‘How can you help me start a blog?’ Then they realize how much work it is, and I never hear from them again,” laughs Mouton.
Assuredly, it takes plenty of sweat equity to make an online presence seem effortless. But like most challenges worth tackling in life, with enough passion — and a whole lot of heart — there can be an entire world (literally) of people out there able to benefit from your culinary knowledge and enthusiasm.
“New bloggers need to keep in mind that growth is slow, and you need to keep at it,” says Gibson. “It can seem at first like you’re throwing everything into the abyss — even with social media. But if you keep at it, your interest in what you’re writing about will be evident, and people will be attracted to it. They’ll be able to see the person behind the blog.”
“It’s all about really caring and being honest,” concurs Hebert. “If you have the passion for what you’re doing, people will notice.”