The hashtag #freakshake on Instagram has around 65,000 posts. OK, so freakshakes are a little 2016 but if you want to know what they are, just picture the entire contents of a milk bar exploding onto a milkshake. That includes, but is not limited to, fairy floss, macarons, warm brownies and, inexplicably, a packet of Skittles still in the plastic packet. It's hard to know if these taste any good, but they belong to the same family as Unicorn Frappuccinos: the way they taste is beside the point. It's all about the way they Instagram, Snapchat or hashtag. Consider other food trends around Melbourne. For a while, it was smoothies in mason jars. Now it's poke bowls. Has there ever been a more perfect food to photograph, when the whole thing is splayed out and can be shot from above?
Here's the potential problem. Melbourne has always been Australia's unofficial foodie capital, with its colourful, chaotic markets and fabulous restaurants. From the retro interior and spaghetti bolognese of Pellegrini's to Italian at Caffe E Cucina, or quintessential French at France-Soir, these stalwarts of Melbourne dining are much-loved. Chef Paul Wilson has just opened up his brasserie Wilson & Market in South Yarra. While he loves Melbourne, he is worried that those long-standing treasures are in danger. "I moved here 15 years ago, and it was exciting every day – [the restaurants were] so refreshing and so local and so talented. Now it's a bit like a homogenised rollercoaster, and I don't know what city I'm in, sometimes."
Social media hasn't just affected the Melbourne food industry – the global dining landscape has shifted. Renowned chef Jacques Reymond doesn't need social media to promote his profile, having run his restaurant in Melbourne for over a quarter of a century, but he has witnessed significant change. "Youth today … don't go to a restaurant unless they can show everyone what they ate, what they drank, what they saw there. There is no more individuality and personality. And so [many] restaurants don't last very long – they only last while people talk about it, and that's it … Do you honestly believe in the past five years that there has been an evolution of food in Melbourne? I think there's been a degradation, very strongly, and that's only due to that thing we call social media."
It's true that parts of Melbourne are starting to look like Anywhere Town. Dive eateries specialising in American fried chicken (a few years ago it was barbecue) are popping up regularly. Omnipresent, too, are the neon signs inside, declaring some cutesy slogan for selfie-slayers.
Instagammer Robert McKay, together with wife Jane, runs I Eat Melbourne and they have over 93,000 followers. Although he works full-time as a lawyer, McKay's foray into social media began four years ago, when "I had a thriving interest in food, and I loved sharing my experience and discussing food. Instagram was a personal platform; I'd put up a picture and I'd get two likes. But through developing our imagery and through the versatility of going to different places, we were able to build it to what it is today." It has changed the playing field for restaurants, too, who "rather than going through expensive avenues of advertising, can build an audience and interact with customers who are yet to walk through their door". McKay sees this as a natural fit with Melbourne's population, saying: "We have always had that laneway culture of wanting to discover hidden gems, and now we have more places that people can find."
But are they finding them based on their food or their Instagrammability? McKay admits that "particularly in cafe culture, a lot of cafes will build a menu around Instagram and want their dish to look appealing. So you can get fairy floss at breakfast time on your creme brulee-flavoured bircher muesli. It has gone to extremes …[but] at the end of the day, I see social media as a positive space. We don't put reviews on our page, just content."
And therein lies one problem. Traditional media food critics come to the job with experience, an understanding of food history and an unwillingness to please anyone but the potential reader. There are no freebies involved. TV and radio's Jules Lund, who's also the founder of influencer business Tribe, sees a valid role for Instagrammers. "What I love about social media is that it's a celebration. If it's not good, they don't post it and shit-can it."
The difficulty is that the reverse is true: social media "influencers" also routinely post about a place that they're being paid to post about. Although they will claim that they only post about places they like – and current regulations force them to indicate they're being paid via hashtags such as "ad" and "sponsor" – it's a murky area.
Ash Pollard can see both sides of the equation. A home cook who appeared on My Kitchen Rules (and more recently on I'm A Celebrity…Get Me Out Of Here!), she's also an influencer with over 60,000 Instagram followers. She balks at eateries that try to spruik their wares via paying off celebrity Instagrammers. "There's one cafe using Instagram models to market their venues, and they're just targeting young people who are easily influenced by young models and who want to go where these people are eating. I can understand it from a business perspective, but I don't want to go to places like that. I'm just into simple home cooking that's done well. I don't want 63 degree poached eggs with a sprinkling of gold on top." However, she doesn't feel despondent about the Melbourne food scene. "Here in Melbourne, I don't think I'll ever be able to eat at every amazing restaurant before I die, even if I ate breakfast, lunch and dinner out for every meal until then."
Not every new restaurant subscribes to the idea that it has to be influencer-friendly. Simon Blacher is the co-owner of Asian hotspots Hanoi Hannah, Saigon Sally and Tokyo Tina. His food is often playful – the sushi comes in cones, looking like ice-cream at Tokyo Tina, for example. But Blacher's latest restaurant in Windsor, Neptune, is a return to basics: delicious Mediterranean food in an elegant, simple eating space. Blacher says that the menu "is not made to be pretty; it's supposed to be delicious. We wanted to create an environment where there's not meant to be an Instagrammable moment – there doesn't need to be every time you go out. People have been going out to restaurants for years, and social media is a very new way of measuring your success and relevance. But in essence, you should be measuring success and popularity through having repeat customers and people through your door."
He's not scared of bucking the current trend. "When people are engaged with their environment and having a great time, they're less likely to grab their phones. The best nights you've ever had are the ones you've never captured a picture of."
Foodie snaps, he says, can be a kitchen's nemesis: "You see people taking 10 minutes to take photos of their food, rather than eating it at the very moment it's meant to be enjoyed. And after they've taken photos of their food from chairs for 10 minutes, they'll complain that their soup is cold!"
That said, he knows social media has its place. "I have a full-time social media co-ordinator whose job it is to build the brands we've created and communicating with our existing customer base. Used in the right way, it can be very powerful."
Nor is he worried about the direction that Melbourne is headed in, saying that "I think Melbourne is the f---ing best. Everyone is doing good things."
Dessert chef Christy Tania sees how social media can both help a chef's profile and detract from their greater goal. She got her start in a very modern way: even though she was trained in France and later moved to Australia from her birthplace of Indonesia, most people know her from TV's MasterChef. She was indoctrinated into social media after "I heard about a few chefs with 100,000 followers and asked, 'What does it do?' If you ask me, it's more for ego, more for vanity, and they get a lot of freebies. Even I have gotten people asking me to use skin products and advertise clothes – I refused, because it took away from who I am ...[Also], there are a lot of chefs who have so many followers – not because of their cooking, but because of their lifestyle."
These days, a well-known chef can easily get a gig as a luxury brand ambassador. But as Tania points out: "You [shouldn't] want to be a chef because you want a free car or a business class trip to Aruba – you want to be a chef because you want to cook … you have to work immensely hard."
When Tania scrolls through Instagram she notices that "there are a lot of people with mounds of jellies on their cronuts or fairy floss on their pancakes, and I wonder, 'Does it actually taste good?' It's true that you eat first with your eyes, but have we taken it too far? It's like Coco Chanel said: when a lady goes out of the house, you take one thing off. That's how I feel about my dish – with too many things, it's not a feast for the eyes. On the other hand, [social media] is a very effective and efficient platform. It basically makes it free to cross the border – to get known cross-country, and known widely. But Instagram doesn't [always] translate to business; it [mainly] translates to exposure and coverage."
For chef Paul Wilson (Wilson & Market), the biggest downside to social media is the regular punter's ability to decimate an establishment with a few ill-chosen words. "It's a very tough and emotional business, and opinions which aren't considered are very detrimental to the business and people's mental health ... Journalists are educated people who understand the moral compass, and what you can and can't stay. Young hipsters who want to make some sort of impact in a career where they don't really have – how do I put it politely? – the integrity to research and learn, shouldn't have an opinion, I think."
But he sums up this Brave New Food World well, when he says, "For someone who is very now and progressive, social media is fantastic. If you're old-school professional and you're so fixated with what you've always done, and so proud – you're in a world of pain. It's changing whether you like it or not. We have to embrace it."
Natural lighting is best for food snaps. Photo: Eddie Jim
Let's face it: you're going to keep snapping away at your food at restaurants, so here are some tips on how to do it so it doesn't interfere with other diners.
1. Decide on one snap. Unless you're an aspiring food influencer, you don't have to Instagram every meal, or every corner of the dining room. These days, many restaurants have a photo-friendly corner. Brand new Lillie Cafe in Windsor has a fish tank, and Gilson's open-air bar in South Yarra is light pink. Coe & Coe in Cremorne has been commissioning street artists to paint their outside walls (Donald Trump with your latte?).
2. Robert McKay of Insta account I Eat Melbourne, which has 94,000 followers, says lighting is crucial and natural lighting is best. "Avoid flash if you can, for etiquette reasons."
3. Develop a consistent style. McKay says to "be clever with captions and consistent with the style and editing of your photography. If people can see content and instantly recognise it as yours, you are on the right track."
4. Download a photo-enhancing app. Foodie was designed especially to take Insta-worthy photos of food, but perennial favourites such as Afterlight and Filtergrid can also help. Edit at home, when your meal is done; there's no rule that says you can't delay posts by two hours.
5. Think before you snap. Is an overhead shot best, using the cutlery and tablecloth as part of your photo? Or do you photograph from an angle, to get background scenery? Does your audience want to see what you've eaten, or where you are? If you think it through before taking out your phone, you'll cause minimal disruption.