How food styling and presentation can elevate a dish beyond taste

When Jeannine Delwiche first coined the term “you eat with your eyes first” in her book Physiology & Behaviour, she wasn’t meaning literally. Delwiche was referring to the idea that visually absorbing something is proven to change how we taste and smell the food we see on our plates. Today, it’s an adage many chefs live by and a term that’s lead some of the most famous restaurants of the world to great success.

Gone are the days when you whip up a meal in a rush against the clock, present it to your customers and move onto the next order. With social media platforms such as Instagram, Pinterest and Facebook rising in popularity, ensuring meals are picture-perfect, while also remaining flavoursome, has never been more important. The obsession with taking a snap of your meal and sharing it on social media is increasing with popularity with the hashtag for “food porn” collecting over 197 million images on Instagram alone. The hashtag for food photography also has a large following with over 37.7 million posts of beautifully plated meals.

And while those figures continue to grow at a fast pace, it’s been proven by those already following the food presentation trend that styling and presentation plays a vital role in igniting interest in potential restaurant customers. Meals arranged with purpose, regardless of how fancy they look, are known to attract the attention of those who haven’t been to the venue before. For example, a 15-component sorbet dessert arranged like a Van Gogh masterpiece or even a simple bowl of golden fried fish, crispy hot chips and glistening tartar sauce will reap more interest than if thrown carelessly into an oily takeaway container.

When it comes to the meals you serve in your restaurant, first impressions count. Knowing how to effectively plate your food is crucial to making your customers fall in love with it before even taking the first bite. While visual appeal does little to change the actual flavour of a golden crispy-skinned salmon, a colourful salad or a nicely charred steak, composition and colour can artificially transform ordinary tasting meals into Michelin star masterpieces.

With the rise in popularity of Instagram and food blogs, the importance of food styling and its effect on the success of restaurants and cafés has only increased through time. Consumers are not only using photo-sharing sites and accounts to share images of the meals they’ve ordered at restaurants; they’re turning to digital imagery to assist in selecting meal options before they even visit a venue. A recent study undertaken by UK Italian restaurant chain Zizzi revealed 18-25-year-old millennials spend around five days of a year browsing restaurants and food imagery on Instagram. The same study showed 30 per cent of respondents would not visit a restaurant if they had a weak digital presence or their food imagery didn’t spark interest. From the same study, people were prepared to pay upwards of three times more when dishes were arranged thoughtfully. For instance, a steak sliced horizontally to reveal its perfectly cooked centre had more value to the consumer than a fillet served straight off the grill.

Food styling on Instagram is no new concept. Many Australian restaurants have watched their Instagram following grow into the millions since the app first launched in 2010. Take The Boat House Group for instance; a thriving restaurant chain who’ve seen their following climb to over 80,000 since they first posted in 2012. Their posts feature stunning images of locally sourced produce, colour-coordinated meals and coastal settings that followers have come to appreciate as quintessentially ‘them’. Byron Bay Hotel and Bar Rae’s is another example of how food styling can assist in the success of a restaurant. Their 35,000-member following regularly sees images of ice-cold gin and tonics, toasted meringue desserts and vibrant salads float down their Instagram feed. Effective visualisation of food through amplified social media marketing can build trust and attract more customers to your restaurant purely based on the inviting images they’ve seen on their newsfeed.

"A lot of people come in and ask about dishes because they've seen it online. It also helps attract international diners,” said owner and chef of Oran in Adelaide, Jock Zonfrillo. He stressed the impact image-sharer Instagram has had to his restaurant’s bottom-line when he spoke to the Australian Financial review. While his Twitter account has over 13,500 Twitter followers, he’s explained he uses social media statistics to forecast what could and won’t work before it’s too late in the season. One of the most ‘liked’ dishes across his social media channels include kohlrabi, dorrigo, quandong and lemon myrtle dish and it so happens to be the one his customers ask for the most.

For restaurants and cafes operating in such a digitally saturated environment, food styling and presentation can boost profit in more ways than one. Restaurants can experiment with images of new meal ideas by posting on their website or social media channels. They can then gauge its response to predict how it might fare in the real world. Consistent content can also build rapport with Instagrammers, increasing your account following and growing your brand awareness. The simple fact is, customers are more inclined to eat at restaurants they’re familiar with than those they are not.

In the hospitality industry, first impressions count and matter. Thoughtful presentation through styling, both on and off social media, doesn’t have to be complicated but it does have to be purposeful. Achieve this in your restaurant and you may just find it’s a great way to connect with customers, fuel creativity and add to your bottom line.

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