Social Media and The World of Food
This article, published in Business Day’s Wanted Lifestyle Magazine spans just under 7 months of research, 3 of which were spent in Europe where I interviewed people I met at dinner parties, lunches arranged at restaurants, coffee in parks and dinners in their own homes. I met strangers and old friends and we hashed out the topic bloggers and the new media love discussing: social media. And, as you probably predicted, I made many of these connections using social media: twitter in particular.
I wanted to find out how it’s changed the way we (food writers, bloggers, cooks, chefs) communicate. Are we using different platforms in different countries or are we all on a even keel? What can we learn from each other, what are the pitfalls, I wondered. This study focussed on Istanbul, Athens, London, Lisbon and I also connected with people in Paris and Warsaw while I was there and extensively in South Africa.
Mike Sharman of Retroviral provides some invaluable tips for food bloggers and businesses in the food industry on how to use the different platforms, in South Africa, for maximum benefit.
If you’re keen to read the entire article, this is my original (unedited) copy:
The Instagram Generation- Eating with our Eyes
Never before has food been so photographed, written and talked about. Some New York restaurants have even attempted to ban cameras. Social media has shrunk the world and become the conduit for chefs, bloggers, home-cooks and eaters to get recommendations, share meals or lust after them. Ishay Govender-Ypma spoke to a number of food personalities about this global phenomenon on her recent travels across Europe.
I spend the ten minutes before I meet Ansel Mullins of award winning food travel blog Istanbul Eats, and founder of Culinary Backstreets food tours, in awe. We’ve arranged an early evening meet at the modern terrace bar of the Marmara Hotel in the old Pera district. The panoramic views over Istanbul – domed mosques, some now the crumbling vestiges of a former glory, the glassy Marmara sea and the Golden Horn holding the glow of the setting sun, demand my attention. I lift my drink to my lips, lost in tales of conquest and bravery, romance and splendour. A group of noisy patrons stand next to me, piercing the bubble. I’m brought back to reality. I reach for my mobile phone, permanently in my right hand these days and take a few pictures, looking for the best angles to frame the view. These images will be posted in various ways – a tweet, a collage on instagram, a Facebook update later that evening. And much later still, a post on my blog to give context to a recipe.
I travel to eat. I travel to meet the people who make the food and the people who are as preoccupied with it as I am. To make headway of what seems will be a lifelong task of trying to understand the powerful connection between food and culture, this is why I travel. But, every so often my breath and imagination are captured, not by the plate before me but by a sight the guidebooks say (or don’t say) you should take in. Istanbul will do that to you, and Ansel Mullins knows only too well.
Mullins and his now wife moved to Istanbul from Chicago in 2001 when Turkey was undergoing a new surge in opportunity and interest. “It quickly became home,” he says. But today, we aren’t meeting to discuss the splendour that is Istanbul. I want to chat to Mullins about Istanbul Eats, the popular blog he runs with co-founder and journalist Yigal Schleifer. It received the well respected best culinary travel blog award by Saveur in 2012 and is punted as a ‘serious eater’s guide’. I had been on one of the tours, a half day walking exploration with some serious eating in between, I can verify.
Born out of the desire to write about a culinary scene that wasn’t being adequately represented, the blog and later the Culinary Backstreets walks came to be. Since our chat, the walks have expanded to include Barcelona, Shanghai, Mexico city and Athens.
Mullins smiles shyly when I mention the number of twitter followers the Istanbul Eats account has (just under 37 500 on my last check). “ References get passed around so quickly on twitter,” he says.
I am well aware that references are not very easily passed around. Twitter accounts rarely mushroom like viral videos, unless they belong to celebrities and newsmakers or by twist of fate. The official account of the el Bulli Foundation had 9510 twitter followers on my last count. To clarify, the account represents the father of molecular gastronomy Ferran Adria and his current education centre linked to his former Michelin 3 star restaurant, a number one restaurant as judged by the S. Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants. el Bulli held the number one spot for five years, the last being 2010. That shifts the focus into harsh perspective.
Istanbul Eats not only covers a popular food destination, destinations now with the other cities added on, but generates the type of content by way of blog posts, video and images that people want to share.
The Istanbul Eats twitter account is managed between Mullins and his partner Schleifer, based in the States. Their focus so far, it would seem, is fixed on the quality of content and the walking tours. Their book Istanbul Eats: Exploring the Culinary Backstreets, published in 2010 and covers a carefully curated selection of evergreen restaurants and vendors. The new Istanbul Eats iphone application or app called Culinary Backstreets, touted as a ‘hotline for the hungry traveller’ and developed after a year of reading and analysing readers’ comments pushes the duo into the glittery forefront of the social media cutting-edge. It costs R39, 99, my most expensive phone app to date.
With walking tours in other food traffic-heavy destinations, it’s only a matter of time that Culinary Backstreets will release corresponding phone apps.
Istanbul, Barcelona, Mexico City, Shanghai and Athens are in themselves, feasts for the senses and I don’t foresee the very new Instagram and Pinterest accounts of Istanbul Eats remaining as anonymous as they are currently.
People eat with their eyes, and love sharing this with the world.
How do you fix an appointment with busy, very socially active London food bloggers? While that may sound like the start of the new-age riddle, all I can say is that easy, it is not. Many have schedules as intense as the professional travel bloggers, planning them more than a year and a half in advance.
I was really pleased though, to communicate via email and in person with a few well respected bloggers, and we gathered close to the old Spitalfields market at the casual Canteen restaurant. Upon arrival, our table was still occupied by a brunching family, a potentially nerve wracking moment in the presence of unknown food bloggers. There are a few things most food bloggers do not tolerate at restaurants, I have noted during my time in the trenches. Being made to wait, muddling orders, rude service and getting the bill wrong could end up with swift action taken to the top. A scathing blog post, even. So far, we were off to a grand start, I thought nervously. Luckily we were ushered to another bench and we set about bridging the online gap and the transition to real life interaction took flight.
“The London food blogging scene is hard to break through” confides Jackie Lee, blogger at I am a Feeder, freelance writer, photographer, caterer and full time student at Leith’s, as she lists the Twitter Rules she abides by.
Twitter Etiquette for Beginners, by Ms Jackie Lee
- Don’t share very personal or painful details about your family
- No profanity
- Don’t be malicious about others in the industry
- Engage and respond to questions and comments
- Keep to the 25% only self-promotion rule (blog posts etc)
“There are no rules,” counters Eu Wen Teh, who writes about food eaten in London and on his travels at A Rather Unusual Chinaman. Teh is also known for his outspoken views on ‘certain bloggers’ and his charismatic tweets on the bus after long nights out. He knows about the soft openings to many new restaurants before most and has an enviable list of baby-you-need-a-key bars around the city. My assessment is that Teh skirts controversy with playful ease and is well liked for the big personality he brings into the room. Teh started the blog as a method to heal after a period of serious illness.
“Twitter lets you communicate with people whom you would never have had the opportunity to meet,” he adds. I think about my own circle of food and wine friends in Cape Town, many of whom I engaged with first on twitter or at twitter gatherings and have to agree.
Ed Smith, of Rocket & Squash has cycled in to meet us at Canteen. A former lawyer who at that stage was about to embark on an accelerated chef course at Westminster Kingsway college, he is lean and reserved. Smith has since completed the course with top honours and cooked for a pop-up event called Supper Club Summit. I’ve followed Smith’s progress at college and later during the August supper club via the images he posts on Instagram. It’s quite obvious that he has found his niche.
We chat about the local and organic food movement – a favourite topic amongst food bloggers the world over. “ You’ve got to be realistic, “ he says, “I eat less protein now than I did before, but the best quality I can buy.”
I press him for his future plans but he holds the cards close to his chest. I recognise the sensible lawyer in me too and let him be. I see a well respected food writer in our midst. I’ll be rooting for Ed and watching his progress via one of the social media channels, at least.
“It’s like high school all over again” says Su-Lin lightheartedly when we chat about twitter. I think about the South African Twitter timeline and remember what another London blogger friend once said to me about politics manifesting all over the world, in every circle and community. Twitter is essentially a microcosm representing personalities you may not have otherwise met. Petty conflict and clashes are bound to ensue, to the embarrassment (or amusement) of others.
Su-Lin and I are in Islington and take shelter from the drizzle in a café close to Ottolenghi’s flagship restaurant. A researcher at a local university, Su-Lin is, in her own words, ‘borderline obsessed with food’.
She started to share images of food and other things on Flickr way back in 2001 as a message to her family abroad that she was fine and surviving in London. Her blog Tamarind and Thyme Cooking and Eating Well in London without going Broke was a slow but natural progression from the images she posted and has remained in the top-blog lists over the years. Home cooked meals, restaurant finds, press trips and holiday travel meals are what feature on Tamarind and Thyme.
Su-Lin enthusiastically shares her lunches and meals on Instagram and her images maintain a natural, unstyled and unfussy look. We agree that twitter can be an intimidating place but a great way to connect with others in the global food community.
Su-Lin dashes off to the next meeting and as the rain pours down I wish I had asked about the nearest Metro stop. But, I have an app on my phone and the café has wi-fi.
Cookery shows and competitions on television, celebrity chefs and the internet have changed the way we consume food – more people are thinking about preparing food, techniques and dining out than previous generations. An article in Food Study Design last year, revealed that 50% of consumers pick up cooking skills and food knowledge via Twitter and Facebook and 40% via blogs and on the Internet.
I chatted to Chef Neil Armstrong, a lecturer at Le Cordon Bleu in London, who’s spent the last 15 years in culinary education, about students today. All of the students in his class have been exposed to some extent to television and the Internet and their expectations of the industry are influenced by that.
“Overload is a challenge. Celebrity media has resulted in somewhat romanticised and reductive expectations of what this industry really is about,” Armstrong says in reference to current students
Still, there has been a 25% increase in culinary student enrollment and television and the Internet have some part to play in that.
As we tour the school and the classrooms, Armstrong reveals that cell phones are switched off during class and he’d much prefer students learned how to draw the plated result than take a photograph. Flames, sharp knives, hot ovens – phones off is a rule that makes sense. However, search the hashtag #lecordonbleu on Instagram and you will find a stream of beautifully plated dishes, images of ‘kitchen accidents’ and the students themselves, beaming proudly. Doubtless, those phones burn holes in the students’ chef whites as they eagerly await the moments between classes to capture and share, like the rest of us.
Managing student expectations and limited attention spans while encouraging research is key to understanding the classics, which still remain the foundation of a chef’s knowledge, despite the quick-fix approach presented on television. Rachel Khoo, the breathtakingly beautiful ex-pat who went off to study pastry making in Paris and who now has a television show, The Little Paris Kitchen comes to mind. It’s easy to imagine she lives a charmed life, writing about food, tweeting and eating croissant.
Increasingly, students are also blogging about their experiences at the school, which can as you may imagine, pose problems for schools if their syllabi and recipes are shared in exact detail or in cases of defamation. As the way we eat, consume and learn about food evolves, schools and institutions have to adapt to these challenges too.
Armstrong tells me that the students are not the only ones that the internet has influenced. Suppliers to the school are contacted via Facebook, for example, relationships created, feedback given and references passed this way. Tomorrow’s linefish is one click away.
Before I leave, I take a picture of a student beaming at her impressive chocolate cake creation and wonder, “Will you be the next Nigella?”
Facebook is King in Greece
Blogging trio Pandespani pick me up at my central hotel in Athens and we make introductions in the car as we head off to Mikrolimano Marina in Piraeus, a local fishing harbour. Despina Vaiopoulou, Dimitris Papazimouris and Brit expat Sophie Athanasiadis who translates the posts into English, are a tight group of friends who cook and blog about their love for food.
Over seafood platters of octopus, fried fish, oysters and glasses of ouzo on ice, we discuss the deterorating economic situation in Greece and the blogging phenomenon.
“The blogging scene here is typically housewives sharing traditional recipes,” says Papazimouris, openly.
“We are bringing gourmet to the everyday. Cooking is an adventure for us,” adds Vaiopoulou, the founding member who chose the name ‘pandespani’ which references a favourite Greek cake. Typically, they get together, with or without their respective children and experiment in the kitchen.
A finalist for the best blog of the year in the 2012 national e-awards, their content is well researched, humourous and edgy. “The Michelin Guide: Is it still the food bible?” reads one post.
“Cooking is a strong part of the culture here, “ says Athanasiadis, “ Greeks take this for granted and are quite reluctant to mess with mother’s cooking.”
They explain how how they look deeper at recipes and share why certain principles of cooking must be adhered to, at the same time keeping things fun – their successful and failed molecular gastronomy experiments, for example. With 3463 Facebook fans at the time of writing this, Pandespani do most of their social media sharing on this platform.
“Twitter isn’t so big in Greece” says Papazimouris, an established advertising executive.
With a bilingual blog, an eye for design (Vaiopoulou is a graphic designer who was involved in the magazine industry) and desire to create top-notch content, Pandespani is a blog to watch.
I won’t be surprised if pretty soon an international audience lure them to tweet more often.
The Lisbon Connection
Chef Joe Best who writes Da Cozinha is a social media success story if ever there was one. Respected by fellow chefs and recreational cooks, food bloggers and the industry, his is an inspiring turn of events.
After leaving the corporate world he ventured off to start a project in Angola which flopped spectacularly. One day he had everything, the next nothing.
Best opened his house to 44 guests for a dinner. These peope had been observing the food pictures he posted over the months on y-frog on Twitter, his first social media love. The menu had no price tag but by the end of the evening he had collected € 600 in tips. That set the wheels in motion for a regular supper club that has seen over 800 people over the last two years, all held in his modest apartment home.
“Luckily the influence I built around social media helped me out when I decided to start my business around the site,” he says.
Best’s story gets even sweeter. At one of the first large Twitter gatherings in Lisbon back in 2009, he met his now wife, Ana Best. His supper table, he tells me proudly, has seen numerous romantic hook-ups and at least three marriages. And people wonder where you can meet partners!
Best employs a 3-in-1 strategy posting images on Instagram (he is in the kitchen, his own or clients’ most days) which cross post to Facebook and Twitter. Twitter, which was his preferred platform initially, has now given way slightly to Facebook where the content lives for a longer period.
“Twitter sometimes moves way too fast, lots of people will never read what we have written,” Best says, “Google Plus hasn’t done anything for my business.”
Best believes that social media as it exists today is not merely hype.
“This is a new way of living. Even better networks could come. Facebook and Twitter are directly chained to this new way to communicate, and are here to stay. We do care about safety, and child protection from abuse, but it has a lot of potential to improve. From strength to strength, I think”
“I add and follow similar accounts, and I look for manufacturers and food distributors, in an attempt to create partnerships with them. I also tend to look for sponsors for the site, that can supply products, so that we can continue with experimentation in the kitchen. If money is hard to get and find, due to this financial crisis in Portugal and elsewhere, trading goods and services is the key to opening those doors.”
- Start a twitter account as soon as possible
- Look for the right accounts to follow, foodies that interact with followers, check their timelines so you can pick up if they connect with others
- Follow as many accounts as you can, after that you can choose and select the right ones for you
- Keep your avatar as long as you can, people start to recognise you by it
Social Media School with Mike Sharman
The majority of of the users across platforms that I follow and interact with are based in South Africa. I’ve made really good friends via some of these networks too. We have approximately 2.5 million local Twitter users (2.43 million 2012 in August according to World Wide Worx research), 55% being male and 10% it is estimated, use Instagram. I was keen to get a local perspective and had Mike Sharman, owner and lead digital strategist at Retroviral weigh in.
What is the most instagrammed type of image locally?
Definitely sunsets. We are blessed with incredible dusk settings in Southern Africa and it has become somewhat of a competitive element to see which user can capture the most breathtaking landscape on their timeline. Some users will even go as far as to gloat about their iPhoneography skills by including the hashtag #nofilter, as proof that they have not enhanced the sunset by means of an added filter.
It’s obvious that images add a type of value that words alone can’t express. Do you think picture sharing like Instagram’s service will continue to grow?
Picture sharing services such as Instagram will definitely continue to mushroom in growth – in direct proportion to smartphone adoption . Since Instagram was acquired by Facebook in 2012, there have been enhancements to the platform, including those to ensure that profiles can now also be viewed on desktop as well as mobile browsers. Facebook and Instagram are constantly becoming closer aligned and the latter is beginning to tap into the 5.33 million (South African) member strong Mark Zuckerberg platform.
Twitter seems to fit the need for instant output and information sharing. Will micro-blogging take over from traditional blogging?
Social media has enabled consumers to become micro publishers; it has become a norm to purge both uncensored and censored thoughts to public forums. More people are publishing via social media, but similarly more links to sites and blogs are being shared via these networks. Social media has invigorated blogging.
Those who predicted the demise of blogging hadn’t anticipated the addition, ease of use and success of platforms such as Tumblr, as well as the enhancements to already successful spaces such as WordPress. Brands have also started to understand the benefits of blogging – from aiding organic SEO to serving as a thought leadership mechanic – leading to a rise in the passion come occupation.
What is the best channel to use, for aspiring bloggers or those looking to increase their reach?
My recommendation for aspiring bloggers is to start writing about a niche they are passionate about. The greater the love, the easier it is to convert thoughts into text. From here, sharing posts to Facebook and via email to friends and family will provide the platform with the impetus it requires to attract its initial audience. There is no such thing as too much content so keep writing, share the links to Facebook and Twitter, and engage with people you respect – you will learn valuable tips and techniques. Building a community is a slow process but the more you write, the more you will mould your craft, and the more unique visitors will be attracted to your blog
Food ‘porn’ images are very popular. Do you have any advice for foodies on Pinterest?
Cross-pollination of new page links to already successful platforms is a great way to promote new tactics. For example, if you have a few hundred Facebook fans and link your Pinboards via Facebook, you will be able to communicate to an already loyal base that you have started something new. As you would with Twitter, start following and engaging with relevant foodies / influencers relevant to your industry.
Businesses and restaurants can also benefit from advertising their online platforms in their physical locations – in menus, on entrances, in bathrooms
And so, whatever will appear on my dinner plate tonight, there is a chance that 300 000 people in South Africa may see it. Best I work on my choice of filter.